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Learning to Sail: The Basics

By Edited Mar 19, 2016 1 1

So you're ready to learn to sail. Maybe you've read some books, or taken a sail with a friend and are finally ready to head out on your own. Assuming you're in a safe location and have taken all the necessary precautions before you leave the dock, this article describes the basics of sailing and how you can successfully handle your boat on the water.

It is important to iterate that before you go sailing you should be fully prepared, including checking the weather, making a safety plan, and learning the local hazards to navigation. Check out this article:Learning to Sail: What to Know Before you Leave the Dock, for more information. If you have a small boat, you will either rig your boat at the dock or on a mooring, or if you have a boat with an engine you can rig the boat out on the water. Once your boat is rigged, you are ready to go.

Step 1: Know the Wind

The first thing to notice is which direction the wind is blowing from. This information will enable you to position your sails and boat during your sail. It is important to check the wind direction many times during your sail, since the direction may change throughout your trip. You can determine the wind direction by looking at the trees or flags on land, by feeling the wind on your face, or by bringing your sailing in to the center of your boat and steering until your sails are luffing (shaking) indicating that your bow is pointing into the wind. It is also important to take note that the only direction you can not sail your boat is directly into the wind.

Step 2: Steering your Boat

Using either the tiller or the helm, turn the boat so the wind is coming directly over the side of your boat: this is called a beam reach (for more information on the points of sail, click here). If you are using a tiller, the boat is steered by pushing the tiller in the opposite direction you want the boat to turn. For example; if you want to go to the left, you push the tiller towards the right. If you are using a wheel or helm, you steer the same way you steer a car. Since you boat uses a rudder to change directions, your boat will only turn if it has forward momentum. This is similar to a car: if you were in a stopped car and turned the steering wheel, your tires will turn, but your car will stay facing the same direction.

Beam Reach

Step 3: Using Your Sails

When you are sailing on a beam reach with the wind coming over the side of your boat, your sails should be positioned half in and half out. You change the position of your sails when you are sailing by adjusting the sheets. If you are adjusting the main sheet, you are changing where the boom and thus the sail is positioned. If you are using a jib, you should pull in the jib sheets on the same side that the main is positioned. In general, your jib and main should be positioned on the same side of the boat. To determine whether your sails are trimmed correctly, look along the forward edge of the sail that runs along the mast. If this part of the sail is luffing, your sail needs to be pulled in using the sheet just until it stops. The goal is to have your entire sail smooth and filled with air. In order to make sure your sail is not pulled in too tight, gradually ease it out until it luffs and then pull it in just until it stops. If you have both a jib and main, you are better off trimming your jib first and your main second.

main and jib

Step 4: Changing Course

Once you are on a beam reach, you can change your course (or direction) and adjust your sails. In general the closer you are sailing towards the wind, the closer your sails should be to the center of your boat. When you turn your boat away from the wind, you will need to ease your sails out.

trimming your sailboat

When you are first practicing turning and adjusting your sails, keep the wind coming over the same side of your boat. Imagine there is a line coming from the wind, passing through your boat and out the other side. As long as you keep your bow of your boat on the same side of this line, the wind will always be coming over the same side of the boat. This allows you to practice adjusting your sails before you practice tacking or gybing.

turning your sailboat

Step 5: Tacking and Gybing

Once you are comfortable with trimming your sails you can practice passing the sails to the other side of the boat by tacking and gybing. In order to do this, you will steer your boat so the bow (tacking) or stern (gybing) passes through the wind (if you were able to imagine a line coming from the wind, you will turn across this line). Since tacking is slightly easier on a small boat, start by steering your boat towards the wind until your boat turns and the wind starts to come over the other side of your boat. Now switch the sails from one side to the other side and trim them for you new point of sail. For more information on tacking, visit: Learning to Sail: How to Tack. To gybe, steer your boat away from the wind, until the stern passes through the wind and your sails switch sides. For more information on gybing, visit Learning to Sail: How to Gybe.


There are many additional skills you will learn on your way to becoming a competent sailor; however, learning to adjust your direction, trim your sails, and tack and gybe your boat are the first steps in learning to sail. With these basic skills, you can perform simple maneuvers and enjoy a pleasant sail. While you are learning, always be aware of where you are in relation to hazards and other boats. Also be aware that it is more difficult to sail in the direction the wind is coming from (you must sail as close to the wind as possible and tack from side to side). For this reason, you should sail upwind (towards the wind) on your way out and downwind (away from the wind) on your way back. Enjoy your time on the water!



Nov 13, 2010 6:17am
Well laid out article.. Also, be very skeptical of finding sail boats on eBay. A lot of boat buyers have wound up getting a great deal on a train wreck. I use a premium resource called at www.BoatAuctionsDirect.com to find cheap sail boats at auction.
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