Learn How To Sail: The Complete Beginners Guide

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While spending time at the beach, you’ve probably seen other people sail. And with the numbers of films, TV shows and video games like Pirates of the Caribbean, Black Sails or Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag whose main characters are the pirates and their ships, it is completely understandable you’d like to try it out yourself.

But before you make your first step towards the Jack Sparrow/Blackbeard/Edward Kenway style of life and think of your sea name, it is important to know some basic stuff. Also, these will be helpful whether you decide to buy a boat and learn it on your own and from your experience, or you decide to take a sailing school before heading to the open water.

Basic Things You Need To Know

Although fun, sailing is not easy. It requires a really specific skill set and knowledge. So, before you decide it is time to go and sail, there are some things you should learn. Not just because they will make you look cool, but also because when you’re at the sea, this will help you stay out of a trouble.

The first thing you’ll have to learn is the basic sailing terms. You don’t have to memorize them all at once, but it is recommended to do your best because it is one of the essential things in sailing. It will help you from understanding your boat to communicating with other sailors without any confusion. Or else it could be a bit of a problem if someone says “Go port, the ship is going astern”, and you don’t know what to do.

The second thing you’ll have to learn is, of course, the boat parts. Let’s say that person who told you to “go port” now says that you should “watch the boom” or “haul in the jib sheet”. It means you should duck or you’ll be hit by a pole, or you have to pull the rope (“jib sheet”) in. There are lots of online dictionaries where you can find all of the basic sailing terms, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

Now when we’ve mentioned the internet, you could use it and find the specific instructions and guides on the boat parts and how do they work. By doing this you’ll help yourself prepare for the sailing out, and you’ll have some of the basic knowledge before you find yourself seeing it on the water, and it will lower the chance of not knowing what to do when you need to react.

What To Avoid And To Watch Out For

If you’re done with the basic instructions and feel ready for going out on the water, don’t hesitate. But, also don’t forget to respect the water, as it can be really dangerous. So, it is good too:

– Avoid being on the water during storms or when the wind is high

– In case you’re outside on the water when the sun sets when you see another vessel shine the light on your sail if your boat doesn’t have a navigation light or the other boat can’t see it

– If your sailboat has an engine, you must have the red, green and white navigation lights

– The mast can conduct the lightning, so be careful when passing under the power lines or bridges.

– Always have a first aid kit with you while you sail

– Know the wind direction! It is of utmost importance to always know where the wind is coming from and how the boat is related to it

Maneuvering and Other Useful Knowledge Before You Sail Away

Now you’ve learned the basic terms and expressions, we’re moving forward to the preparation of your boat, some maneuvering tips and other stuff that could help you.

While moving in one direction is simple and easy, maneuvering is a bit more problematic and it requires some practice. It will probably include some tacking and gybing. Also, it is important to learn how to recover from capsizing, how to dock or anchor the boat, and of course – how to tie the knots.

Tacking

Sometimes you’ll need to go into the wind to get where you’re going. And while it is not possible for a sailboat to move directly into the wind, it can sail that way by tacking. It literally means switching sides and going back and forth so the boat could move forward.

It is required to have some speed if you want to pull the tacking through, or else you could get stuck, or  using the proper term, be “in irons”. If this happens, just push the boom out and go backward. It should get you going in a no-time. Tacking is one of the basic maneuvers, and you’ll master it with enough practice.

Jibing

Opposite from tacking, jibing (or gybing) means you’re moving downwind, and you need to put the stern of the boat through the eye of the wind. But there is another difference. During the tack, the boom is moving slowly, while during the jibe the boom moves violently, so if you’re not ready for it, it could damage not only your boat equipment but could injure the sailors. Also, it is better to do it slowly in order to control it.

Practice these two maneuvers as much as possible until you master them because they are the basic sailing movements and are essential when being outside on the water. There are a lot of really good video guides online on how to do tacking and jibing.

