What Is The Ideal Wind Speed When Sailing?

What Is The Ideal Wind Speed When Sailing? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

‍Whether you're using one of the biggest sailboats in the world or a small dinghy boat meant for the water body in your backyard, sailing is all about the wind. It's, therefore, crucial that you understand the wind speed, wind direction, and the ideal wind speed for you.

Even though sailing using the force of the wind is an ancient technique that dates back to the start of human civilization, it's still in use today. For many centuries, sailing was the main mode of long-distance transportation, especially after the invention of sails. Unfortunately, the risks of sailing or otherwise relying on the wind were many. In addition to the fact that reliance on the wind was slow, a substantial number of sailboats and other water vessels were lost. Despite this, speed became so essential, especially when transporting perishable goods such as flowers. But what's the ideal wind speed for sailing? Well, let's find out.

To be honest, there's no single wind speed that can be pinpointed as ideal. This is because what is ideal for you or for the type of sailboat you're using may not be ideal for someone else. That being said, the best wind speed for sailing is one that allows you to sail the boat safely and within your comfort zone, which is generally between 5-12 knots. Keep in mind that sailing at a wind speed that pushes the boat above its normal hull speed is ultimately dangerous.

Again, the ideal wind for sailing may depend on several factors such as your skill level, boat type, your location, your needs and preferences, location, and many other factors. It's all about knowing what you're after and you'll find a good range of wind to work with.

For this reason, we'll not give you a single answer. Instead, we'll look at different ideal winds for sailing and various factors that will help you decide the ideal wind for sailing based on your condition.

But before going into what could be your ideal wind speed for sailing, let's look at some details.


Table of contents

Preparing for Your Sailing Trip

When going out there on the water, the weather should be one of the most important factors to consider. In addition to sudden storms and squalls, chances are you might have to deal with searing heat. In essence, poor weather can seriously spoil your sailing trip. Even worse, poor weather can lead to an emergency situation on the water.

For this reason, it's very crucial that you always check the weather before you set sail. It would be better to postpone your trip if there are chances that you might be caught in the middle of a storm or even a hurricane. You should also stay updated on the weather forecasts and weather patterns to stay ahead in case there's stormy weather.

Measuring Wind Speed

Sailors measure distances in nautical miles. This means that wind speed is measured in nautical miles per hour also widely known as knots. This may be a little longer than a land mile. Let's put it into perspective.

  • ‍1 nautical mile = 1 knot = 1.1508 mile on land.
  • Therefore, 1 knot = 1.1508 miles per hour

While the speed of the wind is measured in knots, the strength of wind is measured using the Beaufort Wind Scale. This scale was invented in the 18th century by a British naval officer, Admiral Francis Beaufort. This scale ranges from 0-12 in which case 0 is completely calm while 12 is the strongest storm.

Wind Direction and Windward Sailing

Before going into different wind strengths, it's of great importance that you understand what's known as wind direction. This is essentially the direction from which the wind is coming or the point of the compass the wind is blowing. For instance, a north wind blows from the north, NOT to the north.

You've probably been wondering what sailing into the winds is called. Well, this is known as windward sailing and it literally means that your sailboat is moving into the wind. You should, however, keep in mind that a sailboat cannot directly move into the wind. This is because the sails won't create any lift. As a result, the boat will be a little off the wind by about 30 to 50 degrees while sailing windward.

Different Wind Strengths

If you're new to sailing, there are various terms revolving around winds that might get you confused. Let's look at some of them.

Calm Winds

Calm winds will range from 0-1 knots. The water becomes so calm that it looks like a mirror. On land, this is the type of wind whereby smoke will rise vertically. Calm winds may not be ideal for sailing given that your sailboat may not even sail.

Light Winds

Light winds can range from 1 to 14 knots and will cause small wavelets in the water while filling up the sails. On land, you may feel the wind on your face, and tree leaves will start moving while wind vanes will show the direction of the wind.

Light winds may affect your wind speed but this will depend on the size of your boat and the type of water you're sailing on. For instance, sailing a small sailboat on a small lake in your hometown may be appropriate for light wind conditions but the very same boat can't handle the same waves and winds in a bigger lake or ocean. Again, the same conditions using a bigger boat may be inappropriate if you're sailing in a coastal area as the conditions will be light.

In essence, light winds are very low and you may get bored while out there on the water.

Moderate Winds

Ranging from 15 to 20 knots, sailing in moderate winds can be really engaging and fun. This is a good working breeze that will make your sails full and the sailboat will be at full speed. On land, the wind will raise dust and small tree branches will start bending.

If you're using a smaller sailboat, it will heel and you may feel uncomfortable for the first few occasions if you aren't used to these conditions. This means that you should sail with experienced sailors who can handle the conditions perfectly well. Alternatively, this may be an ideal condition if you have a larger boat. The boat will sail at maximum hull speed and the conditions will not be a cause of concern for you or the crew.

Strong Winds

With wind speed ranging from 20 to 33 knots, there will be whitecaps everywhere on the water and this might be the right time to shorten your sails. On land, most tree branches are moving and the winding is literally whistling.

If you're sailing on the lake, this isn't the right time to be on the water. This is because the condition is unsafe and there are high chances that you'll ground your sailboat. In an ocean, experienced sailors can handle such a condition. If anything, these are normal conditions if you're planning for offshore sailing.

You should, however, make sure that you use an offshore boat that's designed to help you deal with such conditions. For instance, the boat should have an easy reefing system to enable you to reef the boat with less difficulty.

