The wind is the core element to sailing.  It’s what powers every sailboat.  Before leaving the dock, a sailor must first check the wind.  What direction is it coming from?  How fast is it going?  Are there any shifts?  To do this, look at surrounding flags so see what direction it is moving.  Look for wind movement on the water.  If it is flat and glassy, than there is little wind; however, if you see white caps, then the wind is much stronger.  While on the boat, you can spot shifts in wind where there is a change in the color of the water.  A darker patch shows a wind shift or puff.  These are good to spot ahead of time because it will allow you to be ready to ease or tighten the sails.

A sail pulls the boat forward in the same manner as a wing lifts an airplane.  As wind passes over the top curve of an airplane’s wing, the air pressure decreases and the higher pressure below the wing lifts the wing towards the lower pressure.  On a sailboat, the curved sail functions in the same way, creating lift to propel the craft forward.

Before you set sail, it is important to know how to enter and leave the dock.  When rigging the boat, make sure to point the bow of the boat into the wind.  This will cause the sails to luff (or to flutter) in the wind.  This will ensure that the boat does not suddenly sail away while you are boarding or rigging.  Once boarded, turn your boat slightly away from the wind and trim the sails.  This will instantly give you lift and start your journey.  When coming back to the dock, be sure to let go of the jib and ease the mainsail.  Turn quickly into the wind and luff the sails to slow the boat down.  Remember to let the sails go freely as you enter the dock so that you can slow the vessel down and avoid any collisions.

The skilled sailor also takes note of the difference between true and apparent wind.  True wind is the wind you feel when you are standing on the dock.  Apparent wind is the wind you feel when you are moving.  It is the combination of the true wind and the wind created by your movement.  It is important to remember that there is a difference – the direction of your power source will be indicated by the apparent wind, not the true wind.

When sailing, it is important to know the points of sail.  A sailboat cannot sail directly into the wind – the sails will merely luff and flap.  The closest most boats can sail is about 45 degrees off the source of the wind.  Any closer and sails will no longer effectively generated lift.  The points of sail are the relationship of the boat and sails to the wind direction.

  • Close Haul: When the boat is pointing as close to the wind as possible and your sail are pulled in as tight as they can be.  This is typically about 45 degrees off the source of the wind.
  • Close Reach:  Your sails are just outside of the boat.  This point of sail falls between close haul and beam reach.
  • Beam Reach: Your sails are half way out of the boat.  The wind is coming directly over the side (beam) of the boat.  The boat will be about 90 degrees off the source of the wind.
  • Broad Reach: Your sails are ¾ outside of the boat.  It is between a beam reach and a run.  This is typically the fastest point of sail for most boats and about 135 degrees off the source of the wind.
  • Run:  When the boat is “running” with the wind.  The sails are completely out and the jib and mainsail can be “wing on wing” or on opposite sides of the boat.  At this point of sail, the boat is facing nearly 180 degrees away from the source of the wind.

It is also important to know the difference between the following terms:

  • Upwind:  When you are going against the wind
  • Downwind:  When you are going with the wind
  • Windward: The side of the boat the wind hits first
  • Leeward: The side of the boat the wind hits last
  • Heading up:  Moving the boat’s bow into the wind, or towards the direction it is coming from.  This usually causes the boat to accelerate
  • Falling off:  Moving the boat’s bow away from the wind.  This usually causes the boat to slow down

There are two types of tacks: tacking and jibing.  Tacking is when you are turning and switching the side the sails are on by turning through the wind.  Jibing is when you are switching the side the sails are on by turning away from the wind.  To tack, you turn your tiller away from where you want the bow of the boat to go (or toward the sail).  If you are going downwind, then you jibe.  To jibe, also move the tiller the opposite way you want your bow to head.  If jibes and tacks are done effectively, then you can get lifted and gain some speed.

If you are heading upwind too much, you may get caught in irons.  Irons is when your boat is pointed directly into the wind and the sails are luffing.  You will not move anywhere and it is good to know how to get into irons if you need to stop the boat briefly.  To get out of irons, simply turn the tiller either away or toward you.

While sailing, it is a good idea to keep an eye on your telltales.  The telltales are the small pieces of string attached to either side of the sail.  If the sails are lined up correctly, then they strings will line up perfectly parallel.  If the inside telltale is loose and fluttering, then your sail is too loose.  If the outside telltale is loose and fluttering, than your sail is too tight.  These will mostly be used on a jib.

Lastly, remember to always keep your jib and mainsail parallel.  They should be on the same tack so as to maximize the amount of lift the boat can receive.

Now that you know how to read the wind, you can begin sailing.  With practice, any novice sailor can learn how to use the wind to their advantage and gain the best cruising or racing speed.


Seidman, David.  The Complete Sailor. Main: International Marine, 1995.

Bird, Lydia.  Sails in the Sun: Lido 14 Manual.  California: Orange Coast College, 1987.