The basic mechanics of sailing

I will attempt here to describe the mechanics of sailing vessels - what makes a yacht go.


Sailing and yachts mean different things to different people and range from ultra-light, ultra-fast dinghies, to heavy-weight square riggers. (My preference is for long keeled, wooden built gaff-rigged yachts from the 1940's - they are so in-tune with the sea that they feel alive, but I digress...). However, regardless of their form, a sailing ship must harness the wind in order for it to move.

So, how do they do it?

Well, regardless of the type of vessel, there are a few key elements which go towards producing forward motion in the desired direction:


Obvious perhaps, but there are many different types of sail, supported in many different types of rig. These can be loosely categorised into two main types:

  • Downwind rigs
    These are the simplest of sail configurations, the most familiar of these being the square rigged ships seen in countless pirate movies. It is simple to see how these ships achieve forward motion, basically presenting the sail to the wind as a simple parachute or bag and using the wind to blow them along. A characteristic of this type of rig is that the wind must always be behind the mast and that the ship will never be able to exceed the speed of the wind.
  • The 'others'
    In this context, the 'others' refers to 'foil' type rigs which rather than just using the parachute priciple, present the sail to the wind as an aerofoil, generating power from the lift of the sail. These sails come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but all use this principle of aerodynamic lift.
Crucially, it is these foil type sails which allow the ship to sail into the wind. At first this may seem an impossibility, but by presenting the aerofoil to the an oncoming wind, lift will be generated in the sail which is transferred down the mast and generates forward motion. In practice, a ship can point no closer than 45 degrees into the oncoming wind, as at this point the sail will be sheeted in such that it lies along the centre line of the boat and at lesser angles it will lose its efficency to the point where the foil collapses. Of course there is a trade-off in terms of efficiency of power generation in the sail depending on its angle to the wind, with the most efficient (and therefore fastest) being with the ship at 90 degrees to the wind and the sail trimmed slightly back from 90 degrees (a so-called 'beam reach'). At this angle, a modern yacht's speed can easily exceed that of the wind.

So how can the boat travel into the wind without just being blown backwards?

This highlights another characteristic which will apply to any sailing vessel. This is that, unless the wind is directly behind the boat, there will be a tendency for the wind to just push the boat directly downwind (which may not be the desired direction of travel). This phenomenon is called 'leeway'.

In order to counter this, the boat must somehow resist this leeway and turn the force into forward motion. To do this the boat uses:

The keel

The keel basically protrudes from the bottom of the ships hull and places a resistance in the water which slows the rate of downwind travel of the boat.

Of course, keels can take as many forms as sails and range from nothing more than the hull shape of the boat, to 3m deep aerofoil sections with a depleted uranium weight at the tip.

Given that the keel will be travelling forwards through the water, use can be made of this motion and modern keels usually have an aerofoil shape which uses the lift of the keel to further reduce leeway.

Keels also have another important job, which is to reduce the tendency of the wind to push the boat over (known as 'heeling') and to this end are usually made of lead or other heavy material so as to maximise this resistance to heeling.

It is this triangle of forces resulting from the wind, the lift of the sail and the resistance to leeway generated by the keel which combine to produce forward motion.

Of course one final component which should not be neglected is our control of direction which uses the:


The rudder hangs from the stern of the boat into the water and can be rotated along its axis, producing a sideways force which pivots the boat about its keel, thus allowing us to steer.

The rudder is connected to a steering device which could be a simple bar attached to the top of the rudder - a 'tiller' or possibly via a mechanical linkage to a conventional 'wheel'.


In the above, I have presented the very basics of sailboat mechanics. It is of course quite possible to go into far greater detail and there are many resources available which further describe the subject.

Source: My head really - if you spot errors, inaccuracies or ommisions, please msg me

The Art of Sailing

Sailing can be seen as an ancient art, dating back thousands of years. It has been seen as a symbol of exploration as the Europeans crossed the Atlantic in tiny ships with weak hulls. Going into more modern times, sailing has been perfected in many ways.

While sailing can be seen as a waste of money and hours of time to some, it can also be the greatest feeling in the world. One of the best times personally was sailing on into a small cove in a turnabout (officially called N-10’s though started out being called turnabouts), a wind brushing you on your’ side as you are facing parallel to the boat. As you sail further down wind into the cove you can just see the sun setting over the pine trees all around. A chill runs through your’ spine, one that makes you feel like living in that moment forever. Sailing can just do that to you. You have those random times when you go out on a fun sail and come back as clear headed as possible. Waves lapping up against the bow of the boat, whistling wind, luffs form in the sail and slap back into place as it catches the wind again. All of this creates unrequited happiness. Of course, that is if you know how to sail…

Another time, with the same situation except for another turnabout coming in with me, it wasn’t so joyful as it could have been. I was laying my head back on the side of the boat looking up into the sky. Watching the clouds is another great thing with sailing in small boats such as turnabouts. If you know your’ way where you are sailing, or you’re out in open waters, you can just stare up into the sky and gaze for endless periods of time, ah the relaxation (seriously, I’d have to say it’s the most relaxing thing in the world). As for when I was doing this, my friend in the other boat apparently noticed what I was doing and did the same thing. What he did not do however is realize that there was an underwater rock up ahead in front of his boat, which was just deep enough to rip a whole in the bottom of a small boat. I of course knew exactly where it was for I had sailed into this cove hundreds of times. Therefore I steered clear to port. All of a sudden I heard a ripping sound and my friend swearing. I looked up and saw the boat rapidly filling with water.

