How To Sail a Small Sailboat

How To Sail a Small Sailboat | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Jacob Collier

August 30, 2022

Sailing is a skill that takes time and practice to learn and perfect. Learning how to sail a small sailboat requires onshore and offshore activities.

Sailing heavily depends on the wind, and setting the sails right is a crucial sailing element. If you do not adjust the sails according to the wind, your boat will not move and, in worst cases, may even capsize.

Sailing is a skill that gets better with practice. There are several factors that you need to understand when sailing. These include the wind direction, how to turn and steer the boat, adjusting the sails, and finally, how to slow down and come to a stop.

Many novice sailors find handling the sailboat a daunting task. You have to take care of so many controls, including the tiller, the sails, and the centerboard.

Experienced sailors believe that new sailors should avoid taking their sailboats into open waters until they have gotten the hang of the water and the sailboat. Sailboats have tall sails, which make them prone to capsizing. Inexperienced sailors should either take courses on sailing or learn by going out with a friend before they head on their solo adventures.


Table of contents

How To Sail a Small Sailboat

Before heading out on your next boating adventure, you need to consider several factors. As the wind powers your boat, the first thing you need to understand is how wind strength and direction affect your boat. You will also need to learn how to handle the tiller. If you have been driving any road vehicle, you may not be surprised to see a vast difference between how a car and a boat handle.

Understanding Wind Direction

Wind plays a crucial role in how fast and the direction in which your sailboat will move. It is impossible to sail into a headwind. But you can sail around 45 degrees to headwind.

  • When sailing 45 degrees to the oncoming wind, this is known in sailor jargon as the boat is close-hauled.
  • When you are sailing with the wind coming from either side or almost 90 degrees to the boat, it is known for the boat to be on a beam reach.
  • When you are sailing at a wide-angle in the direction of the wind. For instance, say that you need to head north, and the wind is coming from North East, the boat is called to be on a broad reach.
  • If you are lucky and have the wind in the direction you are heading, your boat is known to be running.

Positioning Your Boat

It is crucial to be aware of the position of your sailboat in relation to the wind direction. This allows you to adjust the sails and balance the weight in your boat. For beginners, you can tie small wind vanes, which can be simple yarn strands on the boat to let you know where the wind is coming from.

What Affects Wind Direction

As you sail through the wind, your boat will also alter the wind direction. Since the boat has a giant sail, it creates its own wind as the boat moves forward. This wind is known as apparent wind. For instance, your boat is moving on a beam reach, where the true wind is coming from the side of the boat.

As you move through the wind, your boat makes its own apparent wind. The true and apparent winds combine, causing the wind direction to change. This can lead your boat to be on a close haul rather than on a beam reach. What matters, in the end, is how much resulting wind there is in your sails and the direction it is coming from.

Getting Ready To Sail

The best method to start sailing is to take the boat on from a point such as an anchor line or a mooring buoy. The wind will push the boat backward and out into the open waters as you get into the boat and set the sails up.

Moving stern first is acceptable when being pushed out of the marina, but this is not the direction in which we will want to continue sailing. You will have to turn the boat around so that wind is pushing the boat bow first.

Turning To Set Direction

As you come out of the marina, you will need to adjust your sails to change direction. Remember, boats require time to respond and need patience above all else.

The first step is to push the boom out of both sides of the boat. This will cause the wind to blow against the sail's back and not past its sides, causing the boat to rotate. As you pull in the sail and set its direction, the boat will begin to correct its course. Once you are in the right direction, you can tighten the mainsail and be well on your way.

Starting From A Beach Or A Dock

Starting from a beach or an enclosed dock can be quite challenging. If the wind pushes the boat sideways into the dock, it is next to impossible to sail out of the dock. In such a scenario, it would be best if you could walk your boat like a pet to the dock's end and attempt to turn it around to face the wind. You can then follow the procedure described above to allow the boat to come out of the marina.

Your boat will not move if the sails are not taut. As soon as you tighten the sails, the wind will move the boat, and you can then set the direction to your preference.

Steering The Boat

Now that you have set the direction and are moving in the correct direction, you will need to maintain direction and be able to steer the boat through the water. Before you begin to steer the sailboat, you must ensure that you are sitting in the direction opposite the sail. This is usually the direction from which the wind is blowing.

When the wind blows against the sails, it can cause your boat to tilt in their direction. Your body weight will counter the tilting effect and keep the boat level.

Using The Tiller

The sailboat is equipped with a rudder. As your boat picks up speed, you can use the rudder to steer the boat. A little tiller usually controls the rudder. The tiller takes some time to get used to. The reason for this is that it works in opposite directions. For instance, if you want to make the boat turn right (towards the starboard side), you will have to push the tiller to the left (towards the port side) and vice versa.

The rudder is hinged in line with the tiller. When you move the tiller in one direction, it moves the rudder. For instance, the rudder will extend towards the starboard side if you push the tiller to the port side. The water flowing will push against the rudder, and the resistance from the rudder will rotate the boat towards the starboard side.

The tiller can be tricky to use. Ensure that you make minor adjustments to the tiller until you get used to how it moves your boat.

Handling The Sails

There is one rule that you must remember when positioning your sails. If you are sailing towards the wind, you will have to pull in the sails more. Similarly, if you are on a broad reach and sailing in the direction of the wind, you will have to extend the sails more.

When the sails are extended and you are on a broad reach, you will notice that the boat tilts to the side the sails are on. You must seat yourself so that you counter the tilting effect.

