The Fundamentals of Sailing

REST & RECREATION -- When James Bond was ready to quit and float around the world with Vesper Lynd, from Montenegro to Venice, he turned to the fundamentals of Sailing.

Imagine yourself out on the open ocean. Land is out of sight, and with it the lights and sounds of civilization. Even the smell of the shore, which people on land often confuse with the smell of the sea, is gone. The night is clear, the air is warm, the breeze is steady, and it's difficult to pick out constellations because there are too many visible stars in the sky. With the sails trimmed properly, the boat sails itself, cutting smartly through the water and you're left to read a book, stare skyward, or watch the trail of phosphorescence the boat leaves in it's wake.

Sailing is a truly indescribable experience. Moving through the water using nothing but the power of the wind is exhilarating and liberating. Unlike driving a car where the motor is chugging away and the driver simply puts their faith in the engine and mechanics of the vehicle, sailing is completely transparent; the same wind you feel in your hair is pushing the sails, which you are in complete control over. It's a hands-on experience and leaves you feeling a sense of accomplishment for every inch you travel.

While the ultimate goal of many sailors is to take off to exotic ports, you can still experience the freedom the sport has to offer by cruising around in lakes and harbors, participating in races, and crewing on friends' boats. A lot of people seem to be intimidated by sailing, but there's really nothing difficult or complicated about it. After all, we're talking about a technique that's been around for thousands of years. Thousands of years ago, the ancient polynesians discovered and inhabited remote islands thousands of miles from any other land in small handmade crafts. With modern advancements, sailing has become easier, safer, and nearly foolproof. Enrolling in a short course or learning from others will get you on the water in no time, so leave your doubts on shore, cast off the docklines, and dive into the ancient art of sailing.

Overview: What is Sailing?

At its core, sailing is simply the act of harnessing the power of the wind to propel a ship through the water. It is truly a unique form of transportation; navigating the boundary between two mediums, the sea and the air.

The many forms of sailing can be as diverse as the boats and people who sail them. At one extreme, boatbuilders design ultralight ships made of state-of-the art materials which are capable of flying across the water at up to 75 miles per hour using nothing but the power of the wind. At the other extreme, boats are made extremely heavy and tough to ride out gale-force winds in the most dangerous seas on the planet in comfort.

Somewhere in the middle lies the average sailor who gets around in a fast but sturdy boat, keeps it safely tied up in a marina, and goes out on the water either for a casual race, or a daysail with friends. This is the type of sailing this guide will focus on.

There are several different fundamental types of sailboats, most notably, the monohull and the catamaran. A monohull sailboat is what you probably think of when you imagine sailing and as it's name implies, it only has one hull. A catamaran on the other hand is made with two hulls connected by a flat platform. Each has it's advantages and disadvantages in certain situations. When a monohull is sailing properly, it leans from the power of the wind, sometimes up to 45 degrees, which can become uncomfortable compared to the steady catamaran which experiences little or no leaning at all. Additionally, because catamarans are much harder to lean, they can be made lighter as opposed to a monohull, which needs to carry extra ballast, or weight, in the bottom of the boat to keep it steady. This added weight makes monohulls ride much deeper in the water compared to catamarans, which can sail much faster due to the reduction in weight.

On the other hand, monohulls are generally safer than catamarans. Because monohulls are designed to lean with the wind, they can be pushed upside-down and still right themselves naturally. Catamarans however, if flipped upside-down by an unanticipated strong gust of wind, are nearly impossible to get upright again.

No matter the type of sailboat the fundamentals of sailing are the same, and are surprisingly simple to learn. While it could take years of experience and lessons to become a competitive racer, it only takes one day out on the water for most people to learn the essentials of sailing and learn to maneuver the boat themselves.


For the most part, being prepared to sail is a simple matter of showing up at the right time to crew on a boat or take a course. With a little forethought though, you can guarantee that your first sailing experience will be an enjoyable one.

A common phrase among sailors is, “Bring one more sweater than you think you need”. If you don't think you need something warm to wear, bring it anyway. If you know it's going to be a bit chilly, then bring something extra to layer up or lend to someone not as prepared as you. Especially when sailing on the coast, the wind can quickly change from a warm offshore breeze in the morning to a chilly seabreeze in the afternoon, so don't just pack for the current conditions. Compound that with the fact that you may get wet along the way, and it's doubly important to bring an extra layer of clothes.

The type of clothes you should bring will depend on the type of sailing you'll be doing. If you're going out on a calm day in a large boat, your chances of getting wet are pretty slim, but if you'll be sailing a small boat in rough conditions, there's a pretty good chance you'll be getting wet, so pack accordingly.

