Sailing is by no means an easy thing to pick up and learn, but introducing yourself to some of the basics can help you decide whether you want to know more or not, to say the very least. The art (and science) of sailing is a delicate balancing act of forces and systems which you become responsible for as soon as you take to the waters; understanding exactly what is going on with a sailboat can save your life one day, or at least make it sound like you know what you’re talking about.
Sailing is the act of harnessing the wind’s energy with sails, and then managing the resulting propulsion of a craft (like a boat) with steering. While sailing is commonly associated with craft on the water, it can also be associated with vessels on the land and on ice. For the purpose of this article however we will be referring to the use of sailing on water, with boats and ships.
While it has become increasingly obsolete for many purposes today; sailing is a cornerstone of human civilization in that it allowed us to travel over greater distances and to new places which we could not otherwise reach over land. At least not conveniently, if at all. The internal combustion engine has become the most common means of propulsion on sea-faring vessels today, but sailing still has relevant usefulness and advantages over motor-driven craft in that it does not require fuel for operation. Sailing vessels can still travel further than any motorized watercraft and require nothing more than wind and a crew that can sail. Most of the world was explored with the use of sailing. Battles and entire wars have been fought with sailing. Goods have been transported and traded thanks to sailing, and sailing even provided whole new ways of fishing. Sailing has been so important to us that not passing on the knowledge of it would be irresponsible for generations to come.
The first thing that can be known about sailing is that it requires a sailboat, or any other sea-faring vessel that uses sails to catch the wind. After this, it can be helpful to understand the various types of sailboats that exist, and the terminology which is used to describe the different parts of them. While this may sound daunting, it can be reduced to the fact that all sailboats have a hull (body), sail, mast and rudder. Different types of sailboats simply feature different configurations, combinations and designs which utilize these four components. Today we have developed and categorized six different modern types of sailboat; all of which can be defined by the layout and quantity of the aforementioned components.
A Catboat has a single mast which is set towards the bow (front) of the boat, with a single sail. They are generally smaller boats which can be operated with a minimal crew.
A Sloop is the most common type of sailboat. It has a single mast which is rigged with a sail in the front (jib) and mainsail in the back. They perform well in most tasks (like sailing upwind) and can vary greatly in size.
A Cutter is characterized by a single mast and mainsail much like a sloop, but additionally has a second jib sail in the front. More sails can create more propulsion, but also require more management and possibly additional crew personnel.
A Ketch is a sailboat with two masts; the front mast is called the main mast and the second mast (closer to the stern/rear, but in front of the rudder) is called the mizzen mast. The mizzen mast is generally shorter than the main mast.
A Yawl is exactly like a ketch, only that the mizzen mast is placed behind the rudder. This is an important characteristic to note because it effects the handling and balance of the ship, making it unique from the ketch.
A Schooner is generally a larger sailboat and stepping into ship territory. They are distinguished by having two or more masts, and the mast towards the stern (rear) is either taller than or equal to the forward mast in height. This amount of mast and sail power often requires, or is required by, a larger vessel which inevitably needs more crew, provisions and management.
The next thing one should understand is the terminology used to describe the parts of a sailing vessel, as well terms that are used to describe conditions, actions and directions at sea.
The Parts of a Sailboat
It is important to know the names of the parts, components and rigging of a sailboat. Whether you need to refer to something or are being referred to something, knowing the name of it will help greatly.
- Block: This is the nautical term for a pulley.
- Boom: The horizontal support for the foot of the mainsail which extends aft of the mast. This is what you want to watch out for when changing directions in a sailboat. It can give you quite a wallop on the head if it hits you.
- Bow: This is what the front of the boat is called.
- Centerboard: This is a plate that pivots from the bottom of the keel in some boats and is used to balance the boat when under sail.
- Cleat: Cleats are what grab onto lines (or ropes) and can be fastened to when they need to be kept in place.
- Halyard: Lines that raise or lower the sails.