Sail Trimming

No, you don't need a pair of scissors for this. A sail comprises multiple sheets, and adjusting these sheets is known as trimming the sail. Your goal with trimming the sail is to give the sail the best possible shape to make maximum use of the wind.

Mainsail Trimming

When trimming the mainsail, you will have to make sure that it is tight enough so that the sail's leading edge is not flapping or shaking. At the same time, you have to ensure that it is not too tight, causing the wind to blow against only one side of the sail. This can cause the boat to tilt to one side.

Leaving the edge loose means you will lose efficiency. The wind energy will be used to flap the sail instead of pushing your boat forward. This unwarranted movement of the sail is known as luffing, which can significantly reduce the boat's efficiency.

Adjusting The Mainsheet

One method to trim the mainsail is to let the mainsheet out until the mainsail starts to luff. Then slowly pull in the sheet, and stop as soon as the sail stops luffing.

If the sail is too tight, you will be able to judge by its appearance. The sail will have no slack and will look perfect. The only way to correct the tightness is to loosen it until it starts to luff, then tighten it gradually, and stop as soon as the luff is gone.

Trimming The Jib

Adjusting the jib also follows the same procedure as the sail. The goal is to loosen the sail until it starts to luff and then tighten it back up until there is no luffing. Like the mainsail, the appearance of the job will have a lot to say about its tightness.

Some sailboats have streamers on the leading edge of the jib, which depict airflow direction over it. When the sail is in the correct trim setting, the streamers will blow straight and on both sides around the sail.

Another factor to consider when adjusting the jib is the space between the mainsail and the jib. The gap, known as the slot, has to be the same from front and back. This ensures that wind flows smoothly between the sails, making the setup efficient. If either is too tight or loose, the slot will obstruct the wind flow, causing turbulence and slowing the boat down.

Turning The Boat

The most crucial part of sailing is always being aware of the wind direction. This becomes even more important when you are planning to turn the boat. If you are careless while making the turn and accidentally turn the wrong way, you may capsize the boat.

There are three common types of turns that you can make with sailboats.

Sailing Close Hauled

If the wind is coming at you head-on from either side, and you are close hauled, check for the direction of the wind. If it is blowing from the starboard side, turn the boat towards the right so that you point your bow into the wind. Continue turning until the wind is now coming to your port side. This technique is called tacking, which involves turning into the wind.

Sailing Broad Reach

If the wind is coming from either side or slightly behind you, you can turn so that the stern of your boat becomes head-on with the wind. For instance, if the wind is coming from the starboard side, you will turn left to make sure the wind hits the stern. This technique is known as jibing, and it allows you to make the turn downwind.

No Wind Crossing

This technique can be used if you want to make small turns. Say you are sailing close-hauled with wind flowing from your port side. You turn left, and now the wind is approaching from the side, and you begin to sail broad reach. The wind remains on your starboard side, but the direction has changed.

How To Position The Sails

For the initial two types of turns, where you will be crossing the wind with your stern or bow, the sails will have to be crossed over to the opposing side. You will also need to change your seating location to make sure you sit opposite the sails.

Since crossing the wind requires a lot of work, most sailors prefer to turn without crossing the wind. All you need to do is make small trimmings to the sail to keep you going in the right direction for this type of turn. With experience, you will be able to adjust the sails during your turn.

Remember, the closer the wind direction is to your bow, the more you will need to pull in the sails. The closer the wind direction is to your stern, the more you want your sails to be open. While turning, it would be best to keep one hand on the mainsail if you need to adjust its direction to prevent your boat from being blown in random directions.

The Centerboard

You will notice a thin and long blade of metal or fiberglass hanging from the boat's center and into the water. This component is called the centerboard, and it helps resist the sideways movement of the boat. You can raise or lower the centerboard at your discretion.

When you are sailing, the wind comes from either the left or right of the boat. If the wind is strong enough, it can push the boat to one side. Lowering the centerboard will cause it to act as a keel and prevent the boat from veering off in the wind direction.

When you are sailing along with the wind, you will have the wind coming from the rear of the boat, and it will have little influence from either side. In such a scenario, you will not need the centerboard. Raising the centerboard will reduce the drag, allowing you to sail faster.

As a beginner, it is recommended to keep the centerboard down. Who knows when it may save you? You don't have to be too concerned about it, as you have more important things such as the sail to worry about.

Slowing Down and Stopping

When it comes to sailing, speed is thrilling. Going fast is fun, but in a sailboat, speed is an achievement. The only thing more important than going fast is knowing how to slow down, such as when coming to a stop or avoiding an obstacle along the way.

Theoretically, to slow down, you have to do the opposite of what you would do if you wanted to speed up. This means that you will want to ensure that any wind that falls on your sails gets wasted or "spilled."

The best way to do this is to let out and loosen the sails until they begin to luff. If you need to slow down faster, you can loosen them further until they start to flap. If you plan to come to a stop, you can let the sails flap continuously.

However, if you are heading downwind or running, the mainsail should not be pushed out. Instead, you can pull it in as much as possible so the sail will not collect any wind. With no wind in the sails, your boat will slow down.

The simplest way to stop the boat is to turn it towards the wind. This will ensure maximum resistance and bring the boat to a halt.

How To Sail a Small Sailboat
Jacob Collier

Jacob Collier

Born into a family of sailing enthusiasts, words like “ballast” and “jibing” were often a part of dinner conversations. These days Jacob sails a Hallberg-Rassy 44, having covered almost 6000 NM. While he’s made several voyages, his favorite one is the trip from California to Hawaii as it was his first fully independent voyage.

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