What is Sailing Close to the Wind?

What is Sailing Close to the Wind?  | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Elizabeth O'Malley

June 15, 2022

Sailing close to the wind. Close hauled. Sailing windward. All the same to a sailor. The importance? The difference between sailing fast or not sailing at all.

Probably the most challenging of the various points of sail is sailing close to the wind or close hauled. In this situation, you are just shy of heading directly into the wind. Most every sailor knows that you can’t sail directly into the wind, but you can sail right next to the edge of the wind, and that’s what we mean by close hauled.

In this article, I’m going to do my darndest to illustrate what sailing close to the wind means and why it is a situation with which you’ll want to become very familiar. It’s an exciting point of sail, and because of the potential for speed as well as for the temperamental aspect of it. Close hauled is really living on the edge, and on the edge of the wind, that is. You can be going merrily along and suddenly find yourself at almost a dead stop within a matter of seconds. Tackling the finickiest of all of the points of sail, and sailing close to the wind is mighty finicky, requires understanding the concept of being close hauled, paying attention to certain tale-telling details, and knowing the nuances of the boat on which you’re sailing.


Table of contents

The No-Go Zone and Sailing Close to the Wind

There are six points of sail. Today, we’ll consider two of those, and the No-Go Zone and Close Hauled. If we use a clock analogy (with the wind blowing down from the 12 o’clock position), the No-Go Zone point of sail is at the top of the clock. It is the pie-shaped wedge between about 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. Our boat is at the center of the clock (where the hands are attached). If our boat wanted to sail from the center of the clock up to the 12 o’clock slot, hopefully we all realize that our boat just can’t do that, and because we’ve said that the wind was blowing toward the boat from the 12 o’clock position. We’d be sailing into the wind, and that’s just not possible.

A boat in this position, again known as the No-Go Zone, is also considered in irons. This is not where we want to be, and because you’re not sailing anymore, you’re merely drifting. That’s why it’s called the No-Go Zone point of sail. You are not going where you want to go, and you are going wherever it is that the current wants to take you.

The Close-Hauled Point of Sail

Now, on either side of the No-Go Zone point of sail, to the right of the 2 o’clock and to the left of the 10 o’clock, is the Close-Hauled point of sail. It is right there on the edge of the No-Go Zone. The wind is coming across either the port or starboard side, the boom is pretty much amidships, and via the mainsheet and jib sheet, the mainsail and jib are pulled in tight, parallel to the centerline of the boat. When I was first learning to sail in my teens, I thought of close hauled like this: “I’ve hauled the boat’s mainsail close to the edge of the wind. I’ve hauled it in from the broad reach position to where the boom is hauled closely to the middle of the boat, very very close to me, the skipper.  

When sailing close to the wind, you are probably moving along at a pretty good clip. This can be fun and exciting. It’s also a somewhat risky point of sail to be in because, since you’re moving along quite quickly, the boat will tend to tip. To discourage this tendency, skippers will want to put extra weight on the windward side to help keep the boat upright. If there is a crew on board, they’ll be asked to “lean out” and push as much weight as possible on the high side of the boat, to counteract the tipping point.

Candidly, there are complex (at least for me) physics explanations regarding how the boat’s sail and the wind’s direction interact. Those 40 lb. brain discussions involve words like lift, velocity, deviation, force. I took physics in college, and “Football Physics” (with all the jocks), and, while I enjoyed the stories about good ol’ Sir Isaac Newton, it was all I could do to scrape a low B out of my time and effort. All this is to say, I’m probably not the best person to explain the actual physics behind sailing close to the wind; however, I can suggest that you google “the physics of sailing.” There you will find at least a half-dozen videos in the four to ten-minute range that are interesting and helpful, and at least to those folks who are interested in the myriad ways that physics are involved with sailing.

While all sailboats’ behavior varies in different wind conditions, every sailboat needs wind to move in a captain-determined direction. Certain styles of boats may be better equipped to leverage the wind situation, but no sail is able to sail directly into the wind.

