How To Sail a Boat

Sail a Boat
You've always wanted to learn to sail, but the different parts of the boat, the unfamiliar jargon, and maybe even the mystique of sailing have left you looking for a flotation device just to keep your head above it all! This article is for you: it will cover the hardware present on most small sailboats, as well as common sailing techniques, terms and definitions, the names of the different pieces of hardware, and much more. This will get you started, but be sure you spend time with an experienced sailor and your boat before you venture out on the water on your own.


Part One: Preparing The Boat

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    Perform a detailed visual check. Inspect all the standing rigging—the cables and ropes that support the mast—including the turnbuckles and cotter pins securing the rigging to the hull. Many sailboats have dismasted because a 15-cent cotter pin was missing!

    • Check the lines (running rigging) that raise and control the sails (halyards and sheetsrespectively). Make sure that they are separated, not wrapped around each other or fouled on anything else, and that they all have a figure-eight knot or other stopper knot on the free (bitter) end so they cannot pull through the mast or sheaves.
    • Pull all lines out of their cleats and off their winches. There should be nothing binding any line; all should be free to move and be clear at this point.
    • If you have a topping lift—a small line that holds the back of the boom up and out of the way when the sail isn't in use—let it out until the boom sags downward freely, then re-tie or re-cleat it. Watch out for the boom; it's just swinging around at this point; being made of aluminum, it will cause a painful "clunk" if it happens to hit you or your crew. The boom will return to its normal position when you hoist the mainsail.
    • Attach the tiller. Be sure that it is properly attached to the back of the boat (transom). Your sailboat is now prepared for you to hoist the sails!
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    Determine the wind direction. If your boat doesn't have some kind of wind direction indicator (windex) at the top of the mast, tie a couple nine-inch pieces of old cassette tape, VHS tape, or oiled yarn to the shrouds—the rigging cables that hold up the mast.
    • Place them on each side, about four feet up from the sides of the boat.
    • To sail effectively, you will need to know the apparent direction of the wind .
    • Some sailors find cassette tape to be just too sensitive for this purpose. If that's the case with you, try using VHS tape instead.
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    Point the boat into the wind. The idea is to have the minimum amount of wind resistance when raise the sail, with the sail straight back. In this position, the sail won't be snagging on any shrouds or any other hardware, either. This isn't always easy. The boat won't turn readily because it's not moving (under way). Do the best you can, but be prepared to work for it!
    • Here's a handy tip: if the water is not deep at your dock, or if you have no side pier, walk the boat out away from the dock and anchor it into the sand, and the boat will automatically point itself into the direction of the wind!

Part Two: Hoisting The Sails

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    Hoisting the main with the boat pointed into the wind.
     Hoisting the main with the boat pointed into the wind.
    Attach the sails. Secure the bottom front (tack) of the mainsail and jib to their respective shackles on the boom and the bow of the boat.
    • There will be a small line (outhaul) attaching the back of the mainsail (clew) to the boom and its cleat. Pull it hand-tight in the cleat. This tightens the foot of the sail.
    • Hoist the mainsail by pulling down on its halyard all the way until it stops. It will be flapping around (luffing) like crazy, but thats ok for a short period of time. (Excessive luffing will drastically reduce the life and durability of the sail).
    • The leading edge of the sail (luff) must be tight enough to remove folds, but not so tight as to create vertical creases in the sail.
    • There will be a cleat in the vicinity of the halyard where it comes down from the top of the mast. Cleat the halyard. Using the jib halyard, raise the front sail (jibgenoa or simply the headsail), and cleat the halyard off. Both sails will be luffing freely now. Sails are always raised mainsail first, then the jib, because it's easier to point the boat into the wind using the main.
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    Adjust for the wind. Sailboats cannot sail directly into the wind. As shown below, the red zone in the diagram indicates a "no go" zone when under sail. To sail to windward, a sailing vessel must sail about 45-50 degrees off the wind and change direction by tacking (or zig-zag).

