The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Wooden sailing boat
Wooden sailing boat

Sailing is motion across a body of water in a sailing ship, or smaller boat, powered by wind.


How sailing works

The force of the wind is used to create motion by using one or more sails. The movement of air over the sails acts in the same way as air moving over an aircraft's wing. Just like on an airplane, air flowing over the sail is deflected and accelerated. This generates lift, which acts to pull the sail, and thus the boat ahead, but also slightly downwind. The downwind component is offset by an underwater hydrofoil (centerboard or keel), whose shape resists lateral movement while offering little resistance to forward motion. Without a keel or centerboard, sailing upwind or across the wind would be virtually impossible. (Other sailing hydrofoils include daggerboards and leeboards).

The lifting force of the sails also acts to lean the boat over to one side, which is called heeling. This is counteracted by ballast, either in the form of dense material located in the keel (usually lead or iron) or in the form of human or water ballast located near the windward rail.

U.S. Sailing team at the World Military Games Sailing Competition (Dec. 2003).
U.S. Sailing team at the World Military Games Sailing Competition (Dec. 2003).
U.S. Sailing team at the World Military Games Sailing Competition (Dec. 2003).
U.S. Sailing team at the World Military Games Sailing Competition (Dec. 2003).

Today, for most people, sailing is a hobby. Pleasure sailing can be further divided into two areas: Racing and Cruising.

In ancient times (see Odysseus), ships used following or rear-quarter winds. Therefore, they had to wait in port or at sea for the right wind directions.

Basic sailing techniques

First see the notes on points of sail which introduce some important principles.

Turning a sailing boat

There are four basic maneuvers a sailing boat can perform while underway. They are:

  • Tacking is turning the boat so that the bow passes through the eye of the wind (or "no go zone").
  • Gybing (or wearing) is turning the boat so that the stern of the boat turns through the wind. Gybing causes the boom to swing from one side to the other, sometimes rapidly, as the wind catches the leach of the mainsail on its new upwind side.
  • Heading up is turning the boat to sail closer to the direction the wind is coming from.
  • Bearing away (or falling off) is turning away from the direction the wind is coming from.


An important aspect of sailing is keeping the boat in "trim". To achieve this a useful mnemonic (memory aid) is the phrase:

Can This Boat Sail Correctly?

This helps the crew to remember these essential points;

  • Course to Steer - Turn the boat using the wheel or tiller to the desired course to steer. See points of sail. This may be a definite bearing (e.g steer 270 degrees), or towards a landmark, or at a desired angle to the apparent wind direction.
  • Trim - This is the fore and aft balance of the boat. The aim is to adjust the moveable ballast (the crew!) forwards or backwards to achieve an 'even keel'. On an upwind course in a small boat, the crew typically sit forward, when 'running' it is more efficient for the crew to sit to the rear of the boat. The position of the crew matters less as the size (and weight)of the boat increases.
  • Balance - This is the port and starboard balance. The aim, once again is to adjust weight 'inboard' or 'outboard' to prevent excessive heeling.
  • Sail - Trimming sails is a large topic. However simply put, a sail should be pulled in until it fills with wind, but no further than the point where the front edge of the sail (the luff) is exactly in line with the wind.
  • Centreboard - If a moveable centreboard is fitted, then it should be lowered when sailing "close to the wind" but can be raised up on downwind courses to reduce drag. The centreboard prevents lateral motion and allows the boat to sail upwind, and also provides stability to keep the boat from rolling over. A boat with no centreboard will instead have a heavy permanent keel built into the bottom of the hull, which serves the same purposes.

Running Downwind

Sailing the boat within 30 degrees of straight downwind is called a run. This is the easiest point of sail, but it can also be the most dangerous. Sailing upwind gives you the everpresent possibility of stopping the boat easily by steering into the wind. Running gives a sailor no such easy out. Be careful and either use your boom vang or adjust the mainsheet to prevent an accidental jibe.

