Learn How to Sail a Boat: Sailing Tips

Would you like to learn how to sail a boat and are ready for sailing basics, or want race sailing tips?

You’ve come to the right place – I’m regularly adding new expert advice to show you how to sail better.

How a sailboat (yacht) can sail into the wind

A sailboat can’t sail directly into the wind, but can sail approximately 45° away from the direction of the wind. As the wind comes at an angle across the front (bow) of the boat, when it hits the sail, it presses on the front and part of the sail. This mostly wants to push the boat sideways, but thanks to the daggerboard, that’s not going to happen. So the wind pressing on the front the part of the sail can only push the sailboat forward. In addition to the wind pressing directly onto the sail as it moves across it, lots of wind also makes its way around the other side of the sail (the leeward side). As you can imagine this wind isn’t really pressing against the sail, infact its doing exactly the opposite – it’s got less pressure on it, so it actually pulls the sail. Again – it’s mostly trying to pull the boat sideways, but the daggerboard stops that, so the only way it can pull the boat is forwards. So, there you have it, wind hits the sail directly – pushing it and also goes around the other side, creating low pressure and pulling the sail.

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A race winning tip

This is one I’ve never even seen in a sailing book and I certainly never told anyone about it when I was still racing. If your boat has a daggerboard, it creates a large amount of drag in the water, but of course you need it there to stop your boat being blown sideways – however, even when sailing upwind (as close to heading straight into the wind as you can possibly go), in strong winds you can raise the daggerboard up around 10% of its length and not lose any ground sideways, but your boat will go faster, because the daggerboard is creating less drag in the water. I used this speed advantage to help make me the fastest sailor upwind in heavy weather when I was racing. Experiment with raising your daggerboard by different amounts until you find the best position for you and your boat. Good luck!

Make notes!

It’s not much fun starting a race realizing that you have the wrong sail/rig settings for the conditions of the day. I minimize this happening by recording the optimum set-up for various different wind strengths. So, before I rig up I’ll check the wind strength on my digital anemometer (wind speed indicator) and bear in mind the weather forecast for the day, then set up my sailboat according to my notes. This is most important for things on sailing dinghies that you can’t change when out on the water – like choice of sail, mast, side stay settings etc. If you have a smartphone, then I’d recommend using the Evernote app for to record the information (I find that the free version gives me everything I need). You can easily combine photos with your notes. For example take a photo of your mast stay settings that worked particularly well in a certain wind strength. Or you could simply use a pen and notebook! I find that by constantly adding to and refining my rigging notes, I can rig up quickly and am always building on previous experiences to make my boat sail as fast as possible. Other things that I make notes on are: local tide time variations and other unique features of locations where I sail, such as areas where the wind strength tends to be higher/lower.

The main types of sailboat to consider

We can divide sailboats into three basic types:

1. Sailing dinghies and small multihulls

2. Pocket cruisers (pocket yachts, trailer sailers)

3. Sailboats suitable for extended offshore cruising, racing, or both.

If you are new to sailing, you would be advised to look at category one at least until you have mastered the basics of sailing. If you are a family who want to go away for weekends and vacations and maybe enjoy a bit of club racing too, then look at category two. Only if you are experienced, take your sailing very seriously and have an understanding bank manager, then look at category three.

Sailing dinghies and small multihulls

If the sailboat is for a youngster—say up to about 14 or 15 years old—you will want a small dinghy that is safe, simple, rugged and easily handled on and off the beach and its trailer.  You would not go far wrong with an Optimist. They are just over 7ft long with a single sail, the minimum of controls, and ample buoyancy. An important advantage is that they are sailed in great numbers throughout the world and your child will find no shortage of advice and helpful ideas wherever he or she sails. The Optimist is particularly easy to sail, stable and forgiving.

For older teenagers and adults, have a look at the Laser, Laser Radial and Sunfish (all of these boats are raced by one person, but can comfortably fit two people on board).

If more than one member of the family would like to sail together, there are many modern fiberglass two-person boats such as the 420 or RS Quest. Once the basics have been mastered and you are ready for some serious racing, the choice is broader still: the RS Feva, 29er, 49er and 470 are all good racing craft. The Laser, Laser Radial, 49er and 470 are also Olympic classes. Generally multihulls (catamarans and trimarans) are not a good choice for a first boat as they tend to be more difficult to control and are more difficult to right if they capsize, but offer huge excitement once you are a fairly competent sailor. Popular performance multihulls include: Hobie 16, Narca 15 and 17 catamarans. However, in recent years there’s been a lot of innovation to develop beginner-friendly multihulls (good examples are Hobie Wave catamaran and even trimarans including Weta and Hobie Island and Hobie Bravo).  Just stick to light wind days at first and do some practice capsizes before you take yours out in a strong breeze!

