Essential Sailing Maneuvers & How To Master Them

Essential Sailing Maneuvers | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

There are very few hard and fast rules about sailing and even fewer step by step instructions for how to do it. Far too many sailing books and courses treat sailing like it is a method to be mastered complete with steps and procedures.

For me sailing is much more of an art form and to be good at it, one needs a few tools and skills to master those tools to respond intuitively to the variability of the environment.

There are a few essential skills and by extension “maneuvers” that one must know intrinsically to be safe to not only sail but sail anything anywhere in any conditions. Once you have mastered these maneuvers, while single-handing in a keelboat, then and only then would I suggest that it is time for you to begin skippering a vessel in blue water.

There are seven sailing maneuvers that are essential for every sailor to know, which are tacking, jibing, heaving to, quick stop, safety position, head to wind, and the sailing clock.

Think of them as the three R’s of sailing. Reading, writing and arithmetic are scholastically speaking the basics that every one must master. These seven maneuvers are that for the sailing world in my opinion.

Until that time when you can say confidently, “I am a master of these seven maneuvers”, and while you are mastering these maneuvers, I would suggest that you keep to protected inland waters where help is just a call away and conditions are mostly reasonable and crew is readily available to assist.


Table of contents

The Maneuvers

The maneuvers that I deem essential for sailing are as follows and in no particular order:

  • Tacking
  • Jibing
  • Heaving To
  • Quick Stop
  • Safety Position
  • Head to Wind
  • The Sailing Clock

There is no order to these maneuvers as none is more important than the other. It is a body of knowledge that must be mastered in order to consider oneself a competent sailor. While certain maneuvers are more readily comprehended by newbee sailors, all of these maneuvers are integral to the complete picture of sailing and if one skill is not mastered than I would suggest that none are mastered and you are not complete as a sailor.

How to Master these Maneuvers

You know how to get to Carnegie Hall right? Practice. Same deal with these maneuvers. This is not the FAA, and there is no number of hours you must have under your belt to demonstrate that you have mastered these maneuvers.

Much like a chef who must master the 5 mother sauces to be considered a master chef, it is only by demonstrating these maneuvers to yourself that you can safely assume that you have mastered these maneuvers.

I will not be on the boat with you when you need these maneuvers so if you don't trust yourself to perform these maneuvers deftly and without difficulty when you need them, it is not me who will suffer. To stick with the cooking metaphor, I can give you the recipe, but it is you that must use that recipe to create greatness. Practice is the only way to get there.

Practice on boats large and small. Practice on days of light wind, heavy wind and no wind. Practice in rain, in sun, at night and in fog. Time on the water and practice on a bevy of boats in a myriad of conditions is the only way to ensure you have mastered these maneuvers for all boats and all conditions.


To tack a boat means to steer said boat so that the bow of the boat goes through the wind. Usually you take the tiller and push it towards the sail and that will make the boat turn in the opposite direction. Wheels however usually turn in the direction you want to go so there is no hard and fast rule there.

 You also, even if you are alone, should use commands when tacking. The timing of your tack and the actions you take will be indicated by those commands and if you do ever have crew or guests it is imperative that you inform them what you are doing so that they might help or at least get out of the way.

Those commands are as follows:

  1. Ready About: This means that you plan to turn the boat into the wind

If there is a crew to respond they should say ready when they have prepared the jib to switch sides.

  1. Hard- A- Lee: This means that the helm has been turned hard towards the leeward side of the boat. There are variations on this term including “ helms-a-lee” and “tacking” but all indicate that the turn has been initiated.
  2. Trim to course: Once the boat has turned and the jib has been switched from one side to the other, then the helm may indicate that the desired course has been achieved and tack has been completed by saying “Trim to course”. Not everyone says this but it’s a good habit to get in to facilitate communication while underway.

Jibing (gybing)

To jibe a boat means the opposite of tacking. It means to turn the stern of the boat through the wind. This is by far a much more subtle turn as with tacking a boat must turn 90 degrees. With a jibe, a boat merely switches the direction of wind from one side of the stern to the other, oftentimes less than a few degrees of turn.

