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Learn How to Sail a Small Sailboat – 3. Basic Sailing Techniques

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The Points of Sail
Points of Sail

© Tom Lochhaas

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 this illustration to learn the terms for the primary points of sail (the position of the boat relative to wind direction).

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:

  • 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 over 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.

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 (see Part 1 of this lesson) and keep an eye on which way they are blowing.

Finally, 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 make 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 - and so 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.

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