Rigging The Boat

Now we’ve been through all of the theory, you’ve learned the basic terminology, some of the maneuvers and safety tips, it is time to rig the boat. It means to set it up, adjust it to our needs and get it ready to sail.

First, start by installing or checking the rudder. If you own a small sailboat, it is recommended to remove it after every sailing, because it could wear or tear while being in the water for a longer period of time. If your rudder doesn’t have a tiller, attach it. If it does, then check if everything is OK, pin secure, etc. When done checking the rudder and the tiller, it is time to switch to the sails.

Start by attaching the Jib Halyard. Halyards purpose is to raise the jib and the mainsail. Because it is recommended removing them when you’re done because the sun could damage it, you’ll have to do this every time. Spread the sail and identify the corners. Top of the sail is “the head”, and it is the part of the triangle where it is the narrowest. Attach the jib halyard shackle to it and make sure it is secure.

Follow the front edge of the sail (“the luff”) down to the next corner. You should see the hanks that are used to attach it to the forestay. The bottom of the luff is “tack”. Attach the grommet to the bottom of the forestay and hank the sail. This is not hard but could be tricky if the wind is strong. Find the end of the jib halyard on the port side of the mast while you face the bow of the boat. Get it and hold it firmly, while starting to slowly pull. Clip the hank onto the forestay starting with the one nearest the head of the jib. Raise the sail a bit by pulling on the halyard while making sure there are no twists in the sail and attach the second hank. Raise it a bit more and attach the hanks. When done, lower the jib back to the deck and jib the sheets, then raise and secure the mainsail.

But, beware – rigging could be different from ship to ship. The best way to do it properly, before you learn how to do it by yourself, is to find the tutorial for your specific type of boat and follow the instructions. Once you’re done with the setup, it is time to hit the open water.

The Boat Positioning

There are four possible positions of your boat from the wind’s perspective. You’ve learned so far that you can’t sail directly into the wind and the biggest angle you could sail into is around 45 degrees, which is called “close hauled”. If you’re sailing across the wind while it blows from the side, or so-called “the beam”, you’re on a “beam reach”. When you sail at the board angle off the wind, you’re on a “broad reach”, and when you sail downwind you’re “running”.

Why is this important? It is important because you need to know your position to know how to set the sails. In order to get a little help, you could use a few pieces of a light yarn and tie them, so you can clearly see the way wind blows, as it affects your direction.

Starting The Sail

By far the easiest way to start your sailing adventure is from mooring or permanent anchor. If the boat faces the wind, you know that is the only direction you can’t sail, so you’ll have to turn it sideways. You’ll do that simply by pushing the boom to the side. It will make the wind blow against the sail’s back and rotate the ship, which is known as “backing the sail”, and you can start by tightening the mainsail by pulling in the mainsheet.

If you’re at the beach or at the dock, it could be a little bit more complicated because it is nearly impossible to start if the wind is blowing the ship sideways against the dock or beach. In this case, walk the boat to the end of the dock and turn it outward into the wind. Make sure all the sails are tight because you can’t sail if your sails are loose.

How To Steer

The moment you start moving, you should sit on the side of the boat the wind is coming. When the wind hits the sails, it will make the boat heel, so your weight will keep your boat from capsizing. By this time the water under the boat is streaming against the rudder, so it is possible steering with the tiller.

If you’ve never done it before, it could be a bit tricky and feel awkward at first, because, for example, if you want to turn left, you have to move the tiller right and vice versa. The logic behind this behavior is the fact that, when you move the tiller to the starboard, the water that runs against the rudder’s starboard side pushes the stern the port side. If you would like to compare it with something, you could compare it with driving the car in reverse.

Start gently and move the tiller slowly, until you see the boat is starting to steer. Once you get the hang of it, just follow the feeling, and let your instincts lead you. When moving forward, leave it in the middle, not turned to the side.

