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How Sailing Works

Basic Sailing Skills and Terms
The crew members of a racing yacht are sure to know the five basics of sailing.
The crew members of a racing yacht are sure to know the five basics of sailing.
Ryan McVay/Allsport Concepts

The basics of sailing are easy to learn in a few classes, although it can take a lifetime to perfect them. Of the many skills and techniques to learn about sailing, there are five essentials: sail setting, boat balance, fore and aft trim, position of the centerboard, and course made good.

  1. Sail setting: Sailboats can't be taken directly into the wind or they run the risk of stopping (when there's literally no wind in your sails). Depending on your point of sail -- the direction of your boat in relation to the direction of the wind -- different sail settings are needed. You can set your main sail by listening to it: Ease the sail out until it flaps along the luff, the part closest to the mast, and then pull it back in just until the flapping stops.
  2. Boat balance: When your boat begins to lean to one side, it's known as heeling. To overcome heeling and stay on course, it's important to stay aware of the wind (is it gusting?) and the position of your sails. Also keep aware of the weight you have onboard and how it's distributed. If your boat is leaning port side, you can counteract it by moving your weight (or the weight of the crew) to the opposite, or starboard, side.
  3. Fore and aft trim: A boat must also stay balanced from end-to-end. Generally, the front of a boat (bow) is raised slightly higher than the back (stern), and the distribution of body weight on board (you and your crew) is key to maintaining that balance. If you find your boat is dragging in the water (an example of what happens when the back of the boat is too low), move your weight closer to the middle or front of the boat. If the bow is submerging in the water, take a seat toward the back of the boat. A correctly balanced boat allows you to sail more quickly.
  4. Position of the centerboard: There is a delicate balance between your boat and the wind, and you can easily find yourself being pushed off course by it. The centerboard, a piece of wood, fiberglass or metal (depending on what your boat is made from), is a movable fin under the hull. By adjusting it in relation to your point of sail, you're able to correct any drift.
  5. Course made good: Getting from point A to point B isn't always a straight course, especially if the straight course takes you directly into the wind. Planning a route that gets you to your destination in the shortest possible time is called "course made good." This is generally accomplished through a maneuver called tacking, in which the boat is steered in a zigzag, upwind direction.

To find a sailing school in the United States, visit the American Sailing Association.

Next we'll learn about safe boating, as well as some boating superstitions that have persisted through the years.