Learn How to Sail a Small Sailboat

Girl In Small Sailboat
Keith Levit / Getty Images

One of the most important things to remember, when learning to sail, is to always know where the wind is coming from in relation to the boat. Study the illustrations included to learn the terms for the primary points of sail, which is the position of the boat relative to wind direction.

01 of 11

The Points of Sail

Points of Sail

Tom Lochhaas

The wind is blowing straight down from the top in this illustration. All the arrows pointing outward from the circle are directions a sailboat can sail. For example:

  • A sailboat cannot sail directly into the wind but can sail about 45 degrees toward it; this is called being close hauled.
  • When the boat is sailing across the wind, with the wind coming directly from either side (the “beam”), the boat is on a beam reach.
  • When the boat is sailing at a broad angle off the wind, but not directly downwind, the boat is on a broad reach.
  • When the boat is sailing directly downwind, it is said to be running.

Boat Positioning

Knowing how your boat is positioned relative to wind direction is crucial for how you set the sails and how you position your body weight. A good way to learn to pay attention to the wind is to tie short pieces of light yarn to the boat’s shrouds and keep an eye on which way they are blowing.

Wind Direction

When you are sailing, you will find that the motion of the boat affects wind direction, because the boat’s movement through the air creates its own wind. For example, the true wind may be blowing exactly across the boat (beam reach) when the boat is at rest. As it picks up speed, however, it makes its own wind by moving forward through the air.

This added wind from the front adds to the wind over the side to produce a combined wind at an angle more from ahead. Thus, the boat may actually be close hauled. When you first start sailing, you don’t have to think too much about the difference between true wind and apparent wind. All that matters is the resulting (apparent) wind over the boat and sails.

02 of 11

Getting Underway

Man standing on sail boat

Konstantin Trubavin/Getty Images

The easiest way to learn to sail a boat is from a mooring or a permanent anchor line in the water. The wind will blow the boat straight back, such that the bow faces into the wind. This is the one direction in which we can’t sail, so the boat has to be turned so that the wind is coming across the boat from either side.

Turn the Sailboat

To turn the sailboat after it is released from the mooring line, simply push the boom out to either side. The wind will now blow against the back of the sail, rather than past it on both sides, and the boat will rotate. This is called “backing the sail.” Now the boat can begin to sail as you pull in the mainsheet to tighten the mainsail.

Sailing Off a Dock or Beach

It is a little more difficult to learn to sail off a dock or beach. If the boat is being blown sideways against the dock, it can be almost impossible to get started. In this case, walk the boat to the end of the dock and turn it there to face outward into the wind. Then you can back the sail to get started.

The boat can’t move if the sails are loose and flapping in the wind. As soon as they are tightened up when the wind is coming from the side, the boat will begin to move forward.

03 of 11

Basics of Steering

Steering Basics
Tom Lochhaas

As soon as the sails are drawing and the boat is beginning to move, be sure you are sitting on the side of the boat the wind is coming over, opposite of the sails as shown here. The wind against the sails will make the boat heel or lean over, and your weight is needed on the high side to keep the boat from capsizing.

Steer With the Tiller

As soon as the boat is moving, water is streaming past the rudder and the boat can be steered with the tiller. If you have ever used an outboard motor on a small boat to steer by pushing the motor's tiller arm, then you already know how to steer a small sailboat, since the tiller works the same way.

If you have never steered with a tiller before, it takes a bit to get used to, because it seems to work the opposite of what you might expect. To turn the boat to the left (port), you move the tiller to the right (starboard). To turn the boat to starboard, you move the tiller to port.

Steps to Move the Tiller

Look at how the rudder is hinged to the stern of the boat. Moving the tiller one direction rotates the rudder to the other side and water moving against the rudder pushes the stern of the boat the other direction. Use the illustration provided and think through these steps to better understand:

  1. Move the tiller toward the port (left) side, as this sailor is doing.
  2. This swings the rudder out a little on the starboard (right) side.
  3. The water against the rudder's starboard side causes a pushing motion that moves the stern the other direction, to port.
  4. Moving the stern to the port means the bow now points more to starboard. Steering by moving the stern is very different from steering a car, where the front wheels turn the front of the car. A boat steers by pushing the stern one way or the other like driving a car in reverse.
  5. Make very small movements of the tiller until you get a feel for steering.
04 of 11

General Sail Handling

Sail Handling
Tom Lochhaas

The sheets pull in and let out the sails. Pulling the mainsheet brings the mainsail closer to the centerline of the boat. Pulling the jibsheet brings the jib closer to the centerline.

