Learn the Basics of Sailboat Navigation

Operating a sailboat requires basic skills that can be mastered only with practice. To a certain extent, sailing knowledge can be learned theoretically, but that must be followed by hands-on practice or else the student will have no point of reference. Sailing is a skill that can take years to master. There are many subtleties to it and many small details to remember. The basics, however, can be picked up with a few lessons. The maneuvers are easy in principle, but their proper execution requires knowing them thoroughly.

Basic Navigation

The navigation of a sailboat involves a few simple to understand maneuvers. Basically, a sailboat can either be moving or not. Wind powers the sails, propelling the boat along the water. A sailboat has a finite number of points of sail or directions. These are towards the wind, perpendicular to the wind and with the wind. It is impossible to sail directly into the wind. Each of these points has a specific name which will follow. Turning the boat is another aspect. A sailboat can either turn its bow through the wind or its stern through the wind.

Points of Sail

There are 5 basic points of sail: close hauled, close reaching, beam reaching, broad reaching, and running.

  • Close hauled sailing is as close as a boat can get to going into the wind. It is roughly 45 degrees to the wind.
  • Reaching is the range of sailing perpendicular to the wind. Close reaching is nearer to the wind, beam reaching is 90 degrees to the wind and broad reaching is about 135 degrees from the wind.
  • Running is the term that describes sailing with the wind.

Sailing directly into the wind is not possible. It is called being in irons, and your boat does not move forward.

Turning the Sailboat

As mentioned, the sailboat can turn one of 2 ways: bow or front through the wind or tail or stern through the wind. Taking the front end through the wind is called tacking or coming about. Taking the stern through the wind is called jibing. Both maneuvers require very specific actions of the crew’s part to keep the sails trimmed and maintain momentum. Turning towards the wind without going through it is called heading up, while turning away from the wind is called bearing away.

Stopping the Boat

The way to stop the boat while at sea is called heaving to. It requires similar actions as coming about, but the end result is that the boat cancels out its motion in relation to the wind.

Navigating a sailboat takes a lot of practice, but it really only involves a few maneuvers that are repeated over and over again. Learning to perform them accurately on a moment’s notice and without losing speed is what separates experienced sailors from novices. Knowing exactly what action to take in a tricky situation is another factor that distances pros from amateurs.