A good waterproof jacket is a must when conditions get bad, so bring the best you've got. A decent ski jacket will do the trick in a pinch. If you've got them, waterproof pants or bibs can also make a huge difference. As for footwear, barefoot is the way to go in warm weather, but if it's too cold out for that, you could either spring for a pair of sailing shoes, or just bring a pair of tennis shoes if you don't mind them getting wet.

And of course, always make sure there are enough life jackets on board before taking off. If you learn to love sailing, you'll want to invest in an automatically inflating lifejacket. These Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs) fold up in a thin roll you wear around your shoulders. If you fall overboard, there is a CO2 canister, which deploys automatically and inflates the vest. They are much more comfortable to wear than a full rigid PFD and easier to carry along as well.

Also be sure to have a decent meal in your stomach. Many first time sailors confuse the feeling of hunger in a bobbing boat for seasickness. To top it off, sailing burns a lot of energy. Even if you're not hauling in lines, the motion of the boat forces you to keep a rigid core, so your abs get a pretty decent workout even when you're sitting still.

The Parts of the Boat

Starting out on deck, you'll find yourself in the cockpit. The cockpit is where you'll be spending most of your time while under sail, since this is where all the steering and ropes for controlling the sails are located. There are seats, a tiller or wheel for steering, and perhaps some instruments for displaying things like boat speed, GPS position, wind speed, and water temperature. Looking up from the cockpit, you'll see the mast extending skyward. The mast is responsible for carrying the load of the sails, and is held to the boat by wire cables. Because these cables are stationary, they are referred to as the standing rigging, while the halyards and sheets (used to hoist and trim the sails respectively) are known as the running rigging. Spirit of 54Now we'll take a moment to understand directions on a sailboat. Looking forward, you'll find the bow, or front of the boat, while looking behind (aft) is the stern of the boat. To your left (when looking forward) is the port side, while the right side of the boat is known as the starboard side. These terms may seem confusing, but are actually very useful. It's really quite easy to get confused when talking about left and right, since both these directions are relative to the speaker. Port and starboard on the other hand remain the same no matter which way you're facing.

Moving below, you'll enter through a hatch known as the companionway and find yourself in the cabin. Inside, you'll find a bunch of familiar names have been replaced with fancy boat names. Instead of a kitchen, is the galley. The toilet is known as the head, and a bed is a berth. Don't worry too much about all these new words though, everybody will still know what you're talking about if you use everyday names.

In just about every corner of the boat, you'll find a whole pile of oddly named parts. Knees, chainplates, swedges, clamcleats, and stanchions just to name a few. Throw all these names out the window and suddenly sailing gets a lot less intimidating. The best practice when you're learning to sail is simply not to worry about these things; in time you'll learn them as they become necessary.

Under the water two of the most important parts of the boat lie. The rudder is connected to the steering device and is responsible for controlling the boat. Extending downward from the middle of the boat is the keel, which is basically just a big chunk of lead used to balance the boat and keep it upright.

Because space is so limited, everything serves an important role on a sailboat. When you get out on the water, don't be afraid to ask questions and soon the confusing vocabulary of sailing will become straightforward.

Sailing School

If you choose to enroll in a proper sailing course, they will take you step by step through the process of getting a boat ready to sail, leaving the dock, using the engine, raising the sails, setting the sails properly, sailing in different directions, and returning to the dock.

Generally, sailing schools will start you out learning on sailing dinghies. These boats are usually only around 8 feet long, yet they function in almost exactly the same way as a full size boat. The advantage to learning on sailing dinghies is that they respond instantly to a change in sail trim, as opposed to a full size sailboat, which will slowly accelerate when sails are set differently. This instant reaction time allows you to better understand the ideal positioning of the sails while sailing in different directions. Another advantage of sailing dinghies is that they can tip over. This may not sound like an advantage, but it's an incredibly good way to learn a lesson. If you make a wrong move and are tipped into the water as a result, you're probably going to learn pretty quick not to mess up anymore.

On sailing dinghies, you'll learn to raise the sails, steer the boat, and adjust the sails properly for maximum speed. All of these essentials are really only different from larger yachts in that they are much easier on a smaller boat. After you graduate from sailing dinghies, schools will usually take you out on consecutively larger and larger boats. As you make your way up, you'll learn how to leave and reenter the dock, power up and use the auxiliary engine, and reef (reduce the size of) the sails in heavy weather.

If you choose to take courses beyond simply maneuvering the boat, many schools offer offshore navigation courses. These classes will teach you how to read charts, plot your position using GPS, understand navigational markers and buoys, and navigate coastal hazards.

