Know how: Sailing 101

Parts of a Sailboat

Parts of a Sailboat

To begin, know the parts of your sailboat

You don’t need to know much about how a piston engine works in order to drive a car. You get in, turn on the engine, shift into gear, step on the gas, and off you go.

In a sailboat, though, you play a far more active role in harnessing the energy that propels you forward. You can get stuck in “neutral,” with no wind in your sails—or you can even capsize—so it’s important to have a basic understanding of how a sailboat works.

It’s easy to see how a boat can sail when it’s going in the same direction as the wind; the sails catch the wind and push the boat forward. But how does a boat make progress sailing across the wind or even toward the wind? Why doesn’t a sailboat always get blown along with the wind?
Very simply, the forces of the wind on the sails (aerodynamics) and the water on the underwater parts of the boat (hydrodynamics) combine to propel the boat through the water. The wind blows across the sails, creating aerodynamic lift, like an airplane wing. The lift contains a sideways force and a small forward force. Trimming the sails efficiently produces the most forward force and the least resistance.

A sailboat would slide sideways with the wind if it did not have a centerboard or keel underneath the hull. The flow of water over the underwater surfaces creates lift, too—a sideways force countering the force of the wind. The combination of these forces pushes the boat forward.

Form stability and ballast keep a sailboat from tipping over sideways (capsizing). Keelboats have a heavy concentration of weight, usually lead, in their keels. As the boat heels, the weight of the keel pulls back down. Since centerboard boats don’t have heavy keels, the crew must use their weight to counteract the heeling forces. If you get too far out of position, you could unbalance the boat and cause a capsize.

Points of Sail

The angle of the sail is the difference between the direction your boat is heading and the direction of the wind. Different angles of sail, called points of sail, change as your boat changes course, and the sails must be adjusted to harness the wind as efficiently as possible. When sailing as close to the wind as possible, with the sails trimmed in all the way, you are close-hauled or beating. As you bear off, steering away from the wind, you will ease your sails as you sail onto a close reach, then a beam reach (where the wind is blowing over the side, or beam, of the boat), then a broad reach. When you are sailing directly away from the wind, you are sailing on a run with your sails eased all the way out. If you continue to turn, you will gybe, so that you are on a run with your sails on the opposite side of the boat. As you gradually head up, turning toward the wind, you will need to trim your sails to keep them from luffing (flapping in the wind) as you sail onto a broad reach, then a beam reach, close reach, and finally back up to close-hauled.

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Wind is the movement of air from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. While air is made up of gasses, in many ways it behaves like a liquid. It flows over and around obstructions, seeking the path of least resistance. Wind will blow more strongly out of valleys and will be almost nonexistent on the leeward side of a high hill.

The wind is rarely perfectly steady. Depending on the surfaces it passes over, the stability or instability of the air, weather systems, and even the effects of other boats, the wind is constantly changing in both strength and direction.

The wind itself is invisible, but its effects are not. When you’re sailing, it’s important to be aware of the strength and direction of the wind in order to harness its energy efficiently and sail safely.

There are many ways to tell the direction of the wind. Wind blowing across water causes friction on the surface, forming small ripples perpendicular to the direction of the wind. (Larger waves are caused by the longer-term effects of the wind and current.) Learning to determine the wind’s direction by looking at the water’s surface takes much practice, but it’s the most accurate method. Other helpful indicators are flags, smoke, and other sailboats.

There are simple tools that can help you find the direction of the apparent wind. Telltales are lengths of yarn or strips of nylon tied to the shrouds and backstay. A masthead fly, with a wind arrow, goes at the top of the mast and points into the wind.

You can also use your sails to find wind direction. When you ease your sails, they will luff and line up with the wind. Gradually turn your boat toward the wind; you’ll be straight head-to-wind when the sails are luffing on the boat’s centerline.

One telling indicator of wind strength is when whitecaps (white tufts on the waves) just begin to form. This occurs at around 12 to 14 knots, a point at which many small boats begin to get less stable. Inexperienced sailors shouldn’t be out alone when there are whitecaps.

Sailing close-hauled (beating)

A boat can’t sail directly into the wind, but it can sail toward the wind, as close as about 45 degrees off the wind’s direction. As you turn toward the wind from a beam reach to a close reach to close-hauled, you must gradually trim your sails to keep them from luffing. Once the sails are trimmed in all the way, your steering keeps them from luffing. Steering as close to the wind as possible with your sails fully trimmed but not luffing will allow you to progress most efficiently in the direction of the wind.

Sailing close-hauled is perhaps the most difficult point of sail. When reaching or running, you simply point your boat in the direction you want to sail and adjust the sails to maximize their efficiency. But since the wind is not always from a steady direction, you now need to adjust your course rather than the sails.

With the sails trimmed in all the way, head up slowly toward the wind until the luff of the jib (or the luff of the mainsail, if you have only one sail) just begins to luff. Then bear off slightly, steering away from the wind (tiller away from the sails) until the sail just stops luffing. Sailing the boat with the luff of the jib on the verge of luffing will keep you in the close-hauled “groove.”

A common mistake is to bear off too far away from the wind with your sails still trimmed for a close-hauled course. While your sails will appear to be full of wind, they will actually be stalled, with little airflow over the back side of the sails. Use the telltales on the luff of your sails as early-warning signals. When the telltale on the leeward (or back) side of the sail starts jumping around, it’s telling you it’s stalled and that you must either head up or ease the sail.


The easiest point of sail, and often the fastest, is the reach. Start off with the wind blowing across your boat. As a general rule for trimming sails, ease the sheet of each sail out until the luff (or front edge) of the sail begins to luff (thus the name). Trim it in until the sail just stops luffing. The goal is to keep the sail trimmed so that it is eased as far as possible without luffing.

