What is Tacking and How Do You Do It?

When you start sailing, there are a ton of topics to learn. When it comes to sailing, learning never really ends. But so many will skip over some topics because it’s too complicated and there is too much to learn. 


What is tacking? Tacking means moving the bow of the boat through the wind. Right or left does not matter. That is the most undiluted definition of tacking. While it may sound simple, the definition is about the only simple thing regarding tacking.


Moving one’s bow across the wind becomes much more complicated when you learn the commands for proper tacking and then the physics of the maneuver. And it is in these details that most new sailors genuinely mess it up.


Picture a chalkboard with an arrow pointing downward from the top of the board. The arrow represents the “wind.” Next, draw a circle beginning at that arrow and go all the way, 360 degrees, either direction, around and back to the top. That is the sailing clock. And roughly from midnight (where the wind is) to about ten and two on either side is upwind sailing, and you can’t sail in those directions. That is called “the luffing arc,” and boats can’t sail in that direction by the rules of physics.


If you want to go that direction (i.e., directly upwind towards midnight on the sailing clock), you have to zig-zag your way as close to the wind as possible, which is the tacking maneuver. Going from 45 degrees off the wind on one side (i.e., 2 o’clock), turning your boat through midnight on the clock, and going 45 degrees to the other side beyond 10 o’clock.


Visualizing this is half the work of tacking your boat, so let’s add the commands.


How To Tack a Sailboat:


Let’s say you’re sailing your boat with your sails hauled in or “close hauled” on a starboard tack (right side facing the bow). That is another definition for the word tack. This a way to describe the state of your sails, but don’t focus on that right now because this article is about the action of tacking.


You want to turn your boat 90 degrees and start sailing on the other side of the sailing clock; let’s say you are at 3 o’clock and want to go to the 9 o’clock position. To accomplish that, your boat must have enough inactivity to sail directly up into the wind while maintaining forward progress and turning through to the other side. In addition, to have enough inertia to complete a tack, your boat must have enough speed at the start of the maneuver. With practice and experience, you will begin to recognize how much speed you need to complete a tack of your boat.


Next, there are some commands you need to know. Again, communication on the boat is crucial. You will not turn your boat willy-nilly when you have a 40′ tartan with a genoa jib the size of your backyard to hurl across the deck. This requires cooperation from the crew, and commands will keep everyone working in unison.


The first command comes from the helm. They shout, “ready about.” That means everyone prepares the boat to turn 90 degrees through the wind. The pit crew has the most work to do as they must load up the lazy jib sheet and prepare to release the working jib sheet. The foredeck should be cleared of open hatches, errant fenders, or anything else you might have garnishing your foredeck that might catch a flying jib sheet.


Additionally, down in the cabin, if there is any strong wind blowing, everything that is not stowed correctly will come down on the crewmembers. So let them know your plans too. Then, when everybody is ready, they inform the helm by smartly barking “ready.”


Next, the helm declares that they are beginning to tack by saying, “Hard-A-Lee.” There are a couple of variations on this command; if you want to say something else, it’s your boat. Just make sure everyone onboard understands what you are commanding. The helm then takes the tiller and swings it to the leeward side or away from the wind. This will begin to turn your boat towards the wind.


Tiller Towards the Sail When Tacking


To remember how to turn the helm, remember the phrase “tiller towards the sail when tacking.” You won’t have any confusion about what happens next because it’s theatrical.


As the bow of the boat swings toward the wind, the sails will come to life, fluttering (also called luffing). If your pit crew is in tune, the second the jib collapses into a fit, they will be ready to release the jib on one side and pull it in on the other. The helm will turn the boat 90 degrees, and once the desired course is achieved, they will center the rudder and allow everyone to catch up. When you are happy with the boat’s direction, celebrate by telling the pit crew to “trim to course.” If everything works, you will have completed your first tack. 

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