Beating an upwind course

Using a series of close hauled legs to beat a course upwind
Using a series of close hauled legs to beat a course upwind

A basic rule of sailing is that it is not possible to sail directly into the direction the wind is coming from. Generally a cruising boat can sail 45 degrees off the wind, a racing boat may aproach 35 degrees. However since it is often necessary to move towards the wind direction, it is necessary to 'beat' upwind.

Beating is simply a series of 'tacks' where the boat sails as close to the wind on each tack as possible, and then switches sides and repeats the process. By this method, it is possible to travel directly into the wind. The heavier the wind the harder the beat, and since you are sailing into oncoming waves at an angle, boat movement can be heavy. This movement can feel like the boat is beating its hull into the waves, hence the name. Since the boat is sailing over oncoming waves, a beat will feel faster than its actually moving.

During a beat, it is important to watch your heading, since the wind will tend to push an unbalanced boat into or away from the wind, depending on the balance problem. If you find yourself having to overcorrect at the helm for sail pressure into the wind, then you are in a condition called weatherhelm, and you are actually slowing the boat with your rudder. To correct this, reduce sail.

Reducing sail

An important safety aspect of sailing is to adjust the amount of sail to suit the wind conditions. As the wind speed increases the crew should progressively reduce the amount of sail. On a small boat with only jib and mainsail this is done by furling the jib and by partially lowering the mainsail, a process called 'reefing the main'.

Reefing basically means reducing the size of a sail without changing them. Ideally reefing does not only result in a reduced sail area but also in a lower center of effort from the sails, keeping the boat more upright.

There are three core methods of reefing the mainsail: - Slab reefing, which involves lowering the sail by about one-quarter to one-third of its luff length and tightening the lower part of the sail using an outhaul through a cringle at the new clew, and hook through a cringle at the new tack. - In-mast (or on-mast) roller-reefing. This method rolls the sail up around a vertical foil either inside a slot in the mast, or affixed to the outside of the mast. It requires a mainsail with either no battens, or newly-developed vertical battens. - In-boom roller-reefing, with a horizontal foil inside the boom. This method allows for standard- or full-length horizontal battens.

Mainsail furling systems have become increasingly popular on cruising yachts as they can be operated shorthanded and from the cockpit in most cases, however, the sail can become jammed in the mast or boom slot if not operated correctly. Mainsail furling is almost never used while racing because it results in a less efficient sail profile. The classical slab-reefing method is the most widely used. Mainsail furling has an additional disadvantage in that its complicated gear may somewhat increase weight aloft. However, as the size of the boat increases, the benefits of mainsail roller furling increase dramatically.

Sail trimming

As noted above, sail trimming is a large subject. Basic control of the mainsail consists of setting the sail so that it is at an optimum angle to the wind,(i.e. no flapping at the front, and tell tales flowing evenly off the rear of the sail).

Two or more sails are frequently combined to maximise the smooth flow of air. The sails are adjusted to create a smooth laminar flow over the sail surfaces. This is called the "slot effect". The combined sails fit into an imaginary aerofoil outline, so that the most forward sails are more in line with the wind, whereas the more aft sails are more in line with the course followed. The combined efficiency of this sail plan is greater than the sum of each sail used in isolation.

More detailed aspects include specific control of the sail's shape, e.g.:

  • reefing, or reducing the sail area in stronger wind
  • altering sail shape to make it flatter in high winds
  • raking the mast when going upwind (to tilt the sail towards the rear, this being more stable)
  • providing sail twist to cope with gusty conditions

See this detailed information on the quest for the perfect sail shape and then try it out for yourself.


When a boat rolls over to one side under wind pressure, it's called 'heeling'. As a sailing boat heels over beyond a certain angle, it begins to sail increasingly inefficiently. Several forces can counteract this movement.

