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How To Sail A Boat: Learning The Ropes

How To Sail A Boat

I learned to sail when I was 11, without any real interest in the sport or having had any previous experience on sailboats. It took a week for me, and a group of other kids from my neighborhood, to learn the theory, understand the vocabulary and pass a practical skills test in a little sailing dinghy out on the water. I left with a nationally accredited sailing certificate, a whole bunch of new skills and confidence I didn’t know I had. It was close to decade before I stepped on a sailboat again, but what I learned in that week of sailing would shape my decisions and color my choices for the rest of my life.

Where To Start

Learning to sail is child’s play. Literally. Kids as young as 5 and 6 are taught the basics, put in a dinghy and sent to sail off into the horizon. I have witnessed the phenomenon myself many times, in countries all over the world.

As teenagers and adults, we tend to feel like we are beyond the basics. This is especially true if we have experience in an adjacent field. If a child starts at “X” then surely with all our worldly experience, we can start at “Y”? Wrong.

Enroll In A Sailing Course

Like any new skill it is important to have a solid grasp of the underlying theory and to understand all the new vocabulary so that you can communicate effectively. I am not proposing that you sit down in a class full of kids. However, I do think that enrolling in a sailing course is a great place to start. Like learning to drive a car by signing up for lessons with a professional driving school, taking a Sailing 101 course from an approved and certified instructor will set you off in the right direction. Regardless of your age.

Another advantage of taking a basic sailing course is it will lay the foundation for further study. From here you can progress into advanced sailing, navigation, radar and passage making courses, even multihull sailing and coastal cruising courses. Even if you are not a boat owner, acquiring the proper skills and knowledge is advantageous. These days, most boat rental and charter companies require that clients show an accredited certificate before they are approved to leave the dock.

The American Sailing Association is the governing body for boating certification in the United States but like a driver’s licence these qualifications are not necessarily recognised by other countries. If you are interested in gaining globally recognized certifications look for courses that are endorsed by the MCA or Maritime and Coastguard Agency. This is a British organization, but they set the global standard for professional seafarer.

Speak The Language: Learn Your Sailing Terms

One of the first, and most important things you will learn in a basic sailing course is sailing terminology. Like rock climbing, motorbike racing or snowboarding, sailing has its own vocabulary. Many of the words and phrases used on a boat sound strange in the beginning, and it may take a while before the language becomes comfortable enough to be used automatically. However, learning this vocabulary will not only make you sound like a pro, it will allow you communicate clearly and efficiently to dock marina staff, other vessels and your crew. This is especially important when maneuvering in tight quarters or during an emergency.

The following list covers the most commonly used words used on a sailboat but is not meant to replace what should be taught in a basic sailing class.

Basic Sailing Terms, Parts & Vocabulary

Learning basic sailing terms and vocabulary, including the different parts of a sailboat – and the various names for the things they can do – is a very important part of learning to sail. Sailors need to communicate with each other quickly on the water to avoid hazards and react to changing conditions such as waves, wakes, wind gusts and shifts and other boaters on the water. Below are the names and words for some of the most basic key features onboard a sailing vessel as well as some common terms used to describe wind direction, sails and crew roles.

BOW: the front of the boat.

STERN: the back of the boat.

PORT: the left side of the boat when facing the bow. Port is indicated by a red light.

STARBOARD: the right side of the boat when facing the bow. Starboard is indicated by a green light.

Port and starboard can also be used to indicate a direction, as you would use left and right when ashore. i.e.: I turned to starboard to avoid a collision.

MAST: the tall vertical structure that supports the mainsail and the headsail.

BOOM: the large horizontal arm attached to the mast, perhaps named after the sound it makes when you forget to duck, and it hits you in the head.

RUDDER: the large, flat blade under the water that is used to steer the boat.

HELM: the apparatus in the cockpit that is attached to the rudder and is moved to steer the boat. Some vessels have a wheel at the helm, others a tiller which is a long lever.

HELMSMAN: the person responsible for steering the boat.

TACK: when sailing into the wind, to move the sails from one side of the vessel to the other by moving the bow through the eye of the wind.

GYBE: (jibe) when sailing with the wind, to move the sails from one side of the boat to the other by moving the stern through the eye of the wind.

