A-What? Abeam, Astern and Abaft

So what’s with the “a” in front of familiar words like beam, stern and aft?  

Adding the “a-” prefix turns the noun into an adjective. Nouns, you’ll recall, name things. They answer the What? or Who? in a sentence. Adverbs, on the other hand, modify a verb. They answer questions like When? Where? Why? and How?

Adding the “a” to parts of a boat tells us where something else is in relationship to our boat. This use of the a- prefix is from Old English use of a- to mean on, in, at.

  • A + Beam = On our beam, or beside our boat.
  • A + Stern = At our stern, or behind us.
  • A + Baft = To the rear (baft is Old English for behind). “Abaft the beam” is a phrase commonly used when practicing the Quick Stop Crew Overboard procedure.
Pete’s class sneaks up astern of our class.
After my quick “paparazzi tack,” Pete is abeam of our boat.