  • The buoyancy of that part of the hull which is being submerged tends to bring the boat upright.
  • Pressure on the centreboard or keel moving at a slight 'leeway' angle through the water tends to balance the rolling force.
  • Raising the centreboard can paradoxically increase leeway, and therefore reduce heeling.
  • A weighted keel provides additional force to right the boat.
  • The crew may move onto the high (upwind) side of the boat, changing the centre of gravity significantly in a small boat. They can trapeze where the boat is designed for this (see Dinghy sailing).
  • The underwater shape of the hull relative to the sails can be designed to make the boat tend to turn upwind when it heels excessively: this reduces the force on the sails, and allows the boat to right itself.
  • The boat can be turned upwind to produce the same effect.
  • Wind can be spilled from the sails by 'sheeting out', i.e. loosening the sail.
  • Lastly, as the boat rolls farther over, wind spills from the top of the sail.

Most of the above effects can be used to right a heeling boat and to keep the boat sailing efficiently: if however the boat heels beyond a certain point of stability, it can capsize.

Sailing close to the wind

How close a boat can sail to the wind depends on the wind speed, since what the boat "sees" is the apparent wind, i.e., the vector sum of the actual wind and the boat's own velocity. The apparent wind is what the windex on top of the mast shows. Because of this, people often talk about how close a boat can sail to the apparent wind. A good, modern sloop can sail within 25 degrees of the apparent wind. An America's Cup racing sloop can sail within 16 degrees, under the right conditions. Those figures might translate into 45 degrees and 36 degrees relative to the actual wind. The angles at which the wind meets the boat are described by the points of sail.

Sailing safety

First and foremost:

  1. Learn to swim!
  2. Wear a life vest!

Sailing is intrinsically dangerous, since water is not our natural element. All sailors therefore should take precautions, and when engaged in publicly organised activities they must take certain precautions, as detailed by the authority which regulates the training or racing.

Safety measures include:

  • Provision of a safety boat for rescue purposes
  • Appropriate first aid and firefighting equipment
  • Carrying of a knife suitable for cutting rigging or netting which may entrap a sailor underwater
  • Wearing of buoyancy aids
  • Understanding and practice of man overboard procedures such as the Anderson turn, the Williamson turn, and the Scharnow turn.

Also, know the 'rules of the road':

  • Port tack gives way to Starboard tack (when the paths of two boats on opposite tacks cross, the boat with its port side to windward must give way)
  • Windward gives way to the leeward, or downwind boat (if on the same tack)
  • Overtaking boat gives way if above do not apply
  • Non-Commercial Powerboats usually give way to sailboats (but be careful in shipping lanes, and use common sense)
  • It is everybody's responsibility to avoid a collision, and avoiding action must be taken if these rules are ignored.

Sailing hulls and hull shapes

Sailing boats can have one, two, or three hulls. Boats with one hull are known as monohulls, while those with two or more are known as multihulls. Multihulls can be further subdivided into catamarans (two hulls), and trimarans (three hulls). A sailing boat is turned by a rudder which itself is controlled by a tiller or a wheel. Smaller sailing boats often have a stabilising, raisable, underwater fin called a centreboard (or daggerboard); larger sailing boats have a fixed (or sometimes canting) keel. As a general rule, the former are called dinghies, the latter yachts. (see Dinghy sailing)

Multihulls use flotation and/or weight positioned away from the centre line of the sailboat to counter the force of the wind. This is in contrast to heavy ballast that can make up to 1/3 of the weight of a monohulled sailboat. In the case of a standard catamaran there are two similarly sized and shaped narrow hulls connected by a deck superstructure. Another catamaran variation is the proa. In the case of trimarans, which have an unballasted centre hull similar to a monohull, two relatively smaller amas are situated parallel to the centre hull to resist the sideways force of the wind. The advantage of multihulled sailboats is that they do not suffer the performance penalty of having to carry heavy ballast, and their relatively smaller hulls reduce the amount of drag caused by friction and inertia when moving through the water.

Types of Sails and layouts

On a modern yacht, the mainsail or main is usually the primary driving sail, triangular in shape, and fixed to the largest (or often the only) mast. A headsail, either a jib or genoa , is set in front of the mainsail, attached in such a way that the trailing edge extends back alongside the main. This is also known as an overlapping headsail (pronounced hedsal). Two or more headsails can be used. In addition, some sailboats, ketches and yawls, have another smaller mast called the mizzen mast , on which is set a smaller sail similar to the mainsail and called the mizzen sail .

