Sailing 101: Operating a Sailboat

Ahoy sailors, you now know the anatomy of a sailboat and all safety precautions to take before hitting the open ocean. This issue will now teach you how to operate and drive your sailboat. Stay tuned for the next lesson which will explain how to dock your sailboat.

SOUTHERN CALIF.— Sailing is a skill; therefore, it requires practice. I want to clarify that you can’t learn to sail by reading about it, but you can prepare yourself. After this read, you must go out on a sailboat and do it!


Pre-sailing: The first step in sailing is to prepare yourself for the sometimes demanding and harsh elements you will encounter on the water. Take a wide-brim hat, a waterproof jacket, nonskid sneakers, and, of course, a life jacket that fits you securely. Wipe on a gob or two of high-SPF sun lotion and take the tube with you so you can continue to apply; those who suffer from motion sickness should consider taking medication, preferably one that you’ve tested for side effects. Before heading out, write up a float plan including your itinerary and important contacts and share it with your friends, family or your sailing club.


Learning to sail is easiest on a boat less than 25 feet long. It takes longer to feel the effects of adjustments made to your course or sails on larger boats. Everything you learn will translate to sailing a larger vessel, but when you pull in a line or move the helm on a small boat, you will immediately see and feel what happens as a result. That makes it easier to understand what’s happening and why.


The most unsettling moment of a new sailor’s first day on the water often comes when you climb on board and feel the boat move under you. There’s plenty of reserve buoyancy, but if the boat’s small and skittish, you should step into the center of the cockpit. A bigger boat can be boarded via the side deck, but even it may sway and settle a little. Take advantage of any handhold you can grab.


Once everyone is on board, the skipper must assert command. Assignments are made, gear is stowed, the bilge is pumped, an inspection is conducted to see that all is in order, sails are prepped to hoist, and plans are made to get underway. If the boat has a motor, it can get you away from the mooring or dock into open water before setting sail.


For now, let’s concentrate on getting underway on an engineless boat. Start by setting the mainsail, the big sail. The line to the boom (called the mainsheet) must be well eased so the sail, once prepped, spills wind (luffs) and doesn’t fill prematurely. The boom will flop around, so keep your head low and consider controlling it with a line called a preventer.


When the skipper says to cast off, up goes the jib, the smaller sail on the bow, also with a loose sheet. Casting off under sail can be complicated because the boat isn’t moving, so the rudder has little effect. That’s why the boat must be steered with the sails until there’s enough speed (or “steerageway”) for rudder steering.


When learning to sail, start with the boat hanging off the mooring or pier; the sails will luff because the wind is blowing. If you’re looking at the bow, you’ll feel the wind on both ears. That angle is sometimes called the “wind’s eye.”


Next, trim the jib by using the winch to bring the sail in, not let it out, to the side opposite the one where you want to sail. If you’re going to head off to the port side, you “back the jib” or trim it to the “wrong” side. Next, cast off the mooring as the backed jib pulls the bow off. Once the wind is on that side, trim the jib to the proper side while trimming the mainsail as the boat accelerates. In this way, the sails help steer the boat.


An entertaining and educational exercise is to sail the boat toward a buoy or other target on a reach, with the wind coming from the boat’s side (or beam) and do a series of slow weaves as the sheets are eased and trimmed. Everything goes well when the skipper at the helm and the sail trimmers are in sync. If you get nervous, slow down by reducing the sails until they are half-filled with the wind.


It is helpful to practice changing tacks (a nautical term both for the lower, windward corner of the sail and, separately, for the side of a sailing craft from which the wind is coming while underway- the starboard or port tack). You’re on the starboard tack if you start with the wind coming over the starboard side. If the wind is on the port side, you’re on the port tack. One of two ways to change tacks is called “coming about” or “tacking.” The helmsman starts the process by saying, “Ready about,” and after the crew answers that they’re ready, “Hard alee.” Then, with a powerful and fluid shove of the tiller or turn of the steering wheel, the bow passes through the eye of the wind and comes off onto the new tack.


The second way to change tacks is to jibe, pulling the tiller or wheel in the other direction, easing the sheets out, and swinging the stern through the wind’s eye until the boom swings across. The steerer’s commands are “stand by to jibe” and, after the crew acknowledges, “jibe-ho.” The boom will come across abruptly and rapidly, so all crewmembers must be careful to tuck their heads as they trim the mainsail and jib to the new sides.


Since steering is the topic of discussion currently, this is the appropriate time to encourage you to steer from the windward side of the tiller or wheel. The windward side (closer to the wind direction) is higher than the leeward side (farther from the wind) when the boat is heeling, so you will have greater visibility to see “puffs” of wind (the dark shadows moving across the water from the ripples caused by the wind) as they approach. Don’t assume that darker water has more wind. An area may be darker due to clouds or the angle to the sun, but not contain any texture. Sparkles on the water can be useful if they show a pattern that differentiates between coarse and smooth water.



One sailing phenomenon is as the boat speeds up or slows down, the wind seems to change direction and force. That’s because there are two types of wind. One “true wind” is the breeze you feel when standing still. The actual wind’s velocity and direction are the same for all nearly stationary objects. But if one of those objects moves (like a boat does), its motion affects the true wind to create “apparent wind,” which people feel on the moving object.


Sails are trimmed to the apparent wind. Trimmed sails is a metaphor that alludes to adjusting a ship’s sails to take full advantage of prevailing winds. You can gauge the apparent-wind direction and force by feeling it on your skin, reading it on an electronic instrument, or seeing it on a tell-tale, which is a short length of yarn tied to one of the boat’s side stays (shrouds) that support the mast. However, while those devices hint at the wind direction, none of them tell you if your sails are trimmed correctly for that direction.


Sails are airfoils with a deep curve that redirects the apparent wind to produce a force that pulls the boat forward (similar to a wing lifting an airplane off the runway). Side force is absorbed and redirected to forward force by the airfoil-shaped fins under the boat, the centerboard, and the keel. As airfoils, sails should be trimmed to correspond with the wind, and the boat should sail at the most effective angle to that wind’s direction.


Some tell-tales are placed on the jib, near its leading edge (the luff), on both sides of the sail. For optimal sailing, three pairs of jib tell-tales should be at equal intervals up, and down the sail’s luff; however, having one pair about halfway up the sail should suffice. Other tell-tales are secured, one at a time, on the trailing edge of the mainsail (the leech), or at least at or near the second batten from the top. The jib tell-tales on both sides of the sail should stream aft most of the time, with the windward ones lifting slightly from time to time. The mainsail leech tell-tale should stream aft about half the time. If your tell-tales behave differ­ently, try steering closer to or farther off the wind, and experiment with sail trim. An inch or two of sail trim or ease can get them flowing again and make the boat sail faster.


While you’re still learning, going slow can seem less scary. However, keep in mind that a boat only gains steerageway—the ability to adjust its course—when it has some speed through the water. Slowing down too much can be problematic. Once a boat is completely stopped, it will drift downwind as uncontrollably and unpredictably as a balloon deflating. You will only regain control of your course by trimming in the sails and gaining forward speed.


Now that you have the basics down, it’s essential to try out your new skills in a controlled environment. Pick a day with minimal wind and stay in a protected bay or harbor for your first outing. It is also recommended to take sailing lessons with an expert because hands-on learning is a great way to understand how all the moving parts fit together.








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