Position the Tiller

Once the boat starts moving forward, position the tiller so that the boat is not turning to either side. If the sails are loose and flapping, pull in the mainsheet just until the mainsail stops flapping and takes shape; you will feel the boat speed up. After this, pull in the jib sheet until the jib also stops flapping.

Navigate the Sails

There is one simple general principle for where to position your sails. The closer you sail toward the wind (close hauled), the more you pull in the sails. The farther you sail off the wind (broad reach), the more you let out the sails.

Note the photo on the left which shows the sails far out to the side as the boat sails downwind. The wind here is blowing from right to left. The photo at right shows the sails brought in close as the boat sails upwind. Notice the boat heels over more the closer it sails into the wind.

Continue to 5 of 11 below.
05 of 11

Trim the Mainsail

Mainsail Luffing
Tom Lochhaas

Adjusting the sails using the sheets is called trimming. You trim a sail to give it the best shape for the direction you are sailing relative to the wind.

Trimming the Mainsail

The leading, vertical edge of the sail is called the luff. When a sail is trimmed perfectly, it is in tight enough that the luff is not shaking or flapping, but not so tight that the wind is simply blowing against one side, making the boat heel over excessively. If the sail is brought in almost tight enough, it will look good at the back edge but the luff will be shaking or not tight.

Examine this photo carefully and you’ll see the billowing back of the mainsail luff, which is more noticeable in the blue area of the sail. It does not have a smooth airplane wing shape near the luff. The movement or shaking of the luff that happens when the sail is not quite in tight enough is called luffing. Luffing means the sail is not working as efficiently as it should, and the boat is going slower than it can.

Let Out the Mainsheet

The general principle for trimming the mainsail perfectly is to let out the mainsheet until the mainsail begins to luff and then pull it in just until it stops luffing.

If a sail is in too tight, it can look perfect. You can’t tell by its appearance if it is in too tight. The only way to know is to let it out until it starts luffing and then tighten it just until it stops luffing.

06 of 11

Trim the Jib

Well-Trimmed Sails
Tom Lochhaas

Let out the sheet until its luff starts shaking or flapping, then tighten the jibsheet until it stops. As with the mainsail, you can’t tell by the look of the jib whether it’s in too tight, so the only way to make sure it’s perfect is to let out until it luffs, then bring it back in a little.

How to Trim a Jib

Some sailboats, especially larger ones, have streamers on the luff of the jib that show the airflow on both sides of the jib’s front edge. When the sail is in trim, these streamers, called telltales, blow back straight on both sides of the sail. ​Here is a view of what jib telltales look like and how to trim a jib using them.

Note the shape of both sails in this photo as the boat moves on a beam reach. Remember that closer to the wind, the sails are in tight; ​the farther off the wind, the sails are let out more. A beam reach is about halfway between the two extremes. Both sails have the same curve.

The space between the jib and the mainsail, called the slot, has even spacing from the front to the back, helping the air flow smoothly between the sails. If the jib was in too tight, or the mainsail out too loose, the narrowing slot would cause air turbulence and slow down the boat.

07 of 11

Making a Turn

Turning a Sailboat
Tom Lochhaas

The most important thing about handling a sailboat is always knowing where the wind is. If you’re not paying attention and you turn the wrong way without preparing first, you could capsize the boat if it's windy.

Three General Turns

Consider that there are three general types of turns, depending on the boat’s direction relative to the wind:

  1. If the wind is coming from ahead of you on one side, such as port or left, and you turn the boat left into and across the wind so that now the wind is coming from ahead of you on the other wide, now the starboard or right, this is called tacking– turning across the wind by the turning into the wind.
  2. If you are sailing on a broad reach with the wind behind you on one side (for example, port or starboard) and you turn the boat right so that the stern crosses the wind, and now the wind is coming from behind you on the other side, now the starboard or right is called gybing (or jibing)– turning across the wind downwind.
  3. In the third type of turn, you do not cross the wind’s direction at all. For example, you may be close-hauled with the wind coming from ahead of you on one side (for example, port or left) and you turn right (“bear off” the wind) about 90 degrees. The wind is still on your port side except now you are on a broad reach with the wind behind you on the port side.

Positioning the Sails

In the first two of these turns, going across the wind, the sails have to cross to the other side of the boat and you have to switch sides yourself to keep the boat balanced. The easiest kind of turn happens when you keep the wind on the same side of the boat–the third type above. All you have to do is make your turn and then trim your sails to your new course. As you gain experience, you can adjust your sails at the same time you make the turn.