Adjusting The Sails

Sometimes you’ll hear the sail flapping, which means it is time to adjust them, and it is called “trimming”. If the sails are trimmed right, your boat will be easier to steer, heel less and sail faster.

If you hear the sails are flapping, pull in the mainsheet until the mainsail stops flapping and you’ll feel the speedup. Repeat this with the jib sheet until the jib stops flapping. Remember, when close hauled, you’ll need to pull in the sails, and the more the ship is in broad reach, the more you let them out.

In order to do this properly, let the mainsail starts flapping, and slowly pull the mainsheet in until the mainsail stops. This will prevent you from tightening them too much. When the mainsail is tightened up, do the same with the jib. Let the sheet out until its luff starts shaking and tighten the jib sheet.

The Purpose Of The Centerboard

If you look closely, you’ll see a long, thin fiberglass or metal blade hanging down near the center of the boat. Its purpose as a retractable keel is to prevent the boat from capsizing by resisting the boat sideways motions when sailing into the wind. On the other hand, when sailing downwind you could raise it and let your boat get more speed because there will be a less drag in the water.

But as a beginner, you could leave it until you’re fully learned all of the maneuvers and sail trimming and feel completely comfortable and confident while going fast.

The Art Of Slowing Down

Going fast is fun, challenging and cool, but sometimes you’ll need to slow down, in case you’re approaching the other vessel, the dock or mooring. And to slow down you need to do “spill the wind”. You’ll do that by slowly letting off the sheets until you see your sails flapping. Then, when you want to speed up, just tighten them up.

The exception from this rule is when you sail downwind. It may be impossible letting the mainsail out far enough as the boom hits the shrouds and can’t go further. This means the sails are still full. If this happens, pull the mainsheet way in. It will leave the less sail exposed and slow you down. But don’t do this while on a beam reach, as it could cause your boat to capsize.

Also, no matter if you’re going upwind or downwind, there are two more things that will help you slow down – move your weight back as it will increase the drag and steer up and down continuously.

What To Do If The Sea Gets Rough Or The Night Falls

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Sometimes can be impossible to know for sure if the weather will get worse and to know if the sea will remain calm during your sailing time. Also, if you spend much time out on the water it will certainly happen sometime, so it is good to know what to do if the storm catches you.

– First and the most important, try to stay calm. It doesn’t sound easy, but it is a necessity. Especially if you’re a passenger.

– Avoid arguing. It won’t help you and you’ll need to keep the focus on staying safe.

– If your boat has a motor, take the sails down and switch to it.

– Don’t take off your life jackets and if the visibility is low get the tether attached to the inside of the boat.

– Try to make a plan and find the best way to get off the water. Don’t panic, stay calm and act by the deal you’ve made with your crew.

– Watch your surroundings and keep an eye on your environment. Also, follow the way the wind blows and try to figure out if the worst part has passed.

– Don’t stop believing. The modern boats are extremely buoyant so they can take on any weather. Make sure everyone eats, rests and is warm. Do your best to keep the spirit high, because it could make a difference between staying safe and not.

In case the night falls and you’re still sailing, or you’ve planned that intentionally, there are also some tips:

– Dress up. Nights out on the sea are cold, so make sure you have warm clothes all the time. If you have a wool hat and gloves, put them on.

– Always have a life jacket on. Falling overboard is a big problem during the daytime when the night falls it becomes a pure horror. Avoid moving around the boat as much as possible.

– Don’t forget to bring the compass and the flashlight with you.

– Look around. It is important to follow what is going on around you.

– Let the night vision set in. It could be a problem at the beginning, but the more time you spend on the water, the better you’ll be able to see.

– Don’t panic. If something goes wrong, try to remain calm and to find the best possible solution.

If you do everything “by the books”, sailing during the night should be one of the most beautiful experiences you’ll ever feel, so embrace the opportunity.