WINDWARD: the direction that the wind is blowing from, also upwind.

LEEWARD: the direction that the wind is blowing toward, also downwind.

LINE: a rope on a boat.

SHEET: a line used to pull a sail horizontally. i.e.: I took the slack out of the headsail by pulling on the sheet.

HALYARD: a line used to hoist a sail, or an object, vertically. i.e.: You raise the mainsail by pulling on the halyard.

MAINSAIL: the primary sail on a boat that is attached to the mast and the boom.

HEADSAIL: the sail that runs between the top of the mast and the bow of the boat. Often this sail is furled, or wrapped, around the forward stay, or wire.

RIGGING: the entire system of sails, masts, booms, yards, stays, and lines of a sailing vessel.

CORDAGE: The onboard set of laid or braided lines used for sailing, maneuvering, anchoring, launching and docking the vessel.

Points Of Sail

Naturally, wind is vital to the operation of a sail boat. Therefore, the next step is to learn how the direction of the wind impacts the direction that a sailboat can and cannot sail. Sailors orient the angle of their boat and the trim of the sails relative to the direction of the wind, according to what is known as the five main “Points of Sail”. Proper use of the Points of Sail enables sailors to travel from one location to another in the most efficient manner.

Below are the five main points of sail:

  1. In Irons (Into the wind)
  2. Close-hauled (Beating)
  3. Beam Reach
  4. Broad Reach
  5. Running (Downwind or Dead Run)

Sail Trim

The way in which the sails are used and shaped by letting out (easing) or pulling in (trimming or hauling) is known as sail trim. Generally, when you’re sailing upwind (in irons or close-hauled) you’ll want the sails to be tighter and flatter, but when sailing downwind, you’ll want them to be more curved and full to catch as much wind as possible. Sailing well is all about sail trim. Every time you change direction you’ll need to trim your sails according to geometry and physics.

How To Tie Knots

Saying that knots are important on a boat is an understatement. Used for connecting sheets to sails, tying the dinghy to the mothership and securing a line that is under load. On the dock, the safety of your vessel often depends on the knots you use to secure fenders and dock lines. When used as part of your safety harness/tether set up when sailing in rough conditions or when climbing the mast, your life depends on the knot you tie. Knowing how to properly tie and untie various knots is an essential skill. One exercised daily on a sailboat.

It is important to note that the type of knot you use is dependent on both the application and the type of line you are using. Some knots perform well under pressure, others are used exclusively in non-load bearing situations. Additionally you’ll need to know what your piece of line is made from, as modern materials like plasma rope, dyneema (a high-strength, composite, synthetic fiber) or spectra (made out of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene, or UHMWPE fibers) are extremely slippery and do not hold as well when tied in many of the more traditional knots. Therefore, choosing the correct knot is essential.

List Of Basic Sailing Knots

BOWLINE: One of the most frequently used, and important, knots on a sailboat. Used to fix a rope to an object or to create a fixed loop at the end of a line. This knot is easy to tie and untie but does not slip, jam or come loose, even under extreme strain.

REEF KNOT: Sometimes called a square this is a well-loved knot for tying two pieces or ends of line together. If you ever tied a Scout or Girl Guide neckerchief then you have tied a reef knot.

FIGURE EIGHT: Also called a Stopper Knot, it is commonly tied at the end of a line to prevent it from slipping though a block and escaping.

HALF HITCH: A simple knot, used when tying something temporarily but not intended to support a lot of strain. It is also used to make other knots stronger. A series of half hitches is often used to secure a dock line on a dinghy.

CLOVE HITCH: A secure knot used to lash a line to an object such as a rail, ring or post. This is an overlapping knot that is secure and can withstand some parallel force without slipping.

FISHERMAN’S KNOT: A handy knot also known as the Englishman’s, angler’s or lovers knot. Used to secure the ends of two pieces of similar line together, it is simply two overhand knots that jam together.

The list of knots and how to use them is extensive. Keeping a good reference book onboard is always a good idea. I like the Morrow Guide to Knots, by Mario Bignon and Guido Regazzoni as it has easy to follow illustrations and conscious descriptions.

