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How to Sail a Boat - The Basics and Sail Control
by Andre Sanche

Once you have learned how to sail a boat, you will be able to have fabulous vacations by hiring boats and sailing them on the different types of sea and lake both in your own country and abroad. Like bicycle riding, it is something that you never forget, but each class of sailing boat is different, and you should first learn the basics about the wind and sails.

In addition to driving the boat forward, the wind can also drive it sideways, can cause it to turn and also to roll over! The technical term for this is 'heeling over'. It is how these effects are handled using the sails and their position, and the rudder, that makes the difference between sailors. Good sailors can use wind from practically any direction to move the boat in any way they desire.

The normal way to prevent a boat from turning over is to add weight to the bottom, or keel, or to construct a boat with a broad base, so that no part of the boat can turn past its center of gravity. Once this occurs the boat will turn over. Some boats are designed so that the crew can place their weight outside the center of gravity opposite to the direction the wind wants to topple it. This again helps to shift the center of gravity of the boat.

There are two terms that the beginner must learn to understand. First, each sail has its own 'center of effort'. That is the geometric center of the total area of the sail. The other term is the 'center of lateral resistance'. This is the geometric center of the profile of the boat under water. In order for there to be a proper balance in the boat, the center of effort should lead the center of lateral resistance by a certain amount that depends on a number of factors, including the hull shape and the design of the total sail plan.

The CE can be changed by making changes to the amount of forward and after canvasses, and the CLR changed by altering the ballast, or weight in the hull. This is normally done according to the amount of wind and its direction.

Another important factor for the new sailor to keep in mind is that when the rudder is used to turn a boat, the boat is actually rotating on a pivot. This turning point is generally well forward of the center of the boat, and if you delay too long in turning the boat, the stern will come round much farther than you would expect and collide with another boat if you leave it too long.

Knowledge of these aspects of sailing will come with experience, as will the best direction of wind. Although you might think that a wind coming from directly behind you would be best, in fact that is not the case. A boat can be very difficult to handle with this type of wind, and it is better if it is coming across the boat. Again, this comes with experience, and while textbook learning is useful to a certain extent, the only real way to learn how to sail is to get out and learn with an experienced sailor.


The best place to sit is with the wind at your back - this is called upwind - and just in front of the tiller. If the boat tends to heel over with the wind, you can bend back and get your weight farther outboard. Your forward hand, or that nearest the bow, should be used to hold the mainsheet, or rope, and the back hand the tiller. The tiller itself should be used as little as possible, and pushing it away from you turns it into the wind, and towards you turns the boat away from the wind.

You use the mainsheet to keep the sail operating properly. If it starts to flutter, or 'luff', you should pull it in until stops luffing. You should never pull a sail too tight or it will lose driving power. It should be just tight enough to stop luffing. If you are unsure how tight a sail is, let it out until it starts to luff, and then slightly adjust the trim to stop it. You will have to do this each time you change course, or the wind changes direction.

There are directions in which you cannot sail because the boat will be in the wrong direction for the wind. If your boat stops while it is pointing into the wind, then you should push the sale forward and reverse the rudder. Then let the sail out till it catches the wind, after which you can trim it properly and start sailing again. If you are sailing into the wind, you will have to tack the boat in the direction closest to the wind that you can sail, which is about 35 degrees. You will then have to tack to the other side of the wind to make progress in the direction that you want to go.

Doing this with the wind behind you is called jibing, which is done slightly differently since the boat will be moving at almost full power with the wind behind. You have to do this because you will not find it easy to sail with the wind directly behind you. Tacking and jibing are specific skills that you will learn while sailing, and are the subject of another article.

How to Sail a Boat: The Basics and Sail Control was originally published at

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