It is this subtle nature of the turn that makes this so deadly, as one may make this subtle shift of the tiller without knowledge and slam the boom that holds the mainsail into the head of an unsuspecting crew mate killing them instantly.

As with tacking this maneuver needs a few commands to ensure safety. If this is done accidentally, those commands were never given and proper warning was never afforded the doomed crewmember whose only crime is being too tall and in the wrong place.

The commands for jibing go as follows:

  1. Prepare to Jibe: This command is declared by the helm to indicate that they have a desire to turn the stern of the boat through the wind. It by no means indicates that anything has been done yet, but rather is a dire warning to all that if things are to proceed as the helm requests, that a deadly situation may be in the offing.

The crew will begin by getting every one below the swing range of the boom and on some boats that may indicate that you begin sheeting in the main sail so as to bring the boom amidship and reduce the swing of the boom from one side to the other.

When the crew is sure that no one will be killed by the swinging boom and if the boat is conducive to hauling in the main amidships and it has been completed, the crew may then and only then say “ready”.

  1. Jibe Ho!: When the helm has initiated the turn and the swing of the boom is imminent, that is the time for a loud utterance of this command. It should be loud enough for everyone, including other boats nearby to hear so that everyone knows the boom is switching sides.

 On small boats this is not such a big deal, but on big boats with booms that can be anywhere from 20 to 50 feet long and weigh upwards of 500 pounds with sails and rigging, it can really cause a lot of damage if not done with proper care and warning.

Heaving To

Many inland sailors might not see the value in this maneuver due to the congested nature of the bays and harbors, but once a boat is in open sea and all you have is time on your hands, this maneuver becomes critical. In the open sea there are no places to dock and there are even fewer places to drop anchor. All you have between you and the horizon are miles of limitless ocean and no way to take a break.

That is where heaving to comes in. This maneuver got its name when in the days of tall ships they would “heave to” by literally hauling the jibs of the boat to the windward side of the boat using labor and the captan to get the massive sails to do their bidding. On modern cruising boats however, you don't need a pile of sweaty deck hands to heave to and instead might use the natural force of the jib sheet to get your sail to windward.

The idea is stalling the boat by using the counteracting forces of the jib and the tiller to work together to put the brakes on for a spell. The force of a back winded jib acting in opposition to the rudder steering the bow towards wind, causes the boat to stall out sideways to the wind and slide downwind in a slow and churning manner. It's using the hull and keel to create maximum friction between the water and your boat and if performed correctly, you will see little plumes and eddies bubble out from beneath your hull on the windward side in the water.

To do the maneuver one must have their jib hauled in about a 1/3 of the way on one side. Next, tack the boat and bring the bow through the wind while leaving the jib hoven too (that's what my sailing buddies and I have agreed is the past tense of heave to) on the windward side. Once the boat has come up head to wind and the jib is thoroughly back winded, you can then release your main sheet and allow the main to luff.

Your final step is to take your tiller and shove it to windward and you will feel the boat settle onto a bubbling downwind slide. Tie your tiller off and enjoy a lunch, dinner or romp in the hay, it’s all up to you as your boat slides gently down wind into the sunset.

The Quick Stop

If you are a racer or sail onto the mooring or dock or have any other reason to want to stop your boat in a hurry without the use of a motor then the Quick stop is your goto maneuver. It is pretty simple in theory but becomes increasingly difficult on the larger vessels, but rest assured even the largest of boats will eventually respond to the quick stop if you understand how it works.

All sails have two sides. Just as you backwind the jib on the heave to, you can also backwind the main on the quick stop.

To perform a quick stop it is always best to approach a stop with minimal steerage speed. The faster you are going, the longer you will have to apply the “brakes”. You will also have to apply more breaking speed for larger and heavier vessels so it is always a good plan to go as slow as possible when you need to stop in a hurry.

Going a minimal steerage speed, take your hand and force the boom forward on the vessel. Conversely, a crew member can take the main sheet and pull it forward as well on larger vessels. Depending on which point of sail you are on you may need to push or pull the boom further and further forward to get the same breaking speed as it is using the wind to counteract the motion of your vessel on the back of the mainsail.

