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Build a bottle boat

Learn some basic sailing terminology in this bottle-based, boat building bonanza.

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You’ll need

  • Scrap paper
  • Pens or pencils
  • Clean items of recycling
  • Craft materials (for example, tissue paper, pipe cleaners, stickers)
  • Paper drinking straws
  • Clean, empty plastic bottles
  • Marker pens
  • Scissors
  • Sticky tape or glue
  • Laptops or tablets with internet access
  • Fan or hairdryer (optional)
  • Paddling pool or large tray (optional)
  • Uncooked rice (optional)

Before you begin

  • Check Captain’s coming for a game to introduce to some basic nautical terms. This one’s great for beginners. Check out Nautical rules of the road too as a follow-up and use your bottle boats to help everyone understand who has right of way at sea.
  • Have everyone bring along some clean recycled goods to the sessions with them. It’s a good idea to bring along some spares for everyone to use too.
  • If your meeting place doesn’t have internet access, or you don’t have access to devices, print off some images of sailing boats to bring along with you to use as a guide for this activity.

Here’s a list of some of the most common sailing terms, but feel free to add your own. See if any of the group can add any more words:

  • Port – facing forward, anything to the left of the boat
  • Starboard – facing forward, anything to the right of the boat.
  • Bow – the front of the boat.
  • Stern – the back of the boat.
  • Aft – anything toward the back of the boat.
  • Forward – anything toward the front of the boat.
  • Tack – to change direction by turning the bow of the boat through the wind.
  • Jibe – another way to change direction, by turning the stern of the boat through the wind.
  • Helm – where you steer the boat, usually using a wheel or tiller to control the boats rudder.
  • Keel – a long, heavy fin on the bottom of the boat that sticks down into the water.
  • Mainsail – the big triangular sail just aft of the boats mast, it’s the largest and most important sail.
  • Jib – another common sail on a boat, found forward of the mast.
  • Leeward – the side furthest from the wind.
  • Windward – the side closest to the wind.
  • Port tack – when the wind is blowing from the port side of the boat.
  • Starboard tack – when the wind is blowing from the starboard side of the boat.


Build your bottle boat

  1. Split into pairs or small groups. Each group will need a device with internet access (or sailing boat images). Spend a few minutes researching sailing boats and examining images of them.
  2. The person leading the activity should give each group writing materials and have them note down some of the features they can see on the sailing boats they’re looking at.
  3. Give each group the recycled goods and craft materials. They should start making their own sailing boats, beginning with the ‘hull,’ which is the main body of the boat. They should use plastic bottles for this, and should decide which end will be the front (bow) and which end the back (stern).

Using two bottles side-by-side to make a ‘multi-hull’ will help keep the boat stable in the water. If you’re only one bottle (single hull), pour some uncooked rice into the bottle to stop it from tipping over.

  1. Groups can then work on their helm and their keel. Then, their mast and mainsail. Encourage everyone to refer back to the images of sailing boats so that they don’t miss any crucial components out!

You may need to point out key parts of the sailing boats and explain what they do to highlight their significance.

  1. Mark the port side of the boat with something red, the starboard side with green and the stern with white.

Depending on their size, sailboats usually show a red light on the port side, green on starboard and white on the stern. When they’re at anchor, they show white light all round.

  1. Once everyone’s finished building their boat, they should use some of the different ‘sailing terminology’ to label the different parts. See if anyone wants to show their finished model to the group and point out the different parts they’ve added.
  2. Groups should now test out their boats on imaginary high seas. Each group should choose a wind direction and try to demonstrate to one another some of the sailing terms listed in the dropdown box.

For instance, to demonstrate the ‘leeward’ side, the person might point out the side of the boat that’s furthest from the direction the wind’s coming from.

  1. If you can, try filling a large tray or paddling pool with water and put your boats to the test. You could even add a fan to the set-up to show the wind direction.
  2. To finish the activity, play a quick game in pairs and see if your partner can guess the sailing term that you’re demonstrating with your bottle boat. 


This activity involved learning about something that could’ve been completely new to some people. It’s good to learn some of the words and phrases you’ll hear when you’re out sailing before you get out on the water, so that you can get a better sense of what’s going on. But don’t forget that everyone learns in different ways. Who enjoyed building their boats and labelling the different parts as a way to learn about them? Did anyone find it better talking to each other, or acting out the different terms using their models, to put the terms in some sort of context? Spend a couple of minutes chatting as a group about which way they found it easiest to learn the different sailing terms.


All activities must be safely managed. You must complete a thorough risk assessment and take appropriate steps to reduce risk. Use the safety checklist to help you plan and risk assess your activity. Always get approval for the activity, and have suitable supervision and an InTouch process.


Supervise young people appropriately when they’re using scissors. Store all sharp objects securely, out of the reach of young people.

Glue and solvents

Always supervise young people appropriately when they’re using glue and solvent products. Make sure there’s plenty of ventilation. Be aware of any medical conditions that could be affected by glue or solvent use and make adjustments as needed.

Rubbish and recycling

All items should be clean and suitable for this activity.

Online safety

Supervise young people when they’re online and give them advice about staying safe. Take a look at our online safety or bullying guidance. The NSPCC offers more advice and guidance, too. If you want to know more about specific social networks and games, Childnet has information and safety tips for apps. You can also report anything that’s worried you online to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection CommandAs always, if you’ve got concerns about a young person’s welfare, including their online experiences, follow the Yellow Card to make a report.

Think about the different sailing terminology in the activity. You can make this activity more challenging by adding in some more complex terms, like the ‘point of sail’. You could easily simplify the challenge by creating and labelling basic paper boats instead.

Make sure everyone has everything they need to complete the tasks in this activity. This activity can be completed individually or everyone can work together in pairs or smaller groups to build their models, and helpers can lend a hand with the fiddly bits.

All Scout activities should be inclusive and accessible.

Use your bottle boats in Rules of the nautical road or find out more about some of the science of sailing by running What floats your boat?.

By searching online for images of sailing boats, groups had the chance to pick out boats and features that interested them to incorporate into their designs and find out more about.