Why Do Sailboats Lean?

Why Do Sailboats Lean? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

May 18, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Sailboats must lean in order to counterbalance weight to remain buoyant
  • Excessive leaning under normal circumstances could mean a bigger issues such as a leak
  • A smooth sailing experience occurs around a 15 degree lean while turning
  • The boat’s center is the most stable part of the boat and is disturbed when leaning
  • Boats lean differently away from the wind versus being in the same direction

If you have ever been sailing you will know that sailboats lean for a variety of reasons. But why do sailboats lean?

Sailboats lean when waves and wind affect the boat which cause weight and buoyancy to shift. The equilibrium is messed with and causes these changes to occur. In order to balance this out the boat will need to lean in the opposite direction of the wind or waves.

In my experience, it is important to understand how a boat feels before and after changes in wind or water and when keeping the boat forward. If the boat is leaning without any external changes then you might have a bigger issue on your hands.


Table of contents

The Root Cause of Leaning Sailboats

When boats lean to one side or the other due to wind or turning it is called heeling. The shape of a boat’s hull and how much it weighs will ultimately affect how much a boat heels.

To help mitigate how much a boat will heel you could look at add stabilizers but it might be different in such boats like power boats. You could also look to slow down your boat or aim for a steady speed in windy conditions.


Depending on how fast you are traveling while attempting to make a turn will cause your boat to heel much more than a slower boat. Slowing your boat down while making turns will help greatly in how much it will heel. The faster you go will be more noticeable while trying to turn like you would see for big ship rolls.

Remembering Centrifugal Force

The centrifugal force is in effect when you try to make a turn on your boat. As you are making the turn you will feel a force to try and keep you on straight path. This counteracts the balance and inertia the boat will be trying to lean into.

Moving Mass

When a sailboat is underway in a straight direction then the center of the boat is the most stable part. The middle of the boat is known as the center of mass. As you make turns the center of mass is being displaced and it will cause the boat to lean in order to help stabilize the boat.

Water and Wind Pressure

The force from water or waves and wind pressure will affect your sailboat and cause it to lean. As the water and wind pushes onto the sides of the sailboat it will disrupt the center of mass and the boat will need to correct this.

Sailing away from the wind is going to feel different than sailing downwind and trying to make turns for both. There are a few external factors that will affect how much a sailboat will lean such as:

  • Velocity of waves
  • Density of the water
  • Sailing downwind

Design of the Sailboat

The design of the sailboat makes a huge difference in how much it will lean in various circumstances. A variety of factors that help with the sailboat design include:

  • Hull shape: If a boat has a V-shaped hull it will navigate better through the water than a flat bottom boat would.
  • Sailboat weight: Lightweight sailboats are easily moved by wind and water forces to make a boat lean.
  • Length of sailboat: A smaller sailboat is going to respond differently than larger sailing boats.

How to Help with Sailboat Leaning

A sailboat’s ability to maintain buoyancy is important for sailing. Depending on the type of sailboat you have will be one of the biggest differences when compared to another sailboat. If you want to help with how much it leans upon sailing there are a few things you could try.

Active or Passive Stabilizers

Active stabilizers are usually installed on the side of a sailboat but might be placed somewhere else depending on the brand. These help regulate when boats lean and can stabilize in real time automatically.

Passive stabilizers do not need any power from the sailboat. Instead they offer stability by just being attached to the boat like a keel. These could be as simple as a bilge keel or some other type of heavy keel.

Rolling Tanks

In some boats you can have rolling tanks installed that are filled with water. These help balance the waves by essentially adding more weight to the core of the boat.

Proper Weight Distribution

One simple activity you can do is to make sure the weight on your sailboat is evenly distributed the best that it can be. You do not want to ever have too much weight in on specific location of the sailboat and you want to make sure your boat can handle the amount of weight onboard.

Routine Maintenance on Ballast Tanks

Ballast tanks are necessary to help with heeling or listing of a boat. You need to check if the ballast tanks are in proper condition and can safely hold water if you need to balance your boat.

This would be a good time to check for any leaks or make minor repairs before heading out. If you are taking on water then you are at a very high risk of sinking your boat.

Why Do Sailboats Lean More Than Others?

Some sailboats lean more than others due to the differences explained above. However it is important to get a feel for you sailboat and be able to notice when your boat is leaning more than it should.

Before you head out to sail you should always thoroughly inspect your boat. It would also be a good idea to keep up with routine maintenance and check weather conditions for the day.

Best Angle for Leaning

Without too much effort a boat should be able to lean roughly 45 degrees without having your boat sideways. In order to have comfortable sailing experience for cruising you should aim for about 15 degrees while turning.

Sailboats can lean up to 50 degrees without capsizing but it is always best to check with manufacturer standards to see what your boat can really do. A racing dinghy will be able to lean much more than a catamaran so also understand the type of vessel you have.

Causes for Leaning and Capsizing

When you mess with the balance of the boat you are asking for changes in the direction or leaning. If you mess with it too much you are risking the boat to capsize. Here are the main reasons for capsizing:

  • Poor distribution of the weight onboard
  • No stabilizers or keel
  • No overhang over the water line
  • Rough conditions or lack of experience
  • Potential leaks or issues in boat

Weight and stabilizers are simple but effective measures to help with excessive leaning. Even if you have a lot of sailing experience you should still proceed with caution in rough weather conditions. Routine maintenance is key to making sure unwanted leaks or further damage occur to your boat.

Why Do Sailboats Lean?
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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