The closer you are to the wind (if you “head up” toward the wind), the more you pull in the sheets. The farther you are off the wind (if you “bear off”), the more you left out the sheets. When you prepare to turn either way, always keep one hand on your mainsheet. You may need to let it out quickly when you turn downwind, for example, to prevent being blown over sideways.

08 of 11

Using the Centerboard

Using the Centerboard
Tom Lochhaas

The centerboard is a long, thin blade of fiberglass or metal that hangs down in the water near the center of the boat. It is usually hinged on one end and can be raised and lowered while sailing. The photo at left shows the top of the centerboard in the cockpit, with the board in the down position. In the photo to the right, you can see the board in the water beneath the boat.

Sailing Downwind

Because the wind blows sideways against the boat and sails, especially the closer the boat sails toward the wind, the boat is blown sideways even as it moves forward. When the centerboard is down, it is like a keel on a large sailboat and resists this sideways motion. When you are sailing downwind, however, the wind is behind more than to the side and there much less sideways push, so the centerboard is not needed. Many sailors, therefore, raise the centerboard when going downwind; with less drag in the water, the boat sails faster.

When you’re first learning, it doesn’t hurt to leave the centerboard down the whole time. It’s one less thing to be concerned about until you’ve mastered sail trim.

Continue to 9 of 11 below.
09 of 11

Slowing a Sailboat

Slowing a Sailboat
Tom Lochhaas

For most sailors, the goal is to sail as fast as possible, whether racing or just having fun. You need to know how to slow the boat down sometimes, such as when approaching a dock or mooring or an obstruction.

Spill Wind

Slowing a sailboat is fairly simple- you just do the opposite of what you do to sail fast with well-trimmed sails. The best way to slow down is to "spill wind" from your sails by letting out the sheets until the sails are luffing, or even further if needed until they start flapping. This means they're not working efficiently to drive the boat forward and the boat will quickly slow down. You need only to tighten up the sheets again to regain speed if you want or continue to let the sheets out until the sails flap uselessly and the boat coasts to a stop.

There is one exception to the "let out to slow" rule: when you're sailing down wind. When you are running, the sail billows forward, and it may not be possible to let the mainsail out far enough to spill wind because the boom hits the shrouds and won't go any father. The sail is still full and the boat moving right along. In this case, pull the mainsheet way in to slow the boat. The less sail is thus exposed to the wind, and the boat slows down.

Let Out the Sheets

Do not try to slow down on other points of sail by tightening the mainsheet. On a beam reach, for example, tightening the sheets may slow you but can also drastically increase the boat's heeling, and you could capsize. Instead, let out the sheets.

10 of 11

Stopping a Sailboat

Stopping a Sailboat
Tom Lochhaas

Eventually, you need to stop the boat to dock or moor it after sailing. This may not be immediately intuitive as boats do not have brakes like cars.

Turn Toward the Wind

It is usually as simple as turning the boat directly into the wind to stop it, as shown in this photo. Depending on how hard the wind is blowing and how fast the boat is moving, this generally will stop the boat in one to three boat-lengths.

  • The sails flutter loose and do not fill to move the boat. To stop to pick up a mooring line, or to stop beside a dock, practice turning the boat into the wind to see how quickly it stops in different conditions.
  • Remember to loosen the sheets also, because the boat will eventually be blown one way or the other, and if the sails catch the wind, it will want to go sailing off again.

In Emergencies

You can stop or slow a sailboat simply by releasing the sheets. The sails will flap and make an uproar, but the boat will slow and stop– that is unless the wind gets behind the mainsail and pushes the boom against the shrouds, allowing the boat to keep going downwind. That’s why it’s always best to turn into the wind to stop the boat.

Stop on a Dock

Plan your approach carefully so that you can turn into the wind, regardless of where it is coming from, or can loosen the sheets to coast to a stop. If the wind is blowing directly against the dock, for example, you can sail alongside at a close angle and let the sheets out to slow the boat and coast up, as the wind blows you onto the dock.

11 of 11

Putting the Boat Away

Folding Sails
Tom Lochhaas

After sailing, back on the mooring or dock, you will remove the sails and possibly the rudder and other gear.

  • To protect the sails, they should be carefully folded before being stowed.
  • Let them dry first if they are wet. If they have been doused in salt water, rinse them first and let them dry.

Fold a Sail

The best way to fold a sail depends on its size and the size of the sail bag if used. The fewer folds, the less strain on the sail cloth.

  • Spread the sail flat and then fold it twice or more lengthwise, keeping the luff straight.
  • When the width of the folded sail is small enough for stowing and handling, roll it up into a cylinder.
  • Stow the sails and other gear in a dry place, to be ready for the next sailing day.