The Fun Is Over, It Is Time To Stop

In order to dock or moor your boat, you need to stop. And it is not as easy as it is with the car, because the boats don’t have breaks, so this means you’ll have to maneuver to stop. The easiest and the most efficient way is to turn your boat into the wind. But be careful, it will take from one to three boat lengths to stop. You should practice this maneuver more often to see how quickly your boat stops. And don’t forget you’ll have to loosen the sheets to prevent your boat from moving again if the wind changes.

Another way to slow down or stop the boat is to release the sheets. It will cause the sails to flap instantly and to uproar but will do the trick if you’re not going downwind and the wind comes from behind the mainsail. To avoid possible risk, it is better turning into the wind.

When approaching the dock, plan it ahead and be careful. Try turning into the wind, and if it blows directly against the dock, you could sail along the dock using a loose angle and let out the sheets, allowing the wind to take you onto the dock.

When You’re Done, Take The Sails And The Gear Off

When it is time to call it a day and go home, after you dock, you’ll remove the sails and the gear (the rudder, the tiller) if needed to protect them and make them last longer. After that, it is time to take off and fold the sails.

Treat your sails carefully. First, rinse them to stop the water salt from causing the damage. After rinsing, and before you fold them, let them dry. When the sail is dry, spread it flat and fold it lengthwise. Make sure the luff is straight. When you fold it enough to store it, roll it up and make a cylinder and place it in the sail bag, if you have it, and take your gear and sails and leave it someplace dry to wait until you get back out and sail off again.

What To Bring With You When Sailing

Two questions every new sailor has are what to wear and what to bring to the boat in your backpack. And while it maybe seems like something not so important, choosing the right clothes can make a difference between the most amazing time of your life and a memory you’d love to forget as soon as possible.

Dress in layers. Weather could wary, it could go from extremely hot to quite cold really fast, so it is the best choice to have it all ready, just in case. Try to find shoes that don’t slip, because it could be a bit tricky when moving around because the floor will probably get wet and slippery. Also, having a hat and sunglasses is always a good idea. If you have a waterproof camera, bring it!

Buy the sailing map as it will help you with the orientation. It is not a bad idea to bring coffee, tea and some snacks, biscuits and cereal bars with you. Be sure you have sailing gloves, first aid kit, swiss army knife, flashlight, rope, waterproof watch, bottled water and duct tape.

Another thing that could be useful are the board games, cards or something like that, especially if you’re going to stay on the boat for a longer period of time.

Safety And Some Other Tips

Before you go, check the weather forecast. If it is not good, postpone your trip if possible. If not, take all of the needed measures to stay safe. Set your goal at some recognized place. Make sure all of your equipment is working and in a good shape. Don’t keep your trip a secret, tell someone where you’re going.

It is a good idea to check the local regulations and laws, and also try to avoid restricted areas. Learn the basic sailing rules and responsibilities, and also how to behave and communicate with another vessel.

If your boat capsizes, don’t run away from it. It is easier for rescuers to find you if you stay with it. Also, practice the “person overboard” situations.

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There is no denial – sailing is one of the most fun water activities. It is really challenging and it requires lots of patience, strong will and will to learn. But it could be really dangerous if you don’t follow the rules and instructions.

The tips provided in this article should be enough for the beginning and will help you start and provide you a great amount of fun. But, don’t forget – be responsible! Sea is not to be taken lightly and requires a serious preparation. So, before you head to the open water, make sure you’ve properly equipped and ready. Practice on the land as much as you can, if you don’t understand something, feel free to ask.

If you’re sure you’ve learned all things you need to know, then, as we’ve already stated above – don’t hesitate. Get ready and sail off!

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My name is David Hamburg. I am an avid water sports fan who enjoys paddle boarding, surfing, scuba diving, and kite surfing. Anything with a board or chance I can get in the water I love! I am such a big fan I decided to start this website to review all my favorite products and some others. Hope you enjoy!