Learn How to Sail

One of the most important things to remember when learning to sail is to always know where the wind is coming from in relation to the boat.


  1. The Points of Sail

A sailboat cannot sail directly into the wind, but can sail at a 45-degree angle toward it; this is known as close hauled. A beam reach is when the boat is sailing across the wind, with the wind coming directly from either side. The boat is on a broad reach when it is sailing at a wide angle off the wind but not directly downwind. The boat is said to be running when it is sailing directly downwind.

Knowing where your boat is in relation to the wind direction is critical for setting sails and positioning your body weight. Tie short pieces of light yarn to the boat's shrouds and keep an eye on which way they are blowing to learn how to pay attention to the wind.

When sailing, the motion of the boat affects wind direction because the boat's movement through the air generates its own wind. As it picks up speed, however, it makes its own wind by moving forward through the air. This additional wind from the front combines with the wind over the side to produce a combined wind at a greater angle from ahead. As a result, the boat could be close hauled.


  1. Getting Underway

A mooring or a permanent anchor line in the water is the most convenient place to learn to sail a boat. The wind will blow the boat straight back, causing the bow to face the wind. We can't sail in this direction, so the boat must be turned so that the wind comes across the boat from either side.

Simply push the boom out to either side to turn the sailboat after it has been released from the mooring line. The wind will now blow against the sail instead of past it on both sides, and the boat will rotate. Backing the sail means that the boat can now sail as you pull in the mainsheet to tighten the mainsail.


  1. Steering

As soon as the sails begin to draw and the boat begins to move, make sure you are sitting on the side of the boat facing the wind, opposite the sails as shown here. The wind against the sails causes the boat to heel or lean over, and your weight on the high side is required to keep the boat from capsizing.

When the boat starts moving, water flows past the rudder, allowing the boat to be steered with the tiller. If you've ever used an outboard motor to steer a small boat by pushing the tiller arm, you already know how to steer a small sailboat because the tiller works the same way.

Make very small tiller movements until you get a feel for steering.


  1. Sail Handling

The sheets draw in and release the sails. Pulling on the mainsheet brings the mainsail closer to the boat's centerline. Pulling the jibsheet brings the jib closer to the centerline.

Position the tiller so that the boat does not turn to either side once it starts moving forward. Pull in the mainsheet just until the mainsail stops flapping and takes shape if the sails are loose and flapping; you will notice the boat speed up. Pull in the jib sheet until the jib stops flapping as well.

There is one simple general rule for determining where to position your sails. The closer you sail to the wind (close hauled), the more the sails are pulled in. The more sails you let out the farther you sail off the wind.


  1. Trim the Mainsail

Trimming refers to adjusting the sails with the sheets. Trimming a sail gives it the best shape for sailing in the direction of the wind.

The luff is the leading, vertical edge of the sail. When a sail is perfectly trimmed, the luff is not shaking or flapping, but it is not so tight that the wind is simply blowing against one side, causing the boat to heel over excessively. The sail will look good at the back edge if it is almost tight enough, but the luff will shake or be too loose.

The general rule for perfectly trimming the mainsail is to let out the mainsheet until the mainsail starts to luff, then pull it in just until it stops luffing. A sail that is too tight can appear perfect. You can't tell if it's too tight by looking at it. The only way to tell is to let it out until it begins to luff, then tighten it just until it stops luffing.


  1. Trim the Jib

Allow the sheet to stretch until the luff begins to shake or flap, then tighten the jibsheet until it stops. You can't tell if the jib is in too tight by looking at it, so the only way to make sure it's perfect is to let out until it luffs, then bring it back in a little.

The slot, or space between the jib and the mainsail, has even spacing from front to back, allowing air to flow smoothly between the sails. The narrowing slot would cause air turbulence and slow down the boat if the jib was in too tight or the mainsail was out too loose.


  1. Making a Turn

The most important aspect of sailing is always knowing where the wind is. If you are not paying attention and turn the wrong way without first preparing, you may capsize the boat if it is windy.

The closer you are to the wind, the more the sheets are drawn in. The more you bear off, the less you need the sheets. Always keep one hand on your mainsheet when preparing to turn either way. To avoid being blown over sideways, you may need to let it out quickly when turning downwind.


  1. Using the Centerboard

The centerboard is a long, thin fiberglass or metal blade that dangles in the water near the center of the boat. It is usually hinged on one end and can be raised and lowered as needed while sailing. The board can be seen in the water beneath the boat.

When the wind blows sideways against the boat and sails, the boat is blown sideways even as it moves forward. When the centerboard is lowered, it acts as a keel on a large sailboat, resisting sideways motion. However, when sailing downwind, the wind is behind you rather than to the side, and there is much less sideways push, so the centerboard is not required. As a result, many sailors raise the centerboard when sailing downwind; with less drag in the water, the boat sails faster.


  1. Slowing a Sailboat

Slowing a sailboat is as simple as doing the opposite of what you do when sailing fast with well-trimmed sails. Slowing down is best accomplished by "spilling wind" from your sails by letting out the sheets until the sails are luffing, or even further if necessary until they begin flapping.

When sailing downwind, there is one exception to the "let out to slow" rule. When you're running, the sail billows forward, and it's possible that you won't be able to spread the mainsail far enough to spill wind because the boom hits the shrouds and won't go any further.

Do not tighten the mainsheet to slow down on other points of sail. Tightening the sheets on a beam reach, for example, will slow you down but will also significantly increase the boat's heeling, and you may capsize. Instead, spread the sheets.


  1. Stopping the Sailboat

Practice turning the boat into the wind to see how quickly it stops under various circumstances, such as when stopping to pick up a mooring line or when stopping next to a dock.

Remember to loosen the sheets as well, because the boat will be blown one way or the other, and if the sails catch the wind, it will want to sail away again.