Is sailing something you have always wanted to try? It certainly sounds like a refreshing way to spend a day…the sea breeze whipping through your hair and feeling the warm sun on your face as you gaze out onto the vast blue ocean. Or, at least that’s what you imagine it would be like since you don’t actually know how to sail a sailboat. At least not yet. That’s where this how-to guide comes in. There is a lot to consider, but with the right instruction, you can be ready to sail a small sailboat.
Yes, I said a small sailboat. If you are just getting started on your sailing adventure, “go big or go home” is not the mentality you want to have here. As a beginner, utilizing a small boat is the least expensive and easiest way to learn. It will be just as exciting as a larger sailboat since you’re just starting out, and with practice, you will eventually be able to progress to larger sailing vessels. So what exactly do you need to know to sail a small sailboat? You’ll want to pay attention as we detail these six basic techniques.
1. Points of Sail
Before getting started, you’ll need to figure out the wind direction. Points of sail refer to the position from which wind is coming from in relation to the boat. Understanding where the wind is coming from will allow you to sail your boat properly, including:
- 45 degrees toward the wind (never directly into the wind)
- across the wind, with the wind coming from the side
- a broad angle away from the wind
Not exactly sure how to determine wind direction? Tying a piece of yarn or string to the boat’s (vertical) shroud is an easy way to see exactly which way the wind is blowing. Once you have this figured out and know the way your boat will be moving (either toward or away from the wind), you’ll be better prepared to make decisions about setting the sails and how to position your body on the boat.
Though the natural wind isn’t all you have to consider. Boats also create their own wind while they move. This is something you’ll learn as you go, but it’s important to be mindful that the wind the boat creates will be a factor.
2. Get Started Sailing
No doubt you’re ready to get to the sailing part. But before you head out into the deep blue, you’ll need to practice in a safer zone.
Learning to sail is much easier when starting out tethered to an anchor line. However, you don’t want the wind to be pushing you back into a dock or against the beach, so be sure you have enough space to get your sailboat started.
Once you’re ready to begin, you’ll quickly notice the strength of the wind pushing the sailboat straight back. It’s time to make a small turn. This is done by pushing the boom out to either side – the boat will start to rotate. Once this happens, tighten the mainsail and the boat will start to move forward. You’re sailing!
Now you’ll want to make sure that you are sitting on the side of the boat where the wind is coming over. You’ll be opposite the sail (not underneath it). This will allow the boat to be balanced on both sides. If you don’t follow this important rule, you risk your sailboat flipping over.
Did you think that’s all there was to it? You may have gotten your boat moving, but now it’s time to learn how to make it go in the desired direction. This is where we’ll teach you how to steer. If you’re checking out your sailboat and thinking your steering wheel is missing, don’t be alarmed. Sailboats are generally outfitted with something called a tiller, essentially a pole that acts as a push/pull lever for the rudder of your sailboat. The tricky part is that it’s always moved in the opposite direction that you’ll want the boat to move. So, push it left if you want to go right; right if you want to go left.
It is recommended that you start with very small movements of the tiller until you get more comfortable. Being that it’s opposite of driving a car (instead, it’s more like driving in reverse) it’s going to take some getting used to.
4. Trimming the Sails
Moving in the right direction – check. Steering properly – check. Now it’s time to learn how to navigate your sailboat using the sails.
Once you have your tiller positioned so that the boat isn’t going to either side, it’s time to handle the sails. You’ll want the mainsheet to stop flapping by tightening it until it takes shape – at this time your boat will start to pick up speed. Now pull in the jib sheet and tighten it as well. When sailing more toward the wind, you’ll need to pull the sails in tighter. When sailing off the wind, you’ll let the sails out more.
This practice is called “trimming.” Trimming the mainsail is an important part of getting your sailboat moving through the water smoothly. A perfectly trimmed mainsail will resemble an airplane wing – not too loose and not too tight.
Tightening the jib sheet comes next. First, you’ll want to tighten it all the way until it stops flapping. Then let it out little by little until you can see the edge (luff) of the sail shaking just a bit and then slightly tighten it back up. Then you’re good to go!
The space between the jib and the mainsail is called the “slot.” Keeping this space even from front to back will ensure that your sailboat moves steadily without getting slowed down.
There’s certainly a lot to consider when correctly tightening the sails, but with practice and patience, you’re sure to get the hang of it to get an efficiently sailing boat.
5. Turning the Sailboat
You can’t just keep sailing forward forever, so now it’s time to learn how you’ll properly turn your sailboat. Remember how we talked about the importance of always knowing which way the wind is blowing? This is a big reason why. Here we’ll teach you the three types of turns and how to correctly position your sails for each one.
- Tacking – turning across the wind by turning into the wind. The sails will need to be crossed to the other side of the boat while you move to the opposite side. Remember this rule to keep the boat balanced.
- Jibing – turning across the wind downwind. See “tacking” – you’ll move the sails in the same way.
- No wind crossing – in this type of turn you won’t be crossing the wind at all; for example, if the wind is coming at the left side (port) of the sailboat and you turn 90 degrees, the wind is now behind that side of the boat. This will be the easiest type of turn. To turn, you’ll simply pull in or let out the sheets depending on how close you are to the wind. Never let go of your mainsheet at this time because you may need to let it out quickly to keep your boat steady.
Understanding proper steering, sail trimming, and turning will ensure you can maneuver your sailboat correctly.
6. Slowing Down and Stopping
Sailing downwind can be exciting since this is where your boat will gain speed. Learning to go fast can be a lot of fun! But whether there is an obstruction ahead, you want to stop to take in the sights or it’s time to dock, you’ll also need to know how to slow your boat down. This will be done through something sailors refer to as “spill wind.”
Remember how we taught you to sail faster by tightening the sheets? To slow down, you’ll do the opposite. Simply let out the sheets until you see movement and even more to slow down further or stop. As the sheets continue to flap, the sailboat will no longer move forward and will begin to slowly coast. If you are sailing downwind, you’ll need to strongly pull in the mainsheet to counteract the wind from keeping the sails full.
Since a sailboat doesn’t have breaks like a car, stopping your sailboat will take a little practice. If you’re already moving towards the wind, simply letting out the sheets will force the sailboat to stop. If you aren’t already facing a headwind, you’ll need to turn the boat so that you are. Don’t practice this too close to the dock, as you might not time it just right. Practice away from the dock first in different conditions so that you know about how many boat lengths it will take to stop your particular sailboat (it usually takes about one to three boat lengths).
Once you’ve practiced this, you’ll be ready to properly stop your sailboat after a wonderful day of sailing!