Category Archives: sailing lessons

Basic Sailing Lesson Four: Sails

If you have read and learned the first three lessons here then you already know the basics. Congratulations! All the rest is frippery. Now you have the rest of your life to wallow in the minutae.

The sails catch the wind (duh). You could argue ad infinitum about the proper shape. Sailors are forever tweaking the sails when underway to try and get the most power out of them. Enough about that.

Nowadays, almost all sails are triangular in shape. Each corner of the sail has a name:

Head- top
Clew- the other one

Also, each side of the sail triangle has a name

Luff -leading edge
Leech- trailing edge
Foot- bottom

You have to learn these names. Otherwise you won’t be able to communicate well with your crew members when underway, and mayhem will ensue.
you need to crank down on that thing there so that the thing isn’t flapping and causing that thing to come unhooked from the thing…

also helpful to know the ropes-
halyard- hoists the sail
sheets- control the sail
outhaul- stretches the foot of the sail
lazy jacks- lines that keep the sail in an orderly bunch when you drop the sail
topping lift- a line that holds the boom up off the deck

Basic Sailing lesson Three- More on Tacking

Ok, we have learned that the act of zig zagging to get to a destination is called tacking

Now, If the wind is coming from the port (left) side of the boat, then you are on a “port tack”
If the wind is coming from the starboard (right) side of the boat then you are on a “starboard tack”

Turning the boat (tacking) upwind so that the eye of the wind passes from one side of the boat to the other, is called “coming about” or to “come about”

Turning the boat downwind, (also tacking) so that the wind passes from one side of the boat to the other is called Gybing or to gybe. (pronounced JIBE. not to be confused with jib which is a kind of sail)

To “come about” is to tack upwind
To “gybe” is to tack downwind

It is important that the crew is aware if the boat is about to tack, since whether coming about or gybing, the sail will be swinging across the deck. The sail is attached to the mast, and usually to a boom, which is a horizontal tube, or spar, that can whack you in the head if you aren’t paying attention.

coming about
port tack
starboard tack

In a sentence: We were cooking along on a port tack when the boat gybed accidentally, shaking the mast and scaring the beejezus out of us.

PS port and starboard: here is how you remember which is which. Port wine comes from Portugal. Traditionally, when at the dinner table, you always pass it to the left, if you have any class. We never drank wine at the table, but we did pass the bottle over the carseat at the drive in. Anyway, port = left, then you can figure out the starboard part from there.

Basic Sailing – Lesson Two

What makes the boat go to windward??

It is easy to see how the wind can push anything across the water. If you throw an empty sardine can overboard it will take off downwind, pronto (till it sinks) . A sailboat is a little more sophisticated than that, because it has some control over its direction of movement. The controls on a sailboat are the sails and the rudder, but there is a big difference between a sailboat and any other watercraft: the underwater profile of the boat. The depth of the boat below the water has an important effect on how the boat will sail. The lowest part of a boat underwater is called the “keel”. This depth of keel provides what is known as “lateral resistance”, i.e., something to keep the boat from moving sideways. The deeper the keel, the more lateral resistance.

When the sails fill with wind one side of the sail has a higher pressure than the other. Notice in the diagram below that due to the angle of the sail in relation to the boat, some of this low pressure is on the forward part of the boat, and some of it is on the side of the boat

click on pic for larger view

What happens is that the keel, or the lateral resistance, cancels out the force pushing on the side of the boat, but not the force pushing on the front, and so the net result is that the boat moves forward. Note that the boat in the diagram below is moving to windward (or “going to weather”).


Without a keel, the boat above would be sliding off sideways. This sliding off sideways is called “leeway” Remember, the deeper the keel, the more lateral resistance, hence a better windward performance. The amount of leeway any given boat will make is important to know, as it has a direct effect on how you steer a course.

Lateral Resistance

in a sentence:
Her deep keel gives so much lateral resistance she makes very little leeway

Basic Sailing – Lesson One

It is a good idea to get a basic sailing book. There are a lot of them out there. I got this one on Amazon for a penny, plus shipping. There really is no substitute for hands on experience, though, so you might want to take a course, especially if you plan to go sailing on larger boats.The best way to learn the basicis is if you can get your hands on a small sailing skiff like sunfish or a hobie, just jump in and do it. You will be sailing in no time. You can learn what to call everything later.

Or you can learn the fundamentals all here, so that when you do actually get out on the water, things will make more sense. Much of the terminology is foreign to newbies, and makes it awkward at first, but there is nothing hard about it. Slow and steady wins the race. Take one lesson at a time and master all the terms before you go to the next.

Lesson 1: Points of Sail; Finding wind Direction; Tacking; Windward; Leeward;

The first and most important thing you need to know is the fact that no sailboat of any kind can sail directly into the wind. It is impossible. If you want to sail to a point that is directly toward where the wind is coming from, you cannot get there in a straight line- you will have to zig zag to get there. About the best you can hope for if you want to go directly into the wind is to make a course about forty five degrees to the right or to the left of the destination. This process of zig zagging back and forth towards your mark is called “tacking”. More on tacking later.

Click on this diagram and study it. Note the shaded wedge at the top, in which the boat cannot sail. Any other direction in the circle, the boat can sail there just fine in a straight line.


The first skill you need to develop is to be able to tell where the wind is coming from. This takes practice at first, but will become second nature with some experience. You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows. You can’t see the wind, but you can feel it. You can feel it on your face. You can turn your head until you feel it equally on both ears, or try holding up your hands until you feel equal pressure on each palm. It is easy, really. Many folks don’t pay much attention to the wind’s direction, but a sailor always must. There are other ways to tell which way the breeze is blowing, like looking at a flag, or at a smokestack, or at a little piece of ribbon tied off somewhere on the boat. If all else fails look up at that arrow thing on top of the mast. 🙂

Wind is referred to by the direction it comes from. A North wind is a wind that is coming FROM the north, and so forth.

When you are looking towards the direction that the wind is coming from, you are looking to WINDWARD. Some times this direction is referred to as “to weather”.

If you are looking away from the direction that the wind is coming from, you are looking to LEEWARD. (Usually pronounced “lee-ward”, but some smart alecks use a traditional pronunciation “loo-ard”).

OK, so if you are facing directly into the wind, anything forward of an imaginary line to your immediate right and left is considered “to windward”, and anything behind you and this imaginary line is “to leeward”.

It is possible to sail to windward, but not to sail in a straight line directly into the wind, and it is possible to sail to leeward, or downwind, in any direction. Look at the chart again, these different directions are called points of sail, and each has a name. A ‘reach” is when the wind comes from somewhere off the side of the boat. A “run” is when the wind is coming from directly behind the boat.


Terms to learn:

Now use them in a sentence:
Johnny peed on himself today as we sailed up the channel on a close reach. He was hanging over the leeward handrail when the boat tacked and suddenly he found himself on the weather side before he could finish.