Sailing is one of the oldest pastimes in the world, one that has been around for just about as long as boat fishing and boat travel. It’s a great activity to share with family and friends, just as it is also a great way to spend some time alone. If you are planning to get into sailing whether for recreation or sport, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with some basic maneuvers like tacking and jibing. Whether you’re out sailing in the ocean or in a large lake, you need to learn how to tack and jibe a sailboat in order to move into or away from the wind and change your course.
Tacking and jibing are quite simple concepts and fairly easy to understand even for beginning sailors. However, it will require some learning and practice in order to execute them properly and safely. So get your sailing sunglasses on and let’s get started.
Tacking a Sailboat
Tacking a sailboat (or also referred to as “coming about”) means changing the direction of the vessel in order to move upwind or towards the direction that the wind is coming from. Since you can’t sail directly into the wind, you must tack back and forth across it in order to move forward. If you want to stay as close as possible to the direct path of your destination, then you’ll have to tack fairly regularly. This is why it is one of the basic yet most important sailing skills to learn and master.
How to Tack a Sailboat
Tacking a sailboat involves a series of steps. Note that some sailors may have different ideas and techniques about how to tack more effectively and efficiently. However, the procedures (and accompanying commands) outlined below are generally accepted in the sailing community.
- The helmsman or the person steering the boat signals the crew to prepare to tack by calling out “Ready about!” or “Ready to come about!” Upon hearing the command, the crew readies the sheets or the lines used to control the mainsail and foresail.
- If the crew is not yet prepared, the reply “Wait!”
- Once everything is set up, meaning that the sheets are not tangled and are free from any obstruction, the crew then yells “Ready!”
- Once the helmsman hears an affirmative response from the rest of the crew, he or she shouts “Helms alee!” or “Hard alee!” to signal that the tacking maneuver is now being initiated.
- The helmsman then pushes the tiller towards the mainsail. Some novice helmsmen use a mark or a point to turn the boat towards to so that they know when they’ve successfully completed a turn. The more experienced helmsmen don’t rely on this technique very often unless they feel a need to do so.
- At this point the sail will have switched sides and while this is happening, the helmsman and the crew will need to move to the other side of the sailboat. This is necessary in order to maintain the balance on the boat.
- As the sailboat makes the turn, the bow will begin to point more directly into the wind and the jib (the smaller, triangular sail that adds power for the mainsail) and mainsail will begin to flutter. In this case, the windward or upwind jib sheet can be released and the leeward or downwind jib sheet can be tightened as the sailboat comes around onto the new tack.
- Once the boat is on course and the sails begin to fill, the helmsman brings the tiller to the center while the crew trims or adjusts the mainsail and the jib towards the new course.
Tacking a Sailboat: Tips and Considerations
- In order to properly carry itself through the tacking maneuver, the sailboat needs to have enough speed or momentum.
- Turning the sailboat sharply will cause a sudden loss in boat speed and may cause the sailboat to stall head to wind (in irons). Besides, this is also hazardous and should be avoided at all costs.
- Turn the rudder approximately 33 degrees to provide a smooth and controlled turn without much loss of boat speed. This should also provide the crew with ample time to control the jib sheets and mainsheet.
- Overtightening the new windward sheet (which used to be the leeward sheet prior to changing directions) makes the sail too flat and less efficient.
- Have the jib more rounded once the boat has tacked and then tension the jib sheet as the boat increases in speed and begins to turn more up into the wind.
Tacking in Strong Winds and Big Waves
Sailboats have more difficulty in carrying and maintaining its speed through the completion of a turn if the winds are strong and the waves are big.
So in order to help swing the bow onto the new tack, leave the windward jib sheet cleated and allow the jib to blow back onto itself (a maneuver called ‘backing the sail’) instead of releasing it. Due to the positioning of the jib sheet, the wind will be able to push the bow of the sailboat through the turn and onto the new tack. As the boat begins to swing onto the new tack, you can then release the cleated windward jib sheet.
Stalling in a Tack
One of the most common issues that many sailors encounter when tacking is stalling. This problem is mainly attributed to the sailboat’s lack of speed and momentum when doing the maneuver and entering the turn. The lack of speed and momentum can be caused by a variety of factors.
- Not having enough boat speed before initiating the tack.
- Turning the rudder too sharply which makes it act like a brake and cause the sailboat’s speed to drop.
- Turning the sailboat too slowly which results in the boat speed going down before it can complete the turn onto the new tack.
- Improper sail trim which cause the sails to be less efficient as the boat turns more into wind, causing the boat speed to drop dramatically.
- Releasing the windward jib too soon which de-power the jib, increase drag and cause the boat to lose speed.
Jibing a Sailboat
Remember that when tacking a sailboat, you turn the bow or the front of the boat up through the wind. In jibing, you do the opposite. That is, you turn the stern or the back of the boat up through the wind or away from the direction where the wind is coming from. This is done in order to sail downwind effectively.
How to Jibe a Sailboat
- When the helmsman wants to initiate the jibing maneuver, he first calls out to the crew “Ready to jibe!” This tells the crew to ready the sheets or the lines that control the mainsail and the jib.
- The crew replies by yelling “Ready!” when they have prepared the sheets.
- The helmsman will then shout “Jibe ho!” or “Jibing” to notify the crew that the jibing maneuver is being initiated and that they are starting to make the turn down through the wind.
- The helmsman shouts “Centering the boom!” as the bow of the sailboat heads more downwind midway through the point of the jibe. Here, it is important that the mainsheet be trimmed to bring the mainsail over the centerline of the boat, controlling the boom so that it doesn’t swing violently across the deck.
- When the boom has been centered, the helmsman must continue to make a gentle turn down through the wind. The crew must have the mainsheet ready so that the mainsail can be allowed to swing out from the boat as gently as possible as the sail catches wind on the new tack.
Jibing a Sailboat: Tips and Considerations
- The helmsman should make a slow turn down through the wind so that the crew will have sufficient time to control the sails and the swing of the boom.
- Having a cleated mainsheet as the jibe is completed is not a good practice since the mainsail will fill quickly and suddenly cause the boat to heel. This is especially true for small sailboats where a sloppy jibe can easily cause it to capsize.
- Avoid casting off the windward sheet too early. This will cause the jib to blow forward and wrap around the forestay. Wait until the jib is starting to back then release the windward jib sheet to make the jib blow across the foredeck and onto the new tack.
Globo Surf Overview
While there are lots of resources on the web in the form of articles and videos that discuss the specifics of how to tack and jibe a sailboat, there is still no substitute for actual experience. In sailing, the age old adage of “practice makes perfect” rings true as it does with any other technique in any other sport or activity. So ready your sailing gear and equipment, sailing shoes and sunglasses and all, and go have fun while practicing.