Illustration by Mark Smith
“The idea of sailing a boat on the sea can seduce even the happiest farmer or mountaineer. There is something about boat and water that stirs romance in our hearts, and just the sight of a boat can stir dreams.”
I wrote these words in the first edition of my Sailing Handbook, The Annapolis Book of Seamanshipin 1983. They are still present today in the updated fourth edition published in 2014. And yet, as much as I feel about boats, once you’re afloat, I’m sure that romantic and magical thinking is no substitute for boats.
To quote some other words I wrote at the time: “In her poetry a sailboat is still limited by the realities of wind and sea.” Here I describe some important basic skills in learning to sail to deal with some of these realities, including some seamanship tips and tricks I’ve learned that should make you a more able, safer and more confident skipper or crew .
How to start sailing
The very first step in sailing is to properly prepare for the sometimes demanding and harsh elements you will encounter on the water. Take a wide-brimmed hat, waterproof jacket, non-slip trainers, and of course, a life jacket that’s sure to fit you. Apply a drop or two of high SPF sunscreen and take the tube with you so you can keep applying liberally. Those who suffer from motion sickness should consider taking a medication, preferably one that you have tested for side effects. Before you set off, create a raft plan with your itinerary and important contacts and share it with your friends and family or sailing club.
Often the most disconcerting moment on the first day that a new sailor learns to sail comes when you step aboard and feel the boat move beneath you. There is plenty of buoyancy reserve, but if the boat is small and choppy you should step to the center of the cockpit. A larger boat can be boarded via the side deck, but even it can rock a bit and settle. Forget looking graceful. Use every handle you can grab.
Once everyone is on board, the skipper must take command. To quote the wise Captain and Safety Instructor Karen Prioleau, “When guidance is unclear, tight situations get tighter.” Contracts are awarded, equipment stowed, the bilge pumped, an inspection made to see if everything is in order, sails prepared for hoisting and made plans for departure. If the boat has a motor, it can be used to get off the mooring or to dock in open water before setting sail. But for now, we’re concentrating on setting sail in a motorless boat. First hoist the mainsail, the big sail. The line to the main boom (called the main sheet) must be well slacked so that the sail, once set, gives up wind (luffs) and does not fill up prematurely. The boom will flap around, so keep your head low and consider controlling it with a line called a preventer.
Trimming and turning a sailboat
Illustration by Mark Smith
When the skipper says to cast off, the jib goes up, the smaller sail at the bow, also with a loose sheet. Departing under sail is a bit tricky as the boat is not being moved and therefore the rudder has little to no effect. Because of this, the boat must be steered with the sails until there is sufficient speed (or “travel”) to steer the rudder. When you learn to sail, start with the boat hanging at the mooring or pier; luff the sails because the wind is blowing directly from the front. If you look at the bow, you can feel the wind in your ears. This angle is sometimes referred to as the “Eye of the Wind”. Trim the jib – use the winch to furl the sail and don’t let it out – to the side opposite the side you want to sail. If you want to go to port, reset the jib or trim it to the “wrong” side. When the underlaid jib pulls the bow, drop the anchor. Once the wind is that side, trim the jib to the correct side and at the same time trim the mainsail as the boat accelerates. In this way, the sails help steer the boat.
A fun and educational exercise is to sail a boat onto a buoy or other target on a course, with the wind coming from the side (or beam) of the boat, and make a series of slow turns while the sheets are loosened and get trimmed. When the skipper at the helm and the sail trimmers are in sync, everything is going well (see Figure 1). If you get nervous, slow down by loosening the sails until they are only half full of wind.
Practice turning. If you start on starboard tack, you are on starboard tack. If the wind is from port, you are on port tack (see Figure 2). One of the two ways to change course is called coming or tacking. The helmsman begins the process by saying, “Ready about,” and after the crew responds that they are ready, “Hard ale.” With a firm, fluid push of the tiller or a turn of the wheel, the bow will pass the eye of the wind and come onto the new tack (see Figure 3).