- Hull: The hull is the body of the boat and also consists of everything below the deck.
- Jib: This is the sail at the bow of the boat. The jib helps propel the boat forward.
- Genoa: A foresail which is larger in size than a jib.
- Keel: The keel is what prevents a boat from sliding sideways (making leeway) in whatever way the wind is blowing and stabilizes the boat.
- Line: Lines are ropes. They are everywhere on boats. There is only one thing called a “rope” on a sailboat; the bolt rope which runs along the foot of the mainsail. Rigging lines should be knotted at their tips so they cannot be accidentally pulled through masts, cleats or sheaves which hold them in place.
- Mainsail: As the name implies, this is the mainsail of the boat. It is the sail attached to the back of the mast.
- Mast: The mast is a tall, vertical pole that holds the sails up. Some boats have more than one mast.
- Painter: This is a line positioned at the front of small boats. It is used to tie the boat to a dock or another boat.
- Rudder: The rudder is how the boat is steered. It is movable so that when you turn the wheel or tiller, the rudder directs the boat in the direction you would like the boat to go.
- Sheets: The lines that control the sails.
- Spinnaker: The usually brightly colored sail used when sailing downwind or across the wind, extending like a kite in front of the vessel.
- Stays and Shrouds: There are wires that make sure the mast stays upright, even in very heavy winds.
- Stern: This is the term for the back of the boat.
- Tack: The tack is the part of the sail which is affixed to a line which holds it up.
- Tiller: The tiller is a stick attached to the rudder and is used to control the rudder.
- Transom: This is what we would call the butt of the boat. It is the back part or panel of the boat that is perpendicular to its centerline.
- Wheel: The wheel works the rudder, steering the boat.
- Winch: Winches help tighten the sheets and halyards. When these lines are wrapped around a winch (in a clockwise direction), a sailor can turn the winch with a handle, providing mechanical advantage and making it easier to bring in the lines.
The running rigging consists of all the lines which correspond to the functions of controlling the sails. This includes (but is not limited to) halyards and sheets.
The standing rigging is relative to all lines and supports which hold masts and booms in place. This includes (but is not limited to) stays and shrouds.
Terminology at Sea
- Port: Port is the left side of the boat when facing the bow.
- Starboard: Starboard is the right side of the boat when facing the bow.
- Windward: As the name might imply, windward is the direction from which the wind is blowing, upwind.
- Leeward: This is also called ‘Lee’. This is the direction to which the wind is blowing, downwind.
- Tacking: Tacking is when you turn the bow of the boat through the wind so that the wind switches from one side of the boat to the other. This is when you most need to be mindful of the boom, as the boom will swing from one side of the boat to the other when you tack.
- Jibing: A Jibe is the opposite of tacking, which means that it is when you turn the stern of the boat through the wind so that wind shifts to the other side of the boat. This is a more dangerous maneuver in a strong breeze than tacking since the boat’s sails are always fully powered by the wind, and may react violently to the change in the orientation of the boat to the wind. Care must be exercised to control the boom during this maneuver as serious injury is a possibility if the boom travels across the cockpit uncontrolled.
- Luffing: This is when the sails begin to flap and lose drive caused by steering the boat into wind (in irons) or easing (loosening) sheets. Luffing deteriorates sails faster than anything else in sailing, so reduce the amount your sails luff as much as you can.
In most of the planet’s waterways; navigational markers are indicated with green and red buoys. In and around North America, red buoys should be on the starboard (right) side of the vessel if traveling towards port or land. Red-Right-Returning. Everywhere outside of North America is generally the opposite of this rule.
