What Is Tacking & How To Tack A Sailboat

What Is Tacking | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

When you start sailing there are a ton of topics to learn. Think of sailing like an upside down triangle.  At the top you have a ton to learn and as you get to the bottom you come to an infinitely finer point.

When it comes to sailing, learning never really ends. But so many will skip over some topics because it’s just too confusing and there is too much to learn.  Attempting to progress on the path to enlightenment without first mastering the key elements is a recipe for failure.

One of those key elements is tacking.


Table of contents

What is tacking?

The definition of tacking for this discussion is moving the bow of the boat through the wind. Right or left does not matter, that is the purest definition of tacking. Sounds simple right? Well the definition is about the only simple thing when it comes to tacking.

The idea of moving one’s bow across the wind becomes much more complicated when you learn the commands for proper tacking and then the physics of the maneuver. And it is in these details when most new sailors truly mess it up. Let’s first look at it from God’s perspective.

Picture, if you will, a chalkboard with an arrow pointing downward from the top of the board  where the “wind” is represented by said arrow. Now draw a circle beginning at that arrow and go all the way, 360 degrees, either direction, around and back to the top. That is the sailing clock. And roughly from midnight (where the wind is) to approximately 10 and 2 on either side  is upwind sailing and you can’t sail in those directions. That is called “the luffing arc” and boats can’t sail in that direction by rules of physics so don’t even try.

If you want to go that direction, (ie directly up wind towards midnight on the sailing clock) Then you have to zig zag your way as close to the wind as possible and that my friend is “tacking”. Literally going from 45 degrees off the wind on one side,(i.e. 2 o’clock),  and then turning your boat through midnight on the clock and going 45 degrees to the other side beyond 10 o’clock.  

If you can visualize that, you are half-way to tacking your boat, so now let's add the commands.

How To Tack A Sailboat

Say you are sailing your boat with your sails hauled all the way in, or “close hauled” on a starboard tack (right side facing the bow). That is another definition for the word “tack”; a way to describe the state of your sails, but don’t get mired down on that as this article is about the action of tacking.

You want to turn your boat 90 degrees and start sailing on the other side of the sailing clock, let's say you are at 3 o’clock and want to go to the 9 o’clock position. To do that, your boat has to have enough inertia to sail directly up into the wind while maintaining forward progress and turn all the way through to the other side. To have enough inertia to complete a tack, your boat has to have enough speed at the start of the maneuver. With practice and experience you will begin to recognize how much speed you need to complete a tack of your boat.

Now as I said, there are some commands you need to know. Communication on the boat is imperative. You are not going to just willy nilly turn your boat when you have a 40’ tartan with a genoa jib the size of your backyard to heave across the deck. This requires some cooperation from the crew and commands will keep everyone working together.

Tacking Commands

The first command comes from the helm. They say, “ Ready About.” That means everyone gets to work and prepares the boat to turn 90 degrees through the wind. The pit crew (the folks in the cockpit) has the most work to do as they have to load up the lazy jib sheet and prepare to release the working jib sheet. The foredeck should be cleared of open hatches or errant fenders or anything else you might have decorating your foredeck that might catch a flying jib sheet. And down below if there is any real wind blowing, everything that is not lashed or stowed will come dumping down on the poor unfortunate soul who was making lunch. So let them know your plans too. When everybody is ready, they inform the helm by smartly barking “ready.”

Now is when the magic happens. The Helm declares that they are beginning to tack by saying, “Hard-A-Lee”. There are a couple variations on this command and if you want to say something else, it’s your boat, just make sure everyone on your boat understands what you are commanding. The helm then takes the tiller and swings it with sincere conviction to the leeward side or the side away from the wind. This will begin to turn your boat towards the wind.

Tiller Towards The Sail When Tacking

One way I try to help my students to remember how to turn the helm is the phrase “tiller towards the sail when tacking.”  You won’t have any confusion about what happens next because it’s pretty dramatic.

As the bow of the boat swings toward the wind, the sails will come to life flapping (aka luffing) If your pit crew is on their game, the second the jib collapses into fit of rage they will be ready to release the jib on one side and pull it in on the other side. The helm will turn the boat 90 degrees and once on the desired course is achieved, they will center the rudder and allow everyone to catch up. You can sound like a superstar when you are happy with the direction of the boat by telling the pit crew to “Trim to course” in the saltiest voice you can manage.

Presumably if everything worked, you will then have completed your first tack. Now do it again and repeat for the next 10 years and you will eventually get good at it, if this is the only boat you ever sail.

Every Sailboat Is Different

If however, you are like the rest of us who find themselves on a new boat every so often, you will find that every boat tacks a little differently and no one is a master at tacking every boat the first time out of the gate. So do yourself a favor and don’t wait too long to do your first tack on every new boat you sail.

Then again there are boats that don’t like to tack.

Catamarans, shoal draft keels and anything that has more than one mast can be a challenge to tack and you should plan accordingly. One strategy I find that helps even the most stubborn tackers is called “backwinding the jib.” This occurs when your pit crew holds the jib a bit longer on the winch as the boat noses through the wind and allows the wind to fill the back side of the jib before releasing it to the new working side.

By doing so, the force of the wind pushes on the back side of the jib and that will force your bow through the luffing arc and assist you in completing the turn.

Try it and I think you’ll find it’s a nice little helper in a pinch when you are stuck in the luffing arc some day. Keep in mind, spreaders are thin little spears that like to skewer jibs every now and then so keep an eye to the skies and make sure your spreaders, those things sticking out of the side of the mast,  are wrapped and padded if you want to try this.

Bottom Line

So that’s pretty much all you need to know to tack a boat. Remember your commands and get your sense of the wind working for you. If you cant “see” where the wind is, you’ll never see the luffing arc and you’ll have a heck of a time figuring out when to tack your boat. Many choose to install a windex at the top of their mast to help them “see” the wind and there’s all kinds of new apps and gadgets you can install on your cell to help you learn about the wind and weather while you're starting out. Try a few practice tacks the next time you're out there and I am sure you'll be fine. But if all else fails you can always start the motor.

Happy Sailing!

What Is Tacking & How To Tack A Sailboat
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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