 If you have ever looked at a plane while landing they do a similar action when applying the flaps in a 90 degree angle to the wing. Just like the plane, a boat can come to a complete stop using the quick stop, but unlike a plane, the boat will continue to drift if you stop and don't tie up to something hard. This maneuver is used quite often to stop or slow a sailboat as it approaches a racing start line and cannot cross the line until given the horn to do so.

By the way, try the quick stop in open water a few times before you try it in traffic.

The Safety Position

The Safety Position is one of the first things they should teach you in sailing class, but ultimately, it is one of the most useful maneuvers to employ whenever you need a breather. Sailing can get quite hectic at times with waves crashing and wind gusting.To quote the immortal Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look and look around once in a while you could miss it.”

This move allows you to blow your sails with the boom out over the water, flatten the boat and quiet things down for a few moments. If you need a pause, the safety position is the maneuver for you.

It is quite simple to perform and it is because of this simplicity that we teach it as one of the first lessons to dinghy sailors, but on a keel boat that is overpowered, the safety position can save your sanity.

From a beam reach, where your sails are half way out, release your main and head your boat to wind ever so slightly. This will cause the main to luff but because the boom is out over the water, it will be quieter and be much less scary than a luffing boom swinging wildly over your head. Furthermore, because you have released all the pressure, your boat will flatten out and stop moving.

You can do this for a few moments and when you are ready all you have to do is pull your main back in and start sailing once again. It's safe and better still, it gives you the feeling of safety when all things are going haywire on your boat.

Head to Wind

Much like safety position, head to wind does not require much in the way of commands or sail trim. Rather it requires a substantial amount of boat control and steering. If you ever have to land on a mooring or pick up a person in the water, head to wind is the name of the game and all skippers should be able to hold their boat head to wind for at least a few seconds if not as much as a minute.

There really is no way to coach someone to do this. The best comparison I can make is look at a duck or a fish. They hold themselves into the current or wind with little flicks of their feet or tails. They hold position to eat, hold position to live and hold position to do all sorts of things.

Sailboats too must hold position and to do this you must be able to hold your boat into the wind for a period of time using a little wind power and rudder to simply stay on station for as long as is required to pick up a mooring pennant or lift an unconscious person from the water.

You can easily practice this maneuver on anything that floats like a mooring ball or a cast adrift PFD. And this is a great way to practice man overboard drills as well. Mastering this somewhat challenging maneuver is a true test of sailing ability.

The Sailing Clock

This final maneuver is actually not a maneuver at all, but instead a collection of maneuvers. Strictly speaking it is the act of trimming your sails to the wind and your course and knowing the difference between each point of sail and on which tack your boat may be.

The Points of sail put simply are:

  • close hauled (all the way in)
  • close reach (¼ out)
  • beam reach (½ out)
  • broad reach (¾ out)
  • Running (All out)

You can be trimmed on either side of the boat which is called “a tack”. That is described as the side where the wind hits first with the main and boom on the opposite side. Accordingly, you could be on a broad reach starboard tack where the starboard side is the side the wind hits first and the sails are ¾ of the way out on the port side.

The reason it is called The Sailing Clock is obvious. Knowing this diagram and being able to perform all these points of sail without confusion on either side, that is the sign of a master.

There are only seven maneuvers which are absolutely essential knowledge and absolutely must be performed without confusion to call oneself a master. It's not whether I think you know how to sail or not, it's what you think of your own skill sets and ability to perform these seven maneuvers that matters. While you're learning these, keep on reading and remember, do good, have fun, sail far.

Essential Sailing Maneuvers & How To Master Them
Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German is a life long sailor and licensed captain who has taught thousands to sail over the last 20 years. In 2007, he founded a US Sailing-based community sailing school in Bridgeport, CT for inner city youth and families. When Hurricane Sandy forced him to abandon those efforts, he moved to North Carolina where he set out to share this love for broadcasting and sailing with a growing web-based television audience through The Charted Life Television Network.

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