Rules Of The Road For Sailing And Boating

There are no lines to stay between when you are out on the water, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t rules to follow. The International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea 1976, or COLREGS as they are often referred to as, are internationally recognized and followed by vessels large and small, power and sail.

When first starting out the length and language of the COLREGS document can be more than a little overwhelming. Thankfully when learning to sail there are only a few that are essential, the rest can be memorized as your skill set improves and you venture farther from your home port.
Most of the right of way rules that apply to a sailboat are dependent on the direction of the wind and the direction that the vessel is traveling in relation to the wind.

For instance, when two boats are sailing side by side in the same direction the vessel that is upwind must give way because they have more maneuverability. When two boats under sail are traveling in opposite directions the right of way is determined by which side of the boat the sails are set. When it comes to power boats and sailboats interacting, the general rule of thumb is that sailboats have the right of way since it is assumed that a vessel under power has more maneuverability. Of course, there are exceptions.

The main purpose of these rules and regulations is to AVOID vessel collisions. Since everyone is following the same book you would assume that would be easy to do, but that is not always the case, especially when it comes to a situation between a big ship and a small vessel. It is important to follow the rules, but it is also important to know the old saying “Might has right.” Don’t put yourself in danger by playing chicken with a large ship, even if that means bending the rules.

Remember You Are Learning

Many people assume that since their dream boat is a 45-50-foot cruiser that they should learn to sail on a vessel that is in the same size range. However, there is a lot of value learning to sail on a small boat. In this case bigger doesn’t always mean better.

It is widely known that a small boat is more challenging to sailing than a large vessel because effects of the wind and the sea are felt more acutely, and therefore more skill is required being overpowered by them. Just look at the size of the sailboats used to compete in the Olympics and the skill level that those sailors need to control them. Confidently being able to sail a simple, small boat will set you up nicely for handling a larger, more complicated vessel.

Like many skills, learning to sail is a hands-on activity. One that requires practice and patience. So, don’t be discouraged when you hit your head on the boom, get a sheet tangled on a winch or end up in the drink. We’ve all been there. What is important is to have fun and sail safe.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you teach yourself to sail?

It is definitely possible to teach yourself how to sail, but it is probably easier to take a course as they are readily available and will help you understand the basics. It is not advisable to start sailing on a large vessel or jump right into trying to learn everything all at once.

Is it hard to learn to sail?

As with most things, it depends. Smaller sailing vessels are relatively easy to sail, such as Fishercats, Marshallcats, Beatlecats, Sailfish, Sunfish, Laser and Barracudas. But larger sailing vessels with multiple sails and more complicated pulley systems are more difficult and may require larger crews to sail properly. Factors include the size of the vessel, weather conditions, equipment and sailboat design, among others. In short, it is easy enough to learn the basics, but true mastery may take years.

What is the best way to sail for beginners?

It’s important for beginners to choose the right sailboat when learning how to sail – one that is easy to handle and maneuver. Understand the basic concepts of sailing before setting out is key, and then work your way up. Beginners should always go out on the water with an experienced sailor until they feel comfortable with all aspects of sailing. Likewise, beginners should avoid excessively windy days and as always, any inclement weather. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, always be aware of the boom!

How long does it take to learn to sail?

It can take many years to master sailing. It is often said it takes 10,000 hours to truly master a skill such as sailing. However, after only a few days on the water, many new sailors will feel comfortable enough to sail a small sailboat safely. Typical sailing certification courses can be around 10 days.

How dangerous is sailing?

As with any outdoor athletic activity such as skiing or snowboarding, sailing comes with inherent risks. Wind can shift suddenly and move sails unexpectedly which can swing the boom abruptly to hit, injure and even knock off passengers and crew off of the boat. Fingers and hands can easily get caught in pulleys and moving ropes and lines if those onboard are not careful. Ultimately, sailing is a sport that requires attention, skill and patience and should be treated with respect and care.

Written by Heather Francis

Written by: Heather Francis

Heather Francis is from Nova Scotia, Canada. She has worked and lived on boats throughout the world since 2002. In 2008 she and her Aussie partner, Steve, bought Kate, their Newport 41, in California and have been sailing her fulltime since. They are currently in the Philippines looking for wind and you can follow their adventures at