The other way to change the bow is to gybe, pull the tiller or wheel the other way, loosen the sheets and swing the stern through the eye of the wind until the boom swings over (see Figure 4 ). The helmsman’s commands are “stand by to jibe” and, after the crew has confirmed this, “jibe-ho”. The boom will come over suddenly and quickly so all crew members must be careful to duck their heads as they trim the mainsail and jib to the new sides.
Since we are talking about steering, this may be where you are encouraged to steer from the windward side of the tiller or wheel. The windward side (closer to the wind direction) is higher than the leeward side (farther from the wind) when the boat heels, giving you better visibility to see “gusts” (the dark shadows moving across the water). . as they approach.
A phenomenon in sailing is that the wind appears to change direction and strength as the boat speeds up or slows down. This is because there are two types of wind. One called “true wind” is the breeze you feel when you stand still. The true wind speed and direction are the same for all nearly stationary objects. But when one of these objects moves (like a boat does), its movement affects the true wind to create “apparent wind” felt by people on top of the moving object.
Sails are trimmed to the apparent wind. You can measure apparent wind direction and strength by feeling it against your skin, reading it on an electronic instrument, or seeing it on a display, which is a short piece of twine tied to one of the boat’s side braces (shrouds). is attached to support the mast. While all of these devices show wind direction, none of them tell you if your sails are properly trimmed for that direction.
Sails are airfoils with a deep curvature that redirects apparent wind to create a force that pulls the boat forward (much like a wing lifting an airplane off a runway). Lateral force is absorbed and redirected into forward force by the aerofoil fins under the boat, centreboard and keel. As hydrofoils, sails should be trimmed to the wind, and the boat should sail at the most effective angle to that wind.
A simple, effective indicator of this sail angle is a set of short lengths of special indicator lights – yarn or tape – sewn or glued to the sails. Some indicator lights are mounted on the jib near its leading edge (the luff) on either side of the sail. Ideally there should be three pairs of jib controls equidistant at the top and bottom of the luff of the sail. But a pair about halfway up the sail should do the job. Other indicator lights are individually mounted on the trailing edge of the mainsail (the leech) or at least on or near the second batten from the top. The jib controls on either side of the sail should flow aft most of the time, with the windward ones being raised slightly from time to time. The mainsail leech indicator should be streaming aft about half the time. If your gauges behave differently, try steering closer or farther from the wind and experiment with sail trim. An inch or two of trimming or slacking the sail can get them flowing again and make the boat sail faster.
Sailing rules of the road
Once you are sailing you may find yourself close to other boats and worry about who is required to change course to avoid a collision. The basic rule is that more maneuverable boats must give way (change course) to give way to less maneuverable boats, which can therefore continue on course and give them right of way. (These are sometimes referred to as “stand-on ships.”) Normally power boats have to give way to sailing boats, but all smaller boats, sail and motor, have to give way to large ships in a narrow channel and other ships that need room to maneuver.
There are a few other ground rules. If a boat overtakes another boat of any kind, the overtaking boat must give way. When boats meet bow to bow under power, they should each turn to starboard so that they pass port to port. And when sailboats sail side-by-side without their engines running, the boat on port tack (when the wind is over port) must give way to the one on starboard tack. But even if the rules give you the right-of-way, use the same sensible and defensive approach as you would when facing the realities of wind and sea at other times in open water.
Once you master these basics, get out on the water as often as you can to hone your skills in all conditions. One of the great things about sailing is that no matter how many miles you travel, there is something new and different to experience every time you set sail. Congratulations on taking the first step in what has become an enjoyable, lifelong pursuit for so many of us sailors.
Renowned sailing author John Rousmaniere has logged over 40,000 nautical miles of blue water sailing, including nine Newport-Bermuda races. This article is based on material from the fourth edition of his Comprehensive Sailing Handbook, The Annapolis Book of Seamanship (Simon & Schuster, 2014).