Basic Sailing Techniques – Learning How to Sail a Sailboat

How to Sail a Sailboat – Simple Sailing Techniques to Maneuver Your Boat Through the Waters

New York (USA), September 02, 2017

Basic Sailing Techniques

Steering a sailboat or changing its direction is largely dependent on wind direction. Follow simple sailing techniques to maneuver your boat through the waters skillfully:

Making Sail

This is the first step in setting sail. A sailboat should be set head to wind. Hoist sails and allow them to flap in the wind until you check if all ropes are free. If winds are strong, reduce sail area by taking up sail from the base and fastening it to the boom with a line or series of ties.

Heading Up (Luffing Up)

Steer your sailboat such that it is closer to wind coming on the bow or directly in front. This requires trimming of sails or pulling them towards center of your boat. Sails start fluttering without achieving lift as wind is directly in front. If your sailboat loses maneuverability because of direct wind, it is said to be ‘in irons.’


This is an essential turning technique of your sailboat. This is same as going about. The bow of the boat has to be brought through the wind such that wind comes from opposite side of the boat. Boat faces the wind and hence does not have any force in the sails. Momentum has to be generated to pass through the wind and turn. This is possible by sailing close to the wind and gain windward distance. Your boat would then sail on the opposite tack.

Heading Down

This is same as bearing away, falling away, bearing off, or freeing off. This steering technique is such that wind now comes closer to the vessel’s aft. Let away sails or ease them while heading down to move sails away from center of the boat.


This is another technique of turning your boat. This is the same as Jibing. This turning technique requires boat to go down past the point where wind crosses boat’s stern. Sails and boom swing to opposite side and boat sails on opposite tack. Sail and boom can cross-boat centerline with significant speed. Gybing proves dangerous as boat rear faces the wind and sails change sides fast. Controlling the boat poses difficulty. If you are sailing away from the wind, gybe carefully. Do not make any sudden turns as this could capsize your boat or damage rig of boat if winds are very strong. Gybing and tacking may seem similar. Tacking is if boat front crosses through the wind and gybing is if boat stern crosses wind.


This sailing technique involves movement of boat through water either perpendicular to or in the direction of wind. If wind is exactly at right angles to your boat, it is a beam reach. If boat is little away from wind, it is a broad reach. Halfway between beam reach and beating is a close reach. Reaching is the fastest way to sail in boats or yachts with triangular sails. Wind direction maximizes lift generated on sails to give a forward push. Your boat is able to achieve good speed. Reaching allows you to trim sails in the most desirable direction. Forces for reaching include driving force generated by centerboard or keel and heeling force that keeps wind away from your boat. Reaching requires crew to maximize sail area exposed to wind by spreading weight such that boat remains flat. This reduces drag. Reaching puts your boat parallel to the waves. If waves are steep, sail closer to wind to avoid waves from coming directly on the beam.


Trimming the boat requires maintaining fore and aft balance of the boat. This can be achieved by adjusting weight at the fore and aft of boat. Normally crew moves backwards or forwards to achieve an even keel. If boat is sailing upwind or in the direction of the wind, crew sits at the fore. If moving downwind or against direction of wind, crew sits at the rear of boat. However, this technique is not very useful if boat size is huge.

Sailing Upwind

It is not possible to sail directly into the wind for a long time. You can sail thirty-five degrees off the wind. This is beating the weather or close-hauled. Although you are not sailing directly into the wind, direction remains upwind. You can sail upwind by sailing close-hauled with wind on port side, then tacking, and thereafter sailing on starboard side. If winds are heavy, sea turns rough and sailing upwind could prove difficult. How well your boat can sail upwind depends on many factors like condition of sea, shape of boat, wind speed, sail trim, boat velocity, and others.


Running or a run means sailing boat roughly within thirty degrees either side of a dead downwind. This is an easy point of sail but can prove extremely dangerous. If sailing upwind, you can stop boat by heading into the wind. However, if you are running, you cannot stop boat easily. Rolling is a strong possibility as sails are eased out and provide very little rolling resistance. If you are not careful, your boat can gybe and cause injury. If wind strength increases suddenly, boat could round up and heel excessively. This is broaching and it can capsize boat.

Reducing Sail

A basic sailing technique requires adjustment of amount of sail to suit wind conditions. If wind speed increases, sail should be reduced by reefing the main. This means reducing sail without actually changing to a smaller sail. Reefing reduces center of effort from the sails. This in turn reduces heeling and thereby maintains boat in an upright position. Reefing can be slab-reefing, in-mast roller-reefing, or in-boom roller-reefing. Slab reefing means lowering sail to one-third of full-length and tightening lower part of sail with a preloaded reef line. In-mast roller reefing means rolling up the sail around a vertical foil either inside or outside of mast. The mainsail may require new vertical battens or be without any battens. In-boom roller reefing is with a horizontal foil inside the boom. This requires full-length horizontal battens.

Guide to Sailing and Ocean Cruising in a Medium Sized Yacht
The Complete Reference Guide to Sailing and Ocean Cruising in a Medium Sized Yacht

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