How To Sail A Boat: A Basic Guide

Sailing involves navigating a boat through the water using wind power alone. To sail a boat, you will need to understand some basic concepts, including how to:

  1. Rig the boat: This involves setting up the sails and other systems on the boat.
  2. Catch the wind: You will need to adjust the sails to catch the wind in order to move the boat forward.
  3. Steer the boat: You can use the rudder to steer the boat in different directions.
  4. Change direction: To change direction, you can adjust the sails and use the rudder.
  5. Stop the boat: You can use the sails to bring the boat to a halt, or you can drop anchor to stop the boat.
  6. Dock the boat: To dock the boat, lower the sails and use the engine (if available) to slowly and carefully approach the dock and then use mooring lines to tie the boat up.

It’s also important to be familiar with all rules of the road and basic safety procedures, such as wearing a life jacket and having a VHF radio onboard, in case of emergencies. Some areas may require a boating license to operate certain types of vessels in public waterways. Let’s take a further look at some sailing basics.

Above: A sailboat underway with full sails during a regatta at sunset in the ocean. Photo by aragami12345 via Pond5.

Basic Sailing Tips & Procedures

  1. Before you set out, use a checklist to make sure you have all safety equipment onboard and that the boat is properly rigged and all systems are functioning properly.
  2. As you head out to sea, pay attention to the wind direction and strength, and adjust your sails accordingly to catch the wind and move the boat forward.
  3. To turn the boat, use the rudder to steer in the desired direction and/or adjust the sails to change the boat’s direction.
  4. If you need to stop the boat, drop anchor or use the sails to bring the boat to a halt.
  5. When you’re ready to dock the boat, use the engine to approach the dock slowly and carefully, and tie the boat up using mooring lines.

Points Of Sail

The direction of the wind is crucial for sailing a boat and it determines the directions that a sailboat can and cannot sail. Sailors adjust the angle of the boat and the trim of the sails based on the direction of the wind and what are known as the five “Points of Sail.” This allows them to sail in the most efficient way possible. Understanding and properly using the Points of Sail is an important skill for sailors.

The 5 Main Points Of Sail

  1. In Irons (Into the wind)
  2. Close-hauled (Beating)
  3. Beam Reach
  4. Broad Reach
  5. Running (Downwind or Dead Run)

Common Sailing Terms

  • Anchor: a heavy metal object that is dropped to the bottom of a body of water to hold a boat in place
  • Bow: the front of a boat
  • Stern: the back of a boat
  • Hull: the main body of a boat
  • Port: the left side of a boat when facing forward
  • Starboard: the right side of a boat when facing forward
  • Keel: a long, thin piece of metal or wood that runs along the bottom of a boat, providing stability
  • Rudder: a flat blade mounted in the water at the back of a boat that is used to steer the boat
  • Mast: a tall, vertical pole on a boat that supports the sails
  • Sail: a piece of fabric that is attached to the mast and used to catch the wind and move the boat forward
  • Line(s): the rope(s) on a boat
  • Rigging: the entire system of sails, masts, booms, yards, stays, and lines of a sailing vessel
  • Mainsail: the primary sail on a boat that is attached to the mast and the boom
  • Headsail: the sail that runs between the top of the mast and the bow of the boat
  • Halyard: a line used to hoist a sail, or an object, vertically
  • Cordage: The onboard set of laid or braided lines used for sailing, maneuvering, anchoring, launching and docking the vessel
  • Sheet: a line used to pull a sail horizontally
  • Leeward: the direction that the wind is blowing towards
  • Windward: the direction that the wind is coming from
  • Boom: the large horizontal arm attached to the mast
  • Helm: the apparatus in the cockpit that is attached to the rudder and is moved to steer the boat (some vessels have a wheel at the helm, others a tiller which is a long lever)
  • Helmsman: the person responsible for steering the boat
  • Tack: a sailing maneuver whereby a sailing vessel moves the sails from one side of the vessel to the other when sailing into the wind, by moving the bow through the eye of the wind
  • Tell-tale: a small piece of fabric or yarn attached to a sail, stay or any rigging on a sailboat, used to indicate wind direction
  • Gybe: (or jibe): a sailing maneuver whereby a sailing vessel reaching downwind turns its stern through the wind
  • Heeling: when a sailboat is leaning over in the water as it is pushed by the wind
  • Heel Angle: the angle at which a sailboat is leaning relative to the water surface

Sail Trim

The way in which the sails are used and shaped by letting out (easing) or pulling in (trimming or hauling) is known as sail trim. Generally, when you’re sailing upwind (in irons or close-hauled) you’ll want the sails to be tighter and flatter, but when sailing downwind, you’ll want them to be more curved and full to catch as much wind as possible. Sailing well is all about sail trim. Every time you change direction you’ll need to trim your sails according to geometry and physics.