All the popular classes of small boat have owners’ associations who can advise on buying, availability of parts, competition and social activities, etc., and some have group-buying programs to help keep down the cost of repairs and maintenance.

Pocket cruisers (pocket yachts, trailer sailers)

Let’s look now at category two — the smaller (under 30 feet), family-type keelboat which offers some protection from the weather, a degree of personal comfort comprising beds and the larger ones usually have a small galley (kitchen) area, and which allow for racing and/or reasonably extended cruising in harbors or other protected waters. They can usually be rigged by one person and move well under outboard power. Examples include the Montgomery 15, Montgomery 17 and West Wight Potter 15.

Pocket cruisers were created to meet the demand for a small, trailerable cruising yacht for families, but that is also fast enough to race without needing too much skill and experience. Many of these sailboats have a daggerboard, just like a sailing dinghy, with a small lead keel (to help keep the boat upright) protruding from the bottom of the boat around the daggerboard case, or on the end of the daggerboard (as it is on the end of the keel on a regular keelboat).

One of these sailboats could be a great choice for you if your funds are a bit limited, but you want room for your family, portability (and freedom from the cost of maintaining a mooring).

Many yacht clubs (sailing clubs) have a pocket yacht section which offers a way of looking over various types, talking to their owners and determining which is best for you in terms of (a) cost, (b) requirement, i.e. sleeping capacity, galley facilities, etc., and (c) experience needed for optimum performance and safety. If you are considering a pocket yacht, however, remember to check first that the type you are interested in is not too big and/or too heavy for your car to pull safety — and that it will fit your driveway, garage or wherever you plan to keep it. Silly as it sounds, there are people who have bought a shiny new pocket yacht only to find themselves faced with having to buy a more powerful car, or that they can’t get it through the gateway and it has to sit out on the road. Pocket cruisers offer tremendous mobility for the family sailor. You can cruise in relative comfort and sleep in decent-sized berth at night. Best of all, you don’t need a mooring or a marina (with all the worries every time a storm brews) and you can still join in the weekend and mid-week racing. And the drawbacks? Well, most pocket cruisers are essentially sheltered-water craft and the weather plays an important part in when and where you can sail them in safety. They are not for the beginner with no experience of handling a sailing dinghy.

Keelboats and large multi-hulls

The decision as to what type of keelboat suits you will always come back to what you can afford and whether you want to buy new, secondhand or a kitset you can finish off yourself as and when time and finances permit. However, in agonizing over your finances (invariably slightly less than your ambitions), don’t overlook the important consideration of the type of sailing you are interested in. A sailboat designed for harbor racing may be totally unsuitable for an offshore cruise. If you prefer sailing on your own, you will need an easily handled boat with a fairly simple rig. At the other end of the scale, the 68-footer with, twin wheels and a sail wardrobe that includes five spinnakers of varying weights, but it is probably a bit more than you need to take the family out for the weekend. In these highly commercial days when technology is playing a major role in the development of sailboats and sailing equipment, it is easy to be over-sold and to finish up like a man with a wife and four children who buys a Lamborghini and then can’t understand his mate’s lack of enthusiasm.

There are a lot of good all-round keelboats in the 25-40ft size range on the market, mostly fiberglass with comfortable accommodation below for five or six people, a decent galley, closed-off head (bathroom), safe cockpit, simple sloop rig (nowadays with all the sail controls leading back to the cockpit so that no one has to go on to foredeck during rough weather) and offering exciting racing performance along with all these cruising comforts. As with sailing dinghies, most of these designs have active owners’ associations eager for new members, willing to help with trial sails, advice, introductions, newsletters, etc., and organizing a wide range of racing, cruising and social events throughout the year.

Keep it simple

Finally, whatever your choice, dinghy, pocket cruiser or keelboat, do read as many sailing books as you can get hold of. Go for the ones that put everything in simple terms and don’t bother with the highly technical works, because by the time you have learnt aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, match-racing tactics, design theory and construction techniques, you won’t know where you are and you’ll end up blinding yourself with science. Once you understand the basics of sailing you can go on to read about and appreciate the more technical aspects, but few of these are necessary to enjoy the sport to its fullest. If you are new to sailing, join a club. Ask as many questions as possible about things you don’t understand; try to go sailing on as many different sailboats as you can. If you intend only cruising, join a club that specializes in cruising. Take part in their cruising races, which are not high-pressure, gear-busting events but particularly good for family crews to get to know their boat — and each other. The occasional race will certainly help you enjoy your cruising more; there is no reason for a cruising boat to be sailed inefficiently when a little friendly competition will force you to get the best out of it.

List of sailboat types and sailing classes including keelboats, dinghies and multihull (catamarans and trimarans).