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How sailing works

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How Sailing Works

»Why is almost every robust, healthy boy with a robust, healthy soul in him, at some time or other, crazy to go to sea? Why, upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land?«

-Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”

Sailing started as a way of exploring the world. Although today’s sailors still maintain the explorers ‘ brave spirit from