A spinnaker is a large, full sail that is only used when sailing off wind either reaching or downwind, to catch the maximum amount of wind.

See also Sail and sail-plan.

Sailing terminology

Sailors use many traditional nautical terms for the parts of or directions on a vessel; starboard (right), port (left), forward or fore (front), aft (rearward), bow (forward part of the hull), stern (aft part of the hull). Vertical spars are masts, horizontal spars are booms (if they can hit you), gaffs (if they're too high to reach) or poles (if they can't hit you).

Too many ropes!

Actually, only a few of the "ropes" on a boat are called ropes, most are called lines.

Ropes or wires that hold up masts are collectively known as standing rigging and are called shrouds or stays (the stay connecting the top of the mast to the bow is called the forestay or headstay).

Ropes or wires that control the sails are known collectively as running rigging or lines. Those that raise sails are called halyards while those that strike them are called downhauls. Ropes that adjust (trim) the sails are called sheets. These are often referred to using the name of the sail they control (eg. "main sheet", or "jib sheet").

Ropes used to tie the boat up when alongside are called docklines.

There are some ropes: A few examples, the bell rope (to ring the bell), a bolt rope (attached to the edge of a sail for extra strength), a foot rope (on old square riggers for the sailors to stand on while reefing or furling the sails), and a tiller rope (to temporarily hold the tiller and keep the boat on course). A rode is what keeps an anchor attached to the boat when the anchor is in use.

Other terms

Walls are called 'bulkheads' or 'ceilings', while the surfaces referred to as 'ceilings' on land are called 'overheads'. Floors are called 'soles'. The toilet is traditionally called the 'head', the kitchen is the 'galley'. Sails in different sail plans have unchanging names, however. For the naming of sails, see sail-plan.

Sailing terms have entered popular language in many ways. "Broken up" was the fate of a ship that hit a "rocky point." "Pooped" refers to the aftermost deck of a ship, taken from "puppis" the Latin word for "stern". "In the doldrums" referred to being becalmed, windless, especially in the narrow band of hot windless water "the doldrums", near the equator. "Adrift" meant literally that a ship's anchor had come loose, and the ship was out of control near land and therefore in serious danger. "Keel-hauled and hung out to dry." was the rather nasty process of attaching a sailor to a rope, and drawing him under the sailboat while underway, and then hanging him from a yard-arm (under his shoulders usually, not by his neck), where officers and crew could mock him. This was a particularly unpleasant punishment; apart from the risk of drowning, the sailor would be lacerated by the barnacles on the ship's hull.

Sailing regulations

There are two very basic rules for avoiding a collision at sea: 1) Power gives way to sail 2) Port gives way to starboard. This second point means that yachts who have their sails set for a breeze coming from the left hand side of the boat (the port side) must give way to yachts that have their sails set for a breeze coming from the opposite side of the boat (the starboard side). If both yachts have their sails set on the same side of the boat, then the yacht closer to where the wind is coming from must give way. This rule is described as the windward boat must keep clear of the leeward boat.

However there are many other rules besides and sailors are expected to know the essentials of boating safety which include;

Sailboat Racing

Sailboat racing ranges from single person dinghy racing to multi-million dollar Americas Cup races. The costs of participating in the ultimate sailing competitions make competitive sailing one of the most expensive sports in the world. In terms of endurance and risk to life, around the world races such as the Volvo Ocean Race and the non-stop solo Vendée Globe rate as some of the most extreme and dangerous sports, where an unexpected storm, a single equipment failure, or collision with an ice flow could result in the sailboat being disabled or sunk thousands of miles from search and rescue.

Sailing traditions and etiquette

There are many, more esoteric, etiquette rules, traditions, and customs that will demonstrate to others advanced knowledge of boating protocol such as; pulling up the fenders when you're not in port, the use of flags.

See also

Sail, Yachting, ketch, sail-plan, catboat and sloop, Catamaran, Dinghy sailing, Dinghy racing, Yacht racing, Day sailer, Planing (sailing), List of nautical terms.

External links

The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy