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.
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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 at 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

Overboard recovery

With luck, you will never have to perform this maneuver other than for practice, but if you do, your practice may make the difference. Besides ensuring the safety of you and your crew, this overboard recovery drill is excellent boat-handling practice. When practicing, substitute a cushion or other floating object for the real thing—a person. Everyone on board should be able to perform the recovery drill, as it could be the skipper who falls overboard. Turn to a reach and keep your eye on the person in the water. Tack around without releasing the jib; the backed jib helps you head down more sharply. Approach the person in the water slowly using the sails to control your boat’s speed


Always approach a dock slowly and in control of your speed. To get a smooth landing, approach the dock from the downwind side, landing with your bow as close to the wind as possible. Have your docklines tied on and coiled and a fender ready to place where needed.

The safest approach is from a close-hauled to a close-reaching course. Luff your sails to slow down. If you need more speed, simply trim your sails back in, get the speed you need, and then let the sails luff again. If you’re coming in too fast, circle around to try again. You can also brake your speed by backing the main.

Don’t try to stop a rapid approach by sticking out an arm or leg. Use a fender to cushion the blow if you can’t circle around.

Finding your way

The subject of navigation takes up volumes. “Eyeball navigation”—one of its meanings is that you use the evidence of your eyes to sail to a place and return—is what you’ll use as a beginner. But it helps to be able to use a compass, read a chart, and understand common aids to navigation.

The magnetic needle on a compass always points to magnetic north; it tells you which way your boat is heading in relation to magnetic north. The compass card shows the 360 degrees of a circle, with steering marks usually every 5 degrees.

A navigation chart is like a road map for the water. Charts come in different scales; you’ll want to use one that shows the area in considerable detail (1:20,000 is a good scale). A compass rose on the chart shows both true and magnetic north.

Here are some of the other things you’ll see on a chart:

A buoy, shown on a chart as a small diamond with a number next to it, marks a channel or a hazard, such as a shoal or rock. Green channel buoys (“cans”) are odd-numbered; cone-shaped red buoys (“nuns”) have even numbers. The rule of thumb in the United States for following buoys is, starting from the sea toward a harbor, “Red, right, returning”—leave red channel buoys to starboard as you enter a harbor. Buoys with black-and-white vertical stripes mark the middle of a channel.

There are many lighted (flashing) buoys and others that make noise with a bell, gong, or whistle. These characteristics are marked on the chart; for example, “Fl R 4sec BELL” is a bell buoy with a red light that flashes every 4 seconds. Unlighted daybeacons, located in the water or on land, also mark obstructions and harbor entrances.

rain, wind, and lightning begin. If you’re caught in a squall, reef or lower your sails and put on your life jacket; use the wind to steer your boat. If there’s lightning nearby, don’t touch metal parts, such as the mast, with any part of your body.


For some, sailboat racing is an obsession. For beginners, it’s a good way to work on your sailing skills and enjoy the unbeatable camaraderie of a competitive afternoon on the water.

There are organized races for all kinds of boats—windsurfers, dinghies, one-designs (all the boats racing are of the same type), and big boats—run by yacht clubs or class organizations; some are regattas open to all kinds of boats.

Racing teaches you a lot about boat handling and seamanship, how to make your boat perform well, and how to work with others in a crew. Most one-design and day racing is “around the buoys”—boats sail one or more times around a triangular course that sends them on upwind, downwind, and reaching legs.

Learning the racing rules is a fundamental part of learning to race. In general, the rules specify which boat has a right to be in which place at different times during the race and in relation to other boats. Complicated? Yes, but important for safety as well as thinking out your strategy.

If you’re interested in racing, contact U.S. Sailing (we have links on the next page) for a copy of the racing rules. They’ll put you in touch with an appropriate organization for your type of boat. Most sailing schools offer learn-to-race courses.


For some sailors, cruising means sailing to a harbor or anchorage away from home, spending the night, and sailing home the next day. For others, cruising means sailing to the South Pacific. There are a lot of ways to go cruising, from overnight to a week or two to a lifetime; for many sailors, cruising is the perfect vacation.

You needn’t be a round-Cape-Horn sailor to enjoy an overnight or weekend cruise; you do need to be a capable sailor with well-developed seamanship skills and a knowledge of coastal piloting. You don’t need any particular knowledge, though, to accompany knowledgeable friends, so perhaps the best way to get into cruising is to land an invitation.

If you’re a capable sailor, you don’t even need to have a boat to go cruising; boats can be chartered all around the United States, in the Caribbean, and in many other parts of the world. If you’re looking for a taste of the cruising life, you can charter a boat with crew; you can learn a lot about sailing on a crewed charter and find out why sailors love cruising. The March and September issues of SAIL are a good place to find information about charter cruising.

A number of sailing schools offer learn-to-cruise courses for those who already know how to sail. Check the resource list in the back for some names and numbers.

Boat gear

On a boat, a rope is almost never called a rope. In general, it’s a line. But if it’s used with the anchor, it’s a rode. If it’s used to raise sails, it’s a halyard. If it’s used to trim sails, it’s a sheet—a mainsheet for the mainsail and a jibsheet for the jib.

Deck gear has been developed to help lead and keep the lines where you want them. The larger the boat, the more help you need with handling the lines, and the more gear the boat will have.

Blocks of various kinds help you move the sails around. Blocks can be used alone or in combination. Where forces are greater, winches are used for greater mechanical advantage. Fairleads keep lines running free from the sail to the block. Once you’ve finished raising a sail or trimming it in, a cleat holds the line in place.

There’s an arsenal of knots to use with all these lines; four basic ones will serve for most situations. A bowline makes a loop that will not slip (use it, for example, to attach a sheet to a sail). A figure-eight stopper knot keeps the end of a line from slipping through a block. A round turn and two half-hitches serve as a fastening—for example, at a dock. A cleat knot makes a line fast.

For more on knots, lines, and rigging, see Brion Toss’s Chapman’s Guide to Knots (available in bookstores; Hearst Marine Books, New York, NY).

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