I think of it as “I’ve hauled the boat’s mainsail as close to the edge of the wind, and the line from the center of the clock out to the two position. And, when I do this, if there’s much wind at all, I am moving along at a pretty good clip.

However, sailing close to the wind should be considered a cautious undertaking with very little margin for error. The trouble occurs when the bow of the boat crosses over the edge of the wind (into and over the two o’clock line) and the wind then crosses over the mast and is now on the back side of the sail. Within no time at all, the boat slows down mightily and, unless quickly corrected, will soon be in irons with the wind split equally on either side of the mast and the mainsail flapping, with the boom amidships. Your boat is essentially stalled out and merely drifting with the current.

Telltales and Sailing Close to the Wind

A very helpful resource when calculating how your boat is performing in close-hauled sailing is a telltale. Telltales are pieces of string placed on opposite sides of the sail in two different sections of the sale, and the luff telltale is closest to the mast on the luff side of the sail and the leech telltale which you may find affixed to the leech side of the sail (the side of the sail that is the hypotenuse of the triangle).

As wind moves across both sides of a sail, the telltales live up to their name and essentially tell the tale of what the wind is doing in relation to the boat and sails. A good skipper “reads” this communication from the boat and adjusts accordingly.

When sailing close to the wind, if the boat begins to cross over into the No-Go Zone, the sail will begin to luff because the wind is not flowing over the luff portion of the sail as is necessary. The sail will droop and begin flapping and the boat will measurably slow down. Telltales are supposed to stream parallel to one another and parallel to the water. If they begin to diverge from a parallel position (“break” from one another), then the wind flow across the sail has been disrupted and the boat will soon begin to luff and stall.

Regularly scanning the sails for the position of the telltales can ensure you’re one step ahead of the boat and the wind in terms of maintaining an efficient close-hauled course.

Beating and Sailing Close to the Wind

If your goal is to sail upwind, in the direction of where the wind is coming from, we’ve learned (probably from plenty of hands-on experience) that it can’t be done directly, and but by tacking back and forth in a very tight close-hauled situation (also known as “beating”) you can make headway toward your upwind direction. The way that I have come to this of this is as “sailing indirectly into the wind.” You are tacking back and forth, with the boat’s bow changing from one side of the No-Go Zone to the other and sail position moving from starboard to port and back to starboard. The degree to which I’ve heard most people talk about sailing close to the wind is between 30 degrees and 45 degrees off from the direction of the oncoming wind. Again, from my teen years of sailing, when I was making progress toward my destination by tacking back and forth very close to the wind, I felt like I was “beating the wind at its own game,” so if that helps you to remember what beating is, well, you’re welcome. Wink, wink.

Sailing in the Groove when Close Hauled

There is a phrase in sailing called “sailing in the groove” and that situation presents itself when one is sailing close hauled and you’ve balanced these two factors: how fast you want to go versus how true to course/direction you want to be. If you sail very, very close to the wind, you’ll lose speed but gain ground. If you fall off from the target direction, you’ll gain speed but lose ground. Depending on what your priority is you can adjust your sails to meet speed or course preferences.

My racing days are pretty much in the past and I am definitely more of a cocktail cruiser, so I’m more focused on finding and sailing in the groove for both the balance of speed and course and the more even-keeled manner in which the boat sails, and fewer drinks get spilled when the boat is getting its groove on, I’ve learned.

Again, I’m no physics savant so I have not gotten into initial velocity and final velocity, air acceleration, and the Bernoulli effect. I do hope that some of what I have covered has been helpful, and even if it is just the memory devices that I created for myself back when I first learned to sail in my teens. Those sayings and imagery have stuck with me for about four decades now, so maybe they’ll be of some value to you. Wishing you all good things on your next close haul point of sail. Be sure to keep an eye on those telltales and I hope you find yourself in the groove.

What is Sailing Close to the Wind?
Elizabeth O'Malley

Elizabeth O'Malley

Elizabeth has sailed Sunfish, Catalinas, Knarrs, and countless other boats. Forty years later, she finds herself back on the waters of Bogue Sound, where she lives and sails with her daughter, Morgan, and chocolate lab, Choco.

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