    • Turn the boat to the left (port) or right (starboard) so it's about 90 degrees off the wind. This is known as a beam reach.
    • Pull on the main sheet (trimming) until the sail is around 45 degrees away from straight back (aft). This is a safe place for the main while you trim the jib.
    • You will start moving and tilting (heeling) away from the wind. A heel of more than 20 degrees usually indicates that you're being overpowered. Releasing the mainsheet momentarily (breaking the main) will lessen the amount of heel, and you will return to a more comfortable sailing angle of 10 to 15 degrees of heel.
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    Trim the jib sheets. Although the mainsail is hoisted first, it is the jib that is trimmed first. There are two jib sheets, one for each side of the boat. Pull on the jib sheet on the the side away from where the wind is coming from (leeward side). This is the active sheet while the other is called the lazy sheet.
    • The jib will form a pocket; trim the sail until the front edge just stops luffing. Keep your hand on the tiller (or helm) and stay on course!
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    Trim the mainsail. Let out the main sheet until the front edge just starts to luff, then pull it back just until it stops.
    • If you or the wind hasn't changed direction, this is the most efficient place to set the sails. If anything changes, you have to adjust them in response.
    • You have just entered the world of the sailor, and you will have to learn to do many things at once, or suffer the consequences.
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    Watch the front of the sail edge on the main and jib. If it starts to luff, you have two choices: tighten the sail sheet until it stops luffing, or steer away from the wind (bear off). When the sail luffs, it means that you are heading too much into the wind for your current sail setting. If you bear off slightly, (away from the wind) your sails will stop luffing.
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    Watch your wind indicators (telltales). If you see it change so that the wind is coming from a direction that is more behind you, you will be wasting energy. Let out the sail till it luffs, and tighten again till it stops. You will be doing this constantly; watching the sails, the telltales, and trimming sails if for no other reason than to see where you're at.
    • When the wind is at your back and side (aft quarter), it's called a broad reach. This is the most efficient point of sail as both sails are full of wind and pushing the boat at full force.
    • When the wind is at your back, you are running with the wind. This is not as efficient as reaching, because the jib is covered by the mainsail and not filling with air.
    • When running with the wind, you can sometimes you can pull the jib over to the other side of the boat where it will fill. This is called wing-on-wing, and you have to maintain a steady hand on the tiller to keep this sail configuration. Be sure to be vigilant of obstacles and other vessels, as having both sails in front of you blocks a significant portion of your view.
    • Be careful—when the boat is running, the sails will be way off to the side, and because the wind is basically behind you the boom can change sides suddenly (jibeor gybe), coming across the cockpit with quite a bit of force.
    • If you have a wind direction indicator at the top of your mast, do not align the boat so that the wind indicator points at the mainsail. If it does, you are sailing with the boom on the windward side (sailing by the lee) and are at high risk of an accidental jibe. When this happens the boom can hit you with enough force to knock you unconscious and out of the boat (overboard).
    • It's a good practice for beginners to pull the sail in a bit when running so it doesn't have far to go if it jibes.
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    Close reach. Turn the boat slightly into the wind, maybe 60-75 degrees off the wind. You will have to pull the sheets tighter so the sails are more closely in line with the boat. This is called a close reach. Your sails are acting like the airfoil of an airplane: the wind is pulling the boat instead of pushing it.
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    Close haul. Continue to turn into the wind (head up) and tighten the sheets until you can go no farther (the jib should never touch the spreaders on the mast). This is called close-hauled, and is as close as you can sail into the wind (about 45-60 degrees off the wind). On a gusty day, you will have all kinds of fun with this point of sail!
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    Sail into the wind to a destination. Sail a heading that is as close to the wind as you can, close-hauled. On most sailboats this will be about 45 degrees to the wind.
    • When you've gone as far as you think prudent, suddenly turn the boat through the wind (or changing direction by tacking), pulling the jib sheet out of its cleat or straight up off the winch drum as the front of the boat (bow) turns through the wind.
    • The main and boom will come across the boat. The mainsail will self-set on the other side, but you will have to quickly pull in the jib sheet on the opposite side on its cleat or winch, while steering the boat just to the point where the mainsail begins to draw again.
    • If you do this correctly, the boat won't slow down much and you will be sailing to windward in the other direction. If you're too slow tightening the jibsheet again and the boat bears off the wind too much, don't panic. The boat will be pushed sideways a little until it gains speed.
    • Another scenario would be to fail to put the bow of your boat through the wind quickly enough and the boat comes to a complete stop. This is known as being in irons, which is embarrassing, but every sailor has experienced it. Being in irons is easily remedied: when the boat begins moving backwards you will regain steerage.
    • Point the tiller in the direction you wish to go and tighten the jib sheet to windward, (backwinding the sail). The wind will push the bow through the wind. Once you've completed your tack, release the sheet from the winch on the windward side and pull in the sheet to leeward and you'll be on your way again.
    • Because speed is so easily lost when tacking, you'll want to perform this maneuver as smoothly and quickly as possible. Keep tacking into the wind until you get to your destination.
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    Go easy when learning. Understand that it's best to practice on calm days, and so, for example, learn to reef your boat (make the sails smaller). You will need to do this when the wind is too strong and you're being overpowered.
    • Reefing almost always needs to be done before you think you need to!
    • It's also a good idea to practice capsize procedures on a calm day too. Knowing how to right your boat is a necessary skill.
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    Sail safely. Remember that your anchor and its cable (rode) are important pieces of safety gear and can be used to stop your boat from going aground or can even be used to get the vessel floating again should a grounding occur.

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