For turnabouts, there’s a downside, they can be well controlled and go pretty fast, however, once you take on water, that boat’s going down (mainly seeing as turnabouts are wooden, go figure). The lesson that my friend learned was never to copy me, it turns out very badly.

It would seem I’m going off into a tangent, so I’ll try to redirect. Just about the only nuisance of having a boat is maintaining it; if you are ever to get a boat, get a strong one (ie fiberglass) such as a laser, which won’t sink when capsized.

Ranging from as small as 6 feet long to hundreds of feet, sailboats have captured the minds of many, from Nathaniel G. Herreshoff, designer of the Herreshoff series to the ancient Phoenicians, masters of trade by sea, sailing has been a feat like others which shows the ingenuity of mankind. Some uses of boats apparent in history include trade, exploration, enjoyment, relaxation, war, and transportation in general.

Common Sailing Terms

  • RegattaYacht Club sponsored race. Official rules and regulations apply, scoring system kept track both for individuals and teams (each yacht club is considered a team).
  • Committee Boat—Conducts the start and finish of the race, also sets up the courses.
  • Marker—Officially a large orange inflatable buoy, though other buoys can be used.
  • Tack—To bring the boats bow through the wind, changing direction.
  • In Irons—When your’ boat is either pointed directly into the wind, or there is no wind at all.
  • Jibe—When sailing downwind, the boom crosses the center of the boat and onto the opposite side it was originally on.
  • Windward—Direction from which the wind comes.
  • Leeward—Direction in which the wind is going.
  • Right of Way—One boat asserting its’ right to go where it wants (a boat on starboard tack takes precedence over one on a port tack).
  • Port—Essentially meaning “left,” however from the point of view of the boat, not the person.
  • Starboard—Essentially meaning “right,” also from the point of view of the boat.
  • Crew—Maintain the boats sails and such.
  • Skipper—The person at the helm (steering the boat).
  • Hiking Out—The act of leaning out from the boat and over the water so as to make for better balance, the stronger the winds, the more important this can be.
  • Spinnaker-A colorful sail used to go faster when going downwind.
  • Helm—“back of the boat,” where steering occurs.
  • Running-to be going with the wind (downwind).
  • Beating-aka "full and by," meaning to be as high up into the wind as possible without luffing/going into Irons.
  • Close Reach-when the wind is coming across the sailboats bow at a 45 degree angle.
  • Beam Reach-Sailing parallel to the wind (formation of a 90 degree angle between the sailboats direction and the winds direction).
  • Broad Reach-Sailing in a downwind direction, with the wind coming at a 45 degree angle to the stern/135 degree angle to the bow.
  • Coming About-to bring the bow of the sailboat into and across the wind. This will bring the boat from, for example, a 45 degree angle into the wind, to directly into the wind, to a 45 degree angle on the other side of the boat. This act changes whatever tack you were once on (ie starboard to port). This term is yelled by the skipper to signify that he will tack.
  • Jibe-Ho-The statement which is yelled by the skipper, which alerts the crew to the skipper causing the boat to jibe.
  • Fall Off-To steer away from the direction of the wind.
  • Come Up-To steer closer to the direction of the wind.
  • Dead Ahead-directly in front of the sailboat.

Parts of a Sailboat

  • Rudder—Steering device located at the helm, which drags in the water.
  • Stern—The very back of a boat.
  • Bow—The very front of a boat.
  • Mainsail—Largest sail on a boat.
  • Mainsheet—The rope which lets the mainsail in and out.
  • Jib—A smaller sail located at the bow of a boat.
  • Jibsheet—The rope which controls the jib.
  • Mast—Center of balance for a boat, holds up the mainsail.
  • Boom—Protrudes from the mast, points backwards keeping the mainsail in place.
  • Stays—Metal chords which keep the mast in place.

In the common terms section, the terms running and beating are at times confused with each other. The main difference is that beating implies that you are going upwind/into the wind, while when running, you are going downwind/with the wind.

Then there’s racing.

Sailboat Racing

In a standard Herreshoff Race, there will be as many as 5 or 6 races depending heavily upon weather factors. Sailors are given a chart with a key for each of the possible courses the committee boat could set up (different flags represent each course, ie a flag with a triangle on it for a Triangle Course). The boats are then given time to sail out to the starting area. With the use of megaphones and standard flags symbolizing different signals, the sailors will gather at the start line.

Unlike other races such as with running races, a sailboat race starts way before the race “officially starts" (when the final horn goes signaling the start). Sailors must tack back and forth parallel to the starting line, jockeying for good positions. As this happens, the committee boat organizing the race, sounds off a sequence of horn blasts, which signify different amounts of time, left before the start (watches are commonly used among the racers).