Gale Winds

Ranging from 34 to 47 knots, gale winds will mean that there are foams on the water in well-marked streaks and all boats will head in. On land, small tree branches will break, and walking might be difficult.

Needless to say, these conditions aren't ideal for smaller sailboats or if you're a beginner and still learning how to sail. On the contrary, you can perfectly handle these conditions if you're an experienced sailor with a larger ocean-going sailboat.

Storms or Squall Winds

With the wind speed going above 48 knots, storms are dangerous situations and the seas may have huge waves going over 8 meters. These conditions are not ideal for sailing whatsoever and you should stay at home if possible. But if you're already out there and the tides change, then it would only be wise to implement skills such as heaving to help you ride out of the storm.

So what's the Ideal Wind Speed for Sailing?

As we noted earlier, the best wind speed for sailing may differ from one sailor to the other. Generally speaking, the ideal wind speed should allow you to navigate the boat safely and within your comfort zone. But because we have different comfort zones, let's get more into details and highlight the ideal wind speeds for various situations.

Easiest Wind Speed

When it comes to sailing, the wind is the driving force but it's always wise to know there's a thin line between what's easy and what's difficult or shall we say dangerous wind speeds. Although many beginners may think that sailing in light winds is the ideal situation, this is not always the case. When the wind is so light, it may not fill up the sail. This will not only leave you in drag but sailing will be difficult if there's not enough wind to fill the sail.

That being said, the easiest wind speed for sailing should range from 7 to 10 knots. This is actually ideal if you're still learning how to handle the boat. It's also less risky to capsize at this speed but quite enough to learn the ropes of maneuvering a sailboat.

Ideal Wind Speed for Training

When learning how to sail, the most important things revolve around getting to know the boat and how to handle it. In most cases, you'll want to play it safe and avoid injuring yourself or capsizing the boat. As such, it's always advisable to start at wind speeds of 10 knots or below. This is to enable you to know the boat and how to handle it.

You'll, of course, not become a skilled sailor by staying in the comfort zone or in a situation where you can only handle "7-knots-sunny-beer-and-burgers" kind of weather. The idea here is that you should try different wind speeds not just to overreach your skills a little bit but also to improve and handle varying sailing situations.

As such, you should get out of your comfort zone if you've learned how to handle the boat and train and wind speeds ranging from 15 to 20 knots or in moderate winds. If anything, moderate winds are really fun and engaging.

The most important thing when learning how to sails is to:

  • Know the type of wind speed that you're perfect at and can enjoy a ride
  • Know the type of wind speed that you're not-so-good at
  • Go beyond your comfort zone

By knowing all these, you'll know areas where you need to improve on. All in all, start by training at wind speeds of 10 knots and below until you can handle the boat and then move to around 20 knots to improve your skills.

Minimum Wind Speed

As we noted earlier, trying to sail when the wind is calm or at a speed ranging from 0 to 1 knot is almost impossible. This is because there will be no wind in the sail and the boat will not move. Therefore, the minimum wind speed for sailing is 5 knots. Anything below that will be a waste of your precious time as the boat will not move unless it's a very small sailboat such as the sunfish.

This may be hard to believe, but sailing at minimum wind speed is a skill on its own. Experienced sailors who have mastered this skill will tell you not to over-adjust the sails or over-steer the boat. Instead, just hang back the sails, relax, and the sails will catch enough wind to get you into motion.

Other Factors

We, of course, noted earlier that there are other factors that may determine the ideal wind speed for sailing. Let's look at them.

Boat Types

The type of boat you're using may determine whether or not the wind speed is ideal for you.

  • Sunfish boats - Make sure that you stay at wind speeds below 15 knots. Anything above that may overpower the boat and may leave you in a precarious if not deadly situation.
  • Up to 26 feet boats - These types of boats sail best in wind speeds ranging from 10 to 20 knots.
  • Over 26 feet boats - These are heavy boats that can perfectly handle wind speeds ranging from 15 and 25 knots.

Should you avoid Windy Conditions?

To be very honest, windy conditions can be deadly and you should always avoid them. Remember, your safety should always come first. But what happens if you go out there thinking that the conditions are ideal only to find yourself in foul weather or stormy situations? Believe it or not, you'll at, one point, run into the worst moment and you'll have to figure out how to deal with the situation and how to stay safe.

For this reason, you should always be prepared for such situations. The first thing is to always dress for the action, have your lifejacket, and get in a situation where you can learn how to reef down. While you can smoothly sail in flat waters, look for wind speeds that are just above 20 knots. Make sure that the boat is designed for such conditions and have an appropriate reefing system.

When it comes to reefing, the golden rule is that you should have reefed already if you're thinking about reefing. The best way to decide when to reef is by judging the degree of heel and weather helm produced by the boat when sailing in high winds. When to reef may also depend on the size and stability of your boat. You should, therefore, reef if your boat is heeling extremely or if you expect high winds.

Bottom Line

To this end, the ideal wind for sailing may vary from one person to another. What's ideal for you may not be ideal for another person. Again, the ideal wind speed for sailing may depend on your skill level and the type of boat you're using. If you're beginning, you can choose somewhere between 7 to 10 knots until you're comfortable enough to handle the boat. You can then move on to moderate winds of 15 to 20 knots if you want fun, engaging, and challenging situations.

All in all, it's important to stay safe while out there on the water by avoiding very windy or stormy conditions.

What Is The Ideal Wind Speed When Sailing?
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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