Boats and Sailing Idioms: Learn English Vocabulary

Boats and Sailing Idioms

This post looks at some of the idioms that come from boats, ships and sailing expressions.


All in the same boat

Idiomatic meaning: to say that everyone is in the same situation (usually a negative one!)

boats idioms The English Tower

‘Tom is worried about losing his job. However, we are all in the same boat. If the factory closes we will all lose our jobs.’

Go overboard

Original meaning: this expression describes something that falls or is pushed off the boat. 

Idiomatic meaning: it describes how someone is behaving in an extreme way.

‘Jill went overboard last year with her daughter’s birthday party.  She had the party in a castle and she hired One Direction to sing. Her daughter was only one!’


Bail out

Original meaning: when water gets into a boat the crew have to try to stop the water and get it out of the boat.  This is known as bailing out.  In a plane, this means to parachute out if a plane is going to crash.

Idiomatic meaning: to save or help usually by giving money.

‘During the bank crisis the government had to bail out the banks using public money.’


Give someone a wide berth

Original meaning: ships do not want to be close when they pass because they do not want to hit each other.

Idiomatic meaning: to avoid someone

‘Tim has given his brother a wide berth since they argued about money.’


Sink or swim 

To either succeed or fail at something

‘When I started my new job there was no one there to show me the ropes. It was sink or swim!’


Hit rock bottom

Original meaning: when the bottom of a boat hits the bottom of the water it is in.

Idiomatic meaning: to be at a very bad point in life.

‘Paolo knew he had hit rock bottom when he lost his job and his landlord told him to leave the flat.’


Know the ropes or show somebody the ropes

Original meaning: refers to the ropes on a sailing boat

Idiomatic meaning: to explain how to do something (usually a job)

boats idioms The English Tower knots

‘Welcome to the company. Sara is here to show you the ropes. If you have any problems just talk to her.’



Sailing close to the wind

Idiomatic meaning: describes someone who is taking unnecessary risks

‘Our manager is sailing close to the wind with this contract. I don’t think some of his ideas are even legal!’

All at sea

Idiomatic meaning: confused and unsure what to do

‘Ever since Tim has lost his job he has been all at sea!’

Shipshape (and Bristol fashion)

Very neat and tidy and in excellent condition

‘We need to get everything shipshape in the office because the board of directors are visiting tomorrow.’

Run a tight ship 

Idiomatic meaning: To run an organization or a department in a strict and disciplined way

‘I’ve hear that our new manager ran a tight ship in his old company.’

All hands on deck 

Something that you say when everyone’s help is needed, particularly if there is a lot of work to do in a short amount of time

‘Come on guys! The party’s in an hour and nothing is ready! I need all hands on deck.’

Plain sailing 

Original meaning: describes a ship moving easily through calm waters.

Idiomatic meaning: describes how something is easy to do

‘The exam was plain sailing! I wish I hadn’t worried so much.’

Rock the boat 

Original meaning: when a boat is lifted and moved about because of a storm or strong waves at sea.

Idiomatic meaning: to make a situation difficult or upset others

‘I don’t want to rock the boat but I think your new plan is going to cause a lot of problems.’

To push the boat out

Idiomatic meaning: to celebrate in style usually by spending a lot of money

‘They really pushed the boat out for their wedding. I had never seen anything like it!’

Keep one’s head about water

Idiomatic meaning: to survive financially but with difficulty.

boats idioms The English Tower Keep your head above water

‘Since I lost my job it has been really hard keeping our head above water.’



A loose cannon

Original meaning: refers to a cannon ball that is not secure and could damage the ship

Idiomatic meaning: Someone whose behaviour can be unpredictable which can cause problems.




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