If you're interested in even more advanced courses, you can learn how to repair and diagnose problems with marine diesel engines, navigate using a sextant, and manage the boat in heavy seas.

Sailing schools will of course have a website, so you can search for schools in your area and enroll in courses online. Your local marina will likely have the best knowledge about sailing schools and instructors in your area. One important thing to remember about learning to sail is that you don't need any official certificates to take a boat out on the water. You don't need to enroll in an expensive sailing course in order to sail, you just need to have a boat and the confidence to take it out. That said, if you're a true novice, there is a lot you can learn from taking a proper course.

If you choose not to enroll in a sailing class, your local marina may be able to help you out. Wherever there are a large amount of sailing boats, there are typically organized races. The captains of racing boats almost always need crew to help out and are willing to take on people with limited or no experience. As crew on a racing boat, you can expect to learn the ropes one job at a time. In the early stages, inexperienced crew may act as nothing more than mobile ballast, shifting from one side of the boat to the other to help even out the weight. This job may also involve hoisting sails, performing various duties on deck, and washing down the boat after the race is finished. It may not sound glamorous, but it is certainly one of the cheapest ways to learn to sail. After crewing a few times, you can expect to take on new roles such as adjusting the trim of the sails and steering. The good thing about learning to sail on a racing boat is that the captain is always striving for the best possible sail setup, so you'll get plenty of practice adjusting sails and be learning from someone who would be equally qualified running a sailing course.

Having a friend with a boat is of course the most pleasant way to learn. Keep an ear out for friends of friends who own boats and you may be able to coerce them to take you out sometime. Be sure to express your interest in learning to sail, because most boaters are eager to share their knowledge.

Whatever your method, be it paying for sailing courses or catching a ride on someone else's boat, it won't take long before you get the hang of things and get the itch to buy your own boat. Despite their reputation, buying a simple boat can actually be quite affordable. You may not end up with a luxury yacht, but there's a boat out there for nearly every budget if you keep looking. With even a little experience, you can realistically start taking your own boat out safely, and that's where the real learning starts.

Proper Sailing Etiquette

Even though there aren't lanes like driving, there are still well defined right-of-way rules when sailing. Luckily, there are only a few of them, and they're pretty simple:

1. Sailboats always have right-of-way. This doesn't mean it's okay to sail in front of a speeding tanker ship, but it does mean motorboats should maneuver around you while you're sailing. It also means that if you're motoring in a sailboat, you need to keep out of the way of boats that are actually sailing. Naturally when passing a slow or drifting powerboat, keep clear.

2. Because it is more difficult to sail into the wind, any boat sailing upwind has right-of-way over a boat sailing downwind.

3. If both boats are sailing upwind or both are sailing downwind but in different directions, the boat with the wind coming from it's starboard side has right-of-way.

4. If two boats are sailing in nearly the same direction but are about to collide, the boat furthest downwind has right-of-way.

5. When sailing in channels, always keep to the right side as you would on the road.

Safety Rules

Although the sport of sailing is generally considered safe (you're much more likely to be injured in a driving accident than a boating accident), it is of course important to follow safety regulations.

1. Always wear a lifejacket in rough conditions. Even if you're a good swimmer, in a bad accident or fall you might not be conscious when you hit the water. Lifejackets are also brightly colored and can help you be spotted in rough seas.

2. If you need to walk up to the mast in rough weather, always clip yourself in. Most larger boats have high strength nylon straps running down the length of the boat. Use a harness to connect your lifejacket to these lines, and you won't be able to fall off the boat.

3. If the wind is strong but your confidence is not, don't be afraid to call off the trip.

4. Always plan out your trip before you leave the dock. Take a look at the wind and decide where you'd like to sail off to.


After taking a sailing course or learning the basics through a friend or on a racing boat, you'll have a better idea of whether or not sailing is for you. If the bug has bitten, start keeping an eye out for a boat of your own. With the profusion of long lasting fiberglass boats on the market, a good sound practice boat can be bought for next to nothing. Sailing your own boat is the best way to complete your training, since you'll be forced to learn to do everything yourself.

Once you've become confident, a whole new world is opened up to you. In a coastal area, you'll have access to beaches and islands very few people ever get a chance to see. On lakes and in bays you'll always have something to do to keep you occupied. With the right boat, it's entirely feasible to take off with only a year or two of experience and start making extended coastal passages. Suddenly a trip to Mexico or the Caribbean becomes more realistic. So give sailing a shot; you just might find yourself dropping anchor at a beautiful secluded tropical island some day.

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