There may be other rules, laws or regulations for the sailing of vessels in your region, depending on the size and use of your craft. Make sure to be aware of these and take any and every other precaution you can before departing on a sailboat. Make sure you have enough provisions and supplies to exceed the duration of your intended journey; and make it just that, intentional. Never leave port without a plan, or destination. Even if it might be making circles around a lake, make sure to study any nautical charts or information available in order to familiarize yourself with the surroundings and route of your vessel. Knowledge of anything that may change your condition or complicate the operation of a sailboat should be considered in advance, and looking into weather is absolutely no exception. Tides, wind speed and wind direction are critical in planning any sailing trip.
If conditions and planning appear to be favorable and sufficient, you can start on some actual sailing. The first part of any voyage should always be a thorough visual inspection of the vessel; ensure that all lines and rigging are in place and not tangled, severed or missing in any way. Further ensure that any lines in winches or cleats are not fastened and bound. Until the sails are up and secure you won’t want anything holding anything in place. Make any other necessary preparations for the departure of your particular vessel, whether it be connecting a rudder and tiller assembly or deploying a centerboard.
Determine the direction of wind and your orientation to it. Point the bow of the vessel into the wind (in irons) as an optimal position to hoist the sails under. The idea is to have the minimum amount of wind resistance when raising the sail as it should be flush with the center line (middle) of the vessel. When not at dock and anchored from the bow, a boat will tend to point into the wind if the current allows for it. When in position, prepare the sails by securing all tacks to their respective shackles on the boom, bow and halyard. Hoist the main sails first by pulling on the halyard, to a point where the leading edge of the sail is tight enough to remove folds, but not so tight as to create vertical creases in the sail; you will want it to cup the air a little. Cleat the halyard for the mainsail then work towards mizzen sails and jibs. Mains first, jibs last. Boats are built around mainsails and will therefore be easier to manage and keep pointed into the wind under a main.
Once your sails are up, you can adjust the vessels heading and sail trim according to how you want it to react to the wind. Sailboats cannot sail directly into the wind, but they can sail downwind of it, or upwind in angles by zig-zagging (tacking) across it. Since the energy of the wind in the sails is converted into propulsion thanks to the balance of a well-constructed sailing vessel; we can travel in any direction at sea except directly upwind. While some sailboats are more efficient at tacking than others, all proper sailing vessels are able to tack at some degree.
Trimming is the act of tightening your sheets, which really means pulling your sails in tighter. The more trim a sail is, the more efficiently it is holding the wind. Always trim starting with jib sheets and working your way towards mains as jib sails will not overpower the vessel if quickly filled, and are always easier and lighter to manage. Trim until the point where any luffing ceases, but not so much that it continues again (or creates vertical creases).
Keep an eye on wind direction indicators (telltales), as wind can change direction and speed. Always watch your sails for luffing; this will indicate that you have to tighten the sheets or alter your heading. Sailing is all about harnessing energy and making as efficient use of it as possible. Spilling air, luffing sails and inefficient angles are all indicative of wasted energy, but that doesn’t mean you have to push the limits of your vessel and crew to their maximum tolerance. Every sailboat has its limits, and the energy of nature can always be greater than what any vessel can sustain. Wind can be so strong that beam reaching under a commonly-used trim will still capsize a sailboat. Learn reefing (making your sails smaller) and capsizing procedures for your sailboat before you need to know them. Get to know your limitations, along with those of your vessel, by taking things slow and going easy on each other until you feel ready to open it up.
If things get out of hand; release the sheets. Don’t think, just let go, uncleat, unfasten any sheets and the propulsion will stop. Obviously, always be mindful of which direction a boom might swing, but letting up and bearing off from the wind will slow your vessel and reduce tension. If you feel like the sails might pull the vessel right over, just bear off and let out the sheets. If you feel like you still need to stop and get your head straight (or avoid collision), drop anchor.
When not sailing, clean your sails and store them in a dry place, along with any other rigging that doesn’t remain fixed to the hull.
There are many books that cover more detailed aspects of sailing on different vessels, some of which are available here. We can also teach you how to build a boat which can be sailed. Our store also features a lot of great sailing gear, parts and even vessels, for beginners and seasoned sailors alike.