Telltales help sailors understand how the wind is flowing over the sail. Most sailors are familiar with using telltales on the jib or genoa, and try to keep them streaming. If the telltales start disappearing around the leeward side of the sail, it indicates that the trailing edge of the main is trimmed too tightly, causing the sail to “stall” as the airflow separates from the leeward side. Trimming the main correctly can increase boat speed, reduce heel, minimize weather helm and decrease leeway, resulting in shorter, more comfortable passage times and more enjoyable sailing, especially when sailing to windward. However, simply keeping the sails full is not the whole story, and over-trimming the sails, or trimming them too tightly, can make the boat more difficult to steer and increase the angle of heel.

Basic Sailing Knots

Knots are important to learn when sailing because they are used for various purposes, such as attaching sheets to sails, tying a dinghy to the mothership, and securing a line under load. On the dock, the safety of the boat may depend on the knots used to secure fenders and dock lines. In rough sailing conditions or when climbing the mast, the knot used in a safety harness or tether setup could be a matter of life or death. It is important to choose the right knot for the specific application and type of line being used, as some knots are better suited for high pressure situations and others are only used in non-load bearing situations. Modern materials like plasma rope, dyneema, and spectra can be slippery and may not hold well with traditional knots, so it is essential to choose the correct knot for these types of lines.

Here are some of the most basic sailing knots to learn before you head out on the water:

Bowline: One of the most frequently used, and important, knots on a sailboat. Used to fix a rope to an object or to create a fixed loop at the end of a line. This knot is easy to tie and untie but does not slip, jam or come loose, even under extreme strain.

Reef knot: Sometimes called a square this is a well-loved knot for tying two pieces or ends of line together. If you ever tied a Scout or Girl Guide neckerchief then you have tied a reef knot.

Figure Eight: Also called a Stopper Knot, it is commonly tied at the end of a line to prevent it from slipping though a block and escaping.

Half Hitch: A simple knot, used when tying something temporarily but not intended to support a lot of strain. It is also used to make other knots stronger. A series of half hitches is often used to secure a dock line on a dinghy.

Clove Hitch: A secure knot used to lash a line to an object such as a rail, ring or post. This is an overlapping knot that is secure and can withstand some parallel force without slipping.

Fisherman’s Knot: A handy knot also known as the Englishman’s, angler’s or lovers knot. Used to secure the ends of two pieces of similar line together, it is simply two overhand knots that jam together.

There are many more different knots that are useful to know when sailing, and it can be helpful to have a reference book on board to consult as needed. The Morrow Guide to Knots, written by Mario Bignon and Guido Regazzoni, is a good resource to have because it includes clear illustrations and detailed instructions

Rules Of The Road

There are international rules called the International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea 1976, or COLREGS, that apply to all vessels, both large and small, and both power-driven and sail-powered. When learning to sail, it is important to understand a few key COLREGS rules, and you can learn the rest as your skills improve and you sail farther from home.

The right of way rules for sailboats depend on the direction of the wind and the direction the boat is traveling relative to the wind. For example, when two boats are sailing side by side in the same direction, the upwind boat must give way because it has more maneuverability. When two boats under sail are traveling in opposite directions, the right of way is determined by the side of the boat on which the sails are set. In general, sailboats have the right of way over powerboats, but there are exceptions. The main goal of these rules is to prevent vessel collisions. However, in situations between a small boat and a large ship, it is important to follow the rules, but also to remember the saying “Might has right” and not put yourself in danger by challenging a large ship.

Remember, sailing can be a lot of fun, but it’s important to be safe and responsible on the water. Make sure you understand the rules of the road and always be mindful of other boats and swimmers in the area.