Sometimes when we come across new words and terms, we easily assume their meaning based on their structure. If you thought a boat’s gunwale was a type of naval weapon… that’s already pushing it – it’s also not something you shoot whales with.

You will find the answer to the question “What is a gunwale on a boat?” much softer. When sailors refer to a ship’s gunwale, they are talking about the upper buttressing edge of a boat or the hull of a ship. It serves various protective and strengthening purposes.

Its function is far from simple, however, as you will discover as you read on.

What is a gunwale?

gunwale of a boat

Also known as a gunwale (pronounced closer to said spelling), a typical sailor would define a gunwale as the upper part of the hull that reinforces it – or, in even simpler terms, its rails. In order not to confuse it with marine mammals or a certain country that is part of the United Kingdom, we must delve a little into its etymology.

Its root word is wale, which goes back to the Middle English word wāle which means a welt.

Have you ever had a cut deep enough in the skin for a prominent ridge to form? In a way, this is what a gunwale looks like on closer inspection, and it stretches horizontally to fit the full length of the vessel.

Although I said it’s not a weapon, the “pistol” in the word is actually not unrelated to martial.

After all, where are the gunwales on a boat? Aren’t they essentially above the gun deck of a typical warship? In fact, they can be designed to be strong enough to help the hull withstand the force of recoiling naval guns.

What is it made of?

define the gunwale

Since it is primarily designed for protective purposes, expect it to be made of durable materials like aluminum, vinyl, and white ash, especially in canoes. Traditionally, it is made of hardwoods such as oak, maple, cherry, or mahogany.

Each has its pros and cons, and what you choose is often dictated by your shell composition. Most hardwoods offer solid durability and can be oiled regularly to maintain their aesthetic appeal.

Synthetic materials like vinyl and aluminum also ensure maximum durability, often without requiring maintenance.

What about the design? Well, normally a gunwale is thicker than the hull and protects it by placing two pieces of wood or the other materials I mentioned above between it.

The one placed inside the boat is called an inwale while the one outside is called an outwale. Woodworkers are free to experiment with more creative designs, as you’ll see in some of the intricate canoes out there.

What is it used for ?

ship's gunwale

Now that we’ve defined the definition, let’s dive into the many benefits of a gunwale.

1. Offers protection in more ways than one.

For one, it sits high enough on the edges of the hull, which means it helps keep waves from splashing the deck. It’s also basically a part of the ship’s railing, so it can keep things and people from going too far, especially when the seas and oceans get rocky.

As it is made with resistant materials, it also protects the upper part of the hull. Finally, especially in canoes, it can be designed in such a way that people can grab hold of it for support in an emergency or if they simply need it.

2. It helps to support and maintain the shape of the boat.

This should be evident by the way it covers the full extent of the hull in most boats and ships.

The fact that it contributes to the structural strength of a ship highlights the vital role it plays. All in all it adds to the durability of a boat this way, and in terms of the harshness of the marine elements it is exposed to, I say it is a perfect addition to any vessel.

3. Can be constructed in such a way that it cancels noise.

Since it’s the top edge of the hull, the gunwale of a ship or something smaller like a canoe tends to come into contact with a lot of things. Paddles often bang on it, which can cause unwanted noise.

That being said, if you use specific materials and quieter woodwork, such as white ash, this problem can be corrected. You never know when a wild animal might approach you as you happily browse and explore – and you don’t want to scare it or get its attention, do you?


Every part of a boat or ship has an integral purpose. This discussion and the detailed answer to the question “What is a gunwale on a boat?” proves it, especially now that you are aware of its purposes for ship protection and structural soundness.

The more you become aware of a ship’s design, the more you realize how technically sound it is. If you’re a budding sailor, it’s good that you dedicate yourself to learning more about each essential part of your ship.