Begin sailing on a reach by picking a distant point to aim for. Experiment with steering, gradually heading up and bearing off, while you adjust the sails for your course. Sail a serpentine course from a close reach down to a broad reach and back. As you bear off you should ease the sails, and as you head up, trim the sails.

Running with the wind

Running with the wind is perhaps the most relaxing point of sail. Since the wind is not blowing across the boat, there is no sideways (or heeling) force. As you bear off from a beam reach to a run, you ease out the sheets so the sails catch as much wind as possible to push you along.

On a run, the boom will be close to a 90-degree angle to the boat, and the mainsail will block the wind to the jib. You can get more wind by flying the jib wing-and-wing, with the jib pulled to the side opposite the main. Here’s how: Hold the jib sheet out to windward, by hand on a small boat or with a whisker pole on a larger boat. The jib fills with wind, and you’re off.

If your boat has a centerboard, you’ll want it raised when you’re running. When you are running straight with the wind, you don’t need any help from the centerboard to keep from sliding sideways, but a little board helps reduce side-to-side rocking. As you bear off, begin to raise the centerboard—approximately one-third on a beam reach and up to two-thirds on a run. Lower the centerboard before you head up.

Caution! Beware of the unexpected gybe; it can be dangerous. Always be aware of the boat’s angle to the wind. When the jib will not fill with wind, or when you are wing-and-wing, an accidental gybe is possible. Don’t bear off further than straight downwind unless you plan to gybe. If you’re in doubt, head up toward a broad reach.


To steer a sailboat, you use the tiller or wheel to turn the rudder to direct the flow of water passing over its surfaces—which turns the boat. Just as a car won’t turn when it’s parked, a sailboat must be moving in order for its rudder to be effective. Steering with a wheel is just like turning a car. You turn the wheel in the direction you want the boat to turn. When you steer with a tiller, though, the boat turns in the direction opposite to the way you move the tiller. Using the rudder alone will cause excess drag in the water, slowing the boat or even stalling out the flow of water and causing a loss of steerage. The most efficient way to steer is to use a combination of the rudder, body weight, and sail trim to turn the boat.

Moving your weight to one side of the boat helps to turn the boat in the opposite direction. The sails also help with steering. When you ease the main, the boat will tend to bear off, and when you trim the main, the boat will tend to head up. The opposite is true with the jib; trimming the jib helps the boat bear off, and easing the jib helps the boat head up. board to avoid the other. You can tell whether your boat is on a collision course with another boat by taking a compass bearing on the other boat. If you don’t have a compass, sit still and line up the other boat with a fixed part of your boat—a shroud, for example. If your course stays the same but the bearing doesn’t change after a little while, you are on a collision course with the other boat and should alter course to stay clear.


Tacking is the process of turning the boat’s bow through the wind from an angle at which the sails are full on one tack to one of which they are full on the other tack.

When your destination is directly upwind, you can’t just head straight there. Instead, you have to zigzag by sailing close-hauled on one tack, then tacking to sail close-hauled on the other tack. By sailing back and forth as close to the wind as possible, you’ll make the quickest progress into the wind.

Tacking has three parts: (1) turning the bow through the wind; (2) trimming the jib on the new leeward side, and (3) moving the crew to the new windward side. Before you do anything, though, check that you have a clear path for the tack and that the crew is ready. The helmsman says, “Ready about.” The crew, when they’re ready, respond, “Ready.” If they’re not ready, they should answer with a clear “No!”

Begin the tack by pushing the tiller (or turning the wheel), slowly at first, then more rapidly, so the bow heads toward and then passes through the wind. The crew releases the jibsheet just as the wind begins to fill on the “back” side of the jib, then trims the jib on the new leeward side with the new leeward jibsheet. If your weight is needed for balance, you should cross the boat during the tack. Slow down your turn as the boat approaches a close-hauled course on the new tack, and straighten the course when the sails are filled.


Gybing is the process of turning the boat’s stern through the wind from a reach or run on one tack to a reach or run on the other. Gybing is often a faster and more powerful maneuver than tacking because the sails are full of wind and do not luff through the turn. You can sail downwind on a more direct path than you can upwind, but you will have to gybe if you want to change direction.

As with tacking, you will have to adjust the jib when the gybe is completed and make sure that you have a clear path for the gybe. The helmsman says, “Prepare to gybe.” The crew should respond, “Ready” after they’ve prepared for their move to the next leeward side.

Begin the gybe by pulling the tiller (or turning the wheel) at an even speed; there’s no need to worry about getting into irons, as you’re sailing away from the wind. Even in a moderate amount of wind, the boom will cross the boat quickly, so be prepared to duck out of its way. The crew should have a hand on the jibsheet to trim or ease the jib as necessary, although it won’t luff very much. Both skipper and crew should switch sides after the gybe is completed. Once you have turned the boat onto the new tack, head the boat downwind enough that the sails fill with wind.




As they say, practice makes perfect, and there are many exercises you can perform to improve your sailing skills. We’ve thought of several good drills to start with, but if you want to practice a specific skill, simply design your own drill.

FIGURE EIGHT: Find two buoys lined up across the wind that you can use to practice tacking and controlling your boat in specific maneuvers. Go the other way to work on gybing

LAPS: Using the same two buoys, reach back and forth, tacking around one buoy and gybing around the other. When you are between the buoys, try to sail on a reach with your helm balanced

SAIL A SERPENTINE: Starting on a reach, head up and bear off, keeping your sails trimmed correctly. Use only your rudder at first, then experiment by using your weight and the sails to help steer the boat.

SAIL CIRCLES: Go through all of the points of sail by sailing in a circle. Use your rudder, sails, and weight to help the boat turn and see how tight a circle you can sail


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