How To Sail: Four Essential Skills Explained

Posted on September 19, 2013 by Lee under Boating, Sailing Comments Off on How To Sail: Four Essential Skills Explained

BasicSailingSkillsSailing can seem like a complex, unfathomable ability to those who’ve never gained competence on the water. However, it really just boils down to a collection of different skills that need to be mastered.

Here’s are four essential sailing skills that we think you should know like the back of your hand.

#1 Hoisting The Main Sail

If you want to get anywhere with your boat, you’ll need to know how to get the main sail up swiftly and safely in order to catch the thrust of the wind.

Firstly, you’ll need to attach the main halyard to the head of the main sail. The halyard is the line that runs from the boom to the top of the mast – clip it to triangular head of the mainsail.

HoistingMainSailRelease the tension in the mainsheet and boomvang (at the front of the boom) by uncleating them.  Now, put the boat in to the wind! Of course, since the main sail is down, you’ll need to do this either with the jib or a motor, if you have one on-board.

Finally, raise that sail: find the line that connects to the halyard and pull it up, using one hand at a time. Once the main sail arrives at the top of the mast, you’re done – secure it in place by cleating the halyard off.

#2 Gauging Wind Speed

The ability to estimate the wind speed is an idiosyncratic sailing skill, and even with the advent of electronic equipment, it’s still vital to have it in your back pocket.

The Beaufort scale is your best friend here. Essentially it pairs descriptions of surrounding conditions with numerical speed ranges in miles per hour or knots.  Feel free to bring a copy with you – although if you really want to impress your friends, the scale doesn’t take long to memorise, and the inland version can be used out and about at home.

In a nautical situation, it pays to double check wind speeds – you can do this by looking at the sails of other ships to get a feel for how fast the winds are. Also, discuss wind speed other crew members on board to arrive at a consensus.

Finally, don’t forget to look all around you when assessing surrounding conditions, as they may differ depending on the direction you’re facing.

#3 Stiffening The Sails

Stiffening the sails is important if you want your sails to last. Stiff sails endure fluctuations in wind strength and will flutter less in strong conditions, making your voyage smoother.

Stiffening the sail should, of course, be done well before you set off.

Lay the sail out flat on the deck of the ship, and set it in to the boom. Extend it out from the boom, and pull it tight so it’s ready to accept the sail battens. These are thin lengths of plastic or wood that give the sail the structure it needs to remain stiff in windy conditions.

Insert the battens in to the batten pockets, starting at the bottom of the sail. Congratulations! Your sail is now stiffened and ready to take a pounding from the strong coastal winds.

#4 Avoiding the Boom When Sailing

Close encounters with the boom are the biggest source of injury in the sailing sports. They don’t call it the “boom” for nothing!

Although many sailors consider a knock from the boom a rite-of-passage, it does pose a real safety risk and the more you can do to minimise being struck by it, the better. Here’s how to do so.

Firstly, get a feel for the range of motion of the boom. You’ll need an acute awareness of how far the boom can swing in each direction if you’re going to stand any chance of avoiding it.

Next, you need to pinpoint the “safe spots” – that is, the positions on the boat where it’s physically impossible to be hit by the boom if you’re sitting or ducking. These will become your go-to points when the boom swings around on the waters.

It’s important to keep your wits about you aboard the boat, which means being aware of anything in your surroundings that could cause the boom to swing.  For example, the wake of a sizable motorised boat can tip sailboats and set the boom in motion, especially if you’re sailing at a slow speed.

Lastly, remember to communicate with your crew. The captain should shout “ready about!” before coming about, and all sailors on board should take that as a prompt to watch out for the swinging boom. Also, generally watch out for your fellow sailors  – an early call might save them from a painful encounter.

Of course, these skills are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning to sail – there’s many more to learn, and a beginner sailing course is the best place to start. Have we whet your appetite?  See the latest courses available in your area, and take the first steps toward building an impressive array of coastal sailing skills.


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