FYI: For Your Information Sailing


Almost everyone enjoys being near the water. The movement of the waves and the wheeling gulls stirs part of the soul that lies dormant when confined to land.

There are certain people, however, who have inherited from their seafaring ancestors more than the average feeling for water pleasures. They thrill at the sight of white, billowing sails and sleek hulls gliding silently over the waves.

So we come to a great conclusion: If you love the water, you were born to sail.

The fundamentals of sailing are simple. They can be learned in a few weeks—but never completely mastered. Even the most seasoned skipper is still learning from each experience at the helm. (For a definition of special terms used in sailing and herein italicized, see the accompanying glossary.) That’s one reason why sailing is such an interesting and worthwhile sport.

But sailing isn’t like driving a car, which can be mastered without really learning the mechanics of how an engine works. In sailing, the better you understand the function of each of the parts that make up a sailboat, the better sailor you will become. Therefore, before you can sail a boat, you must know how to rig it properly.

For the names of the parts found on most sailboats, see the accompanying illustration. Always try to call the parts and functions by their proper names. Tiller, sheets, blocks—each should, when mentioned, form a picture in your mind, both graphically and functionally. If you don’t learn the names of the parts of your sailboat, you limit yourself just as you would if you were to try to bake a cake without knowing the names of the ingredients.

In order to become a skillful sailor, you should also know something about the basic principles involved. The most common question asked of a sailor is “How can a sailboat go into the wind?” This is a fascinating subject, and up until about one hundred years ago it was impossible for a sailboat to go into the wind. But with the advent of the airplane and research into aerodynamics, the shape of sails has changed, and now some modern sailboats can point as close as thirty-five degrees into the wind.

This is how it works. The sail is shaped like the top of an airplane wing. Just as the air rushing over the wing produces lift, the wind rushing past and around the sail produces forward drive. Of course, the force is not straightforward; instead it is forward and sideways. This is where the centerboard comes into action. The centerboard extends down into the water and prevents the boat from sliding sideways, and since the only force left is forward, the boat moves in that direction. The sideways force, however, is not completely eliminated. It still remains above the waterline. This is why, when the wind pipes up, the crew must hike or lean out over the side to prevent the boat from tipping over sideways.

The sail should be trimmed so that the leading edge is parallel to the direction of the wind. The easiest way to accomplish this is to let the sail out gradually until it starts to luff (shake) near the mast, then bring it in slightly toward the center of the boat so it is on the verge but is not quite luffing. This is the proper position of the sail to achieve the maximum drive forward with the least sideways force.

Now that we have the boat moving forward, let’s try turning. This is done with the rudder. The tiller, which is attached to the rudder, is held in one hand. If you wish to turn starboard, you push the tiller to port, or vice versa. The sheet rope, which controls the position of the mainsail, is held in the other hand. Every time the boat is turned, the sail must be changed to the same angle as it was previously relative to the wind.

It’s time now to learn some more terms. The accompanying chart shows the points of sailing. These are all relative to the wind direction.

Beating or sailing close-hauled is the closest a boat can sail into the wind. To accomplish this, the sail is sheeted in close to the center line of the boat and the centerboard is all the way down.

By turning the boat downwind slightly and letting the sail out a little, we move from a beat to a close reach. This also reduces the heeling movement or sideways force so that the crew doesn’t have to hike out so far.

Now, by bearing off until the wind is at right angles to the boat and letting the sail out even further, we go to a beam reach. This is the fastest point of sailing. Most lightweight sailboats will jump onto a plane if the conditions are right. Since the sideways force is further reduced, the centerboard can be raised about three-fourths of the way up, and the boat will move even faster.

Next comes a broad reach with a slight reduction in the speed and heeling of the boat.

Finally, the run with the boom well out and the wind pressing directly against the sail from astern is usually the slowest point of sailing. This seems contrary to common sense, but since the wind is hitting the sail directly—not curving around it as it is in the other points of sailing—the forward drive is reduced. On a run there is no sideways force, but it is a good idea to leave the centerboard down about one-fourth to make the boat easier to steer. A run is the most dangerous point of sailing because of a possible accidental jibe, which brings us to two more terms, jibing and tacking.

So far in our discussion we have been sailing with the wind on only one side of the boat. In order to get the wind on the other side, you must either tack or jibe. Tacking is the easier of the two. It is done by sailing on a beat at maximum speed, then pushing the tiller toward the sail, thus turning the boat into the wind. You must have enough speed to coast through the eye of the wind, bringing the bow over the close-hauled position in the other direction. Should you get stuck in irons, with the bow facing directly into the wind, with sails luffing, and with no forward drive, simply let the wind push the boat backward, with the tiller pointing in the direction you were trying to go, and the boat will slowly swing around on the new tack.

A jibe can be executed with safety if it is planned and timed right. Start from a run. Wait for a lull in the wind, holding the original course and rapidly sheeting in the sail until it is in a close-hauled position. Put the helm over until the wind catches the other side of the sail enough to flip the boom across, then let the sheet pay out in your hands and gradually tighten your grip to cushion the shock. Finally, ease the sheet to the proper boom angle as the craft settles down to its new course.

This covers the basic maneuvers of sailing in open water. However, we should touch on two of the most important aspects in sailing: launching and docking.

To launch your boat, tie it to a dock with the bow facing into the wind. Hoist the sail, making sure the boom is allowed to swing freely into the wind. Fasten the halyard securely so the sail won’t come down unexpectedly. Put on the rudder and lower the centerboard. Give the boat one last check to see that no lines are tangled, and you’re ready to sail. Step from the bow to the dock and cast off the painter. Give the forestay a good shove just before you swing yourself aboard. Duck to avoid the boom, and quickly take hold of the tiller. Use the rudder to steer the boat as she makes sternway, and choose the tack you want her to be on. If during this maneuver something goes wrong, it’s wise to have a paddle handy to avoid damage or embarrassment.

Docking usually separates the seasoned skipper from the beginner. Before attempting an actual docking, try practicing landing where there is plenty of sea room. Use a small buoy to practice simulated dockings. Make your approach leeward from the buoy. Practice luffing up to the buoy until the stem almost touches it without having any way on. This will save the boat and dock from a lot of banging when you try the real landing.

For your first actual docking, select a vacant section of dock where you’ll be able to bear off if the craft is arriving too fast. As you make your approach from the leeward, let out the sail at what you think is the correct time and distance so the boat will slow sufficiently before reaching the dock. Aboard a small, light centerboarder, the crew should sit on the forward deck with legs extended to cushion the landing in case the boat comes in with too much speed.

To master these techniques takes a lot of patience and practice. But most people with the time and the desire can become good sailors—or at least have a lot of fun trying.

Perhaps by now you are convinced you should acquire your own boat. If so, it is best to get advice from a sailor in your area. If you don’t know any personally, drive to the lake or seaside and talk to the skippers rigging their boats. Most of them will be delighted to help you with your decision. Ask which boats are most popular in your area. It is wisest to buy a boat in a popular local class so you will enjoy the association and competition of others in your class. Also, buy a boat made by a reputable manufacturer. Check the resale value and the possibilities of class growth.

When you purchase a boat, you are making an investment, and you can invest as much or as little as you like. A new Sunfish (which is an excellent boat for a beginner) sells for a little over $500. It is fourteen feet long, has a flat deck, and carries sixty-five square feet of sail. A larger two-man rig, such as a Lido, carries a little more sail and has a full cockpit. It sells for about $1000. A day-sailer, family-type boat sells for around $1500–$2000; and a cabin cruiser, for $2000 and up.

If you have the knack of working with your hands, you may enjoy building your own boat. Most classes are available from manufacturers in kits that cost about half what the factory-built models cost and can be put together in two or three months.

There can be few more pleasurable sensations than the thrill of learning to sail. Sailing is a fine art, developing a subtle and unmistakable touch of love and pride beyond mere skill. A sailor’s spirit swells with excitement as he watches the ripples on the water for clues to the wind as it tosses the waves.

The boat, alive and responsive, tugs at his hand. He and his craft melt into one, and the slightest movement of the sailor’s body gives an immediate signal to his boat. The two move together, freely, in the open, brilliant water, moving in the force of the wind and scattering the sparkling spray on either side.

As we sail off into the sunset, I’ll leave you with a verse from “The Winds of Fate” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

“One ship drives east and another drives west
With the selfsame winds that blow.
’Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.”

There are many such lessons from sailing that relate directly to life.

Glossary of Sailing Terms

astern—behind the boat

battens—flat wooden strips inserted in pockets used to keep leech of sail flat

beam—the breadth of a boat at its widest point

beam reach—the point of sailing with the wind directly abeam, or 90 degrees from the keel

bear off—to head more away from the wind

beat—to sail to windward

block—a seagoing pulley

boom—the spar to which the foot of the sail is fastened

bow—the fore part of a boat

broad reach—any point of sailing between a beam reach and a run

capsize—to overturn

centerboard—adjustable keel; a thin piece of wood or metal pivoting at one point

class—boats of a similar type made to the same specifications

close-hauled—sailing as near the wind as possible

close reach—a point of sailing between a beam reach and a beat

day-sailer—a sailboat with limited accommodations, suitable for short passages but not for extensive cruising

forestay—a mast-supporting cable

halyard—a line used for raising or lowering a sail

heel—angle from the vertical at which a boat sails

helm—gear for steering, including wheel or tiller and rudder

hike—to climb out on the windward side of the hull

in irons—luffing into the wind

jib—small triangular sail carried forward of the mast

jibe—to change from one tack to the other by bringing the main boom from one side of the boat to the other when running before the wind

lee—an area protected from the wind

leech—the after-edge of a fore-and-aft sail

leeward (pronounced “loo-ard”)—the direction away from the wind

luff—forward side of the sail fastened to the mast or to a stay

mainsail—the largest sail

mainsheet—the line that controls the mainsail

painter—a handling line attached to the bow of a small boat

plane—to elevate a hull so it skims along the surface instead of plowing through the water

port—the left-hand side of a boat, facing forward

reach—all points of sailing between a run and a beat

rigging—any ropes, cables, or chains used to support (standing rigging) or control (running rigging) masts, spars, or sails

rudder—device fastened vertically at the stern which directs the course of the boat

run—the point of sailing with the wind free and pressing directly against the canvas; to sail downwind

sheet—a line used to control a sail in relation to the wind

shrouds—the side stays supporting a mast

spar—a mast, boom, etc.

starboard—facing forward, the right-hand side of a boat

tack—to sail a zigzag course in the direction from which the wind is blowing

tiller—a steering handle attached to a rudder

trim—to haul in on a sheet; also, to shift ballast (weight) to put a boat on her proper lines

way on—moving through the water

windward—toward the wind