Start Sequence:

  • 3 long blasts—3 minutes
  • 2 long—2 minutes
  • 1 long, 3 short—1 and a half minutes
  • 1 long—1 minute
  • short—30 seconds
  • 2 short—20 seconds
  • 1 short—10 seconds

Once the sequence reaches 10 seconds, the blasts countdown with short bursts for each second until zero is reached, at which point one long blast goes off. At this point most all of the racers will be just crossing the starting line, pointing as high up into the wind as possible on a starboard tack. This starting technique is the most common and though you can start on a port tack, it is ill advised unless there is a clear advantage in the wind direction (or if you feel like having 30 other people yelling “STARBOARD, STARBOARD!!!” at you seeing as they will have the right of way).

If any racers are across the starting line when the race starts, the committee boat will proceed to call out sail numbers as to which boats fouled. These boats must then turned around and basically start over.

The Race:

Once across the starting line and sailing at a good strong speed, you’ll need to know where to sail to next. Hopefully you paid attention to those seemingly pointless flags flying from the committee boat. Of course, if you’re not such a great sailor, all you’ll need do is follow the mass of boats ahead of you. I’d say it’s best to know the course you’re racing.

Two basic racecourses in a sailboat regatta are Windward-Leeward and Triangle. These types can be changed so as to suit specific needs for a race, however, are the standard courses used.

The Windward-Leeward course consists of two marks placed in the water, held down by anchors, with the windward one directly upwind of the starting line and the leeward one directly downwind from the starting line. The race starts off towards the windward mark, which the boats go around, then “down” to the leeward mark which you also come around. The race then finishes by crossing the starting line, which is now considered the finishing line. This course, depending on weather conditions, can take from as short as around half an hour to an hour and a half. A common problem that can arise is if the wind dies down. However, in worse cases, winds can pick up to such high velocities that damage is taken to the boats. Disruptions like these are very common with official sailboat races.

The Triangle course is just like the Windward-Leeward course, except for that it adds on one more marker off to one side of the course, thus making a triangle from the three markers (the third marker is called the “jibe” mark, because you jibe around it to continue).

Coming into the finish is usually fast paced and up-wind. As any part of your’ boat crosses the finish line, the committee boat will blast a horn to recognize that you’ve finished.

Protests will occur when one boat feels that another fouled them during a race and didn't do the penalty (ie doing three full circles in the water). If found guilty of fouling the other boat, the boat in question will be penalized with extra time added to their actual finish time.

When you really get into sailboat racing, it can be very exciting and upbeat. Chasing down the opponent, stealing their wind, cutting them off, maneuvering tricks. Then in times when the wind picks up, you'll be speeding towards the finish line, just hoping that you're skills of keeping the boat at a top velocity can beat out your' opponent. As with any race you may find yourself in, sailboat racing is an adrenaline rush, taking upper body strength along with lower (keeping the rudder in place and not falling overboard).

Different types of Sailors/Racers

From my experience, there isn’t a straightforward answer too much of any specific training or practice in the smaller sized boats. Once you get up past the twenty foot boats, you’ll start seeing more serious sailors who go out every chance they get. In these cases, teams are formed, which are sponsored by different companies and such. Back with the small boats however, to be stereotypical, you can break down sailors of small boats into a spectrum, fun loving, serious, and in-between. I can gladly say that I am closer to the fun-loving end of the scale, however I've had the misfortune to meet some overly serious sailors. Luckily enough, the majority of sailors fall under the category of fun-loving. Chances are if you were to ask some random person at a regatta about something, you’d ask one of these people.

Truthfully, in my mind at least, the last true place one can actually be at peace with everything is out at sea. No matter where you are, time of day, or present weather, you can find sailing enjoyable and find something out of it you like. Personally, I’m addicted to sailing. Like I always say, why would anyone ever do drugs when you can be crewing in a 125 foot long tall-ship? (Wow, that really makes me seem like a sailing addict, maybe I am) With the midnight till 4 a.m. shift, I’ve been harnessed to the starboard side of the boat as it is tilted at a 45 degree angle going over ten knots (nautical speed approximately 12 miles per hour). Though this may not seem fast when you think of how fast you may go in a car, when you're out on the water, this speed is indescribable (especially in a sailboat). A tall-ship going this fast is a phenomenal sight and feeling to be aboard at the same time. With a harness, you can just let yourself go and feel as if you’re floating in the wind, along with water spraying up off the bow as it crashes through waves. This, among few other moments, is one that I would love to live in forever.

Sail"ing (?), n.


The act of one who, or that which, sails; the motion of a vessel on water, impelled by wind or steam; the act of starting on a voyage.

2. Naut.

The art of managing a vessel; seamanship; navigation; as, globular sailing; oblique sailing.

⇒ For the several methods of sailing, see under Circular, Globular, Oblique, Parallel, etc.

Sailing master (U. S. Navy), formerly, a warrant officer, ranking next below a lieutenant, whose duties were to navigate the vessel; and under the direction of the executive officer, to attend to the stowage of the hold, to the cables, rigging, etc. The grade was merged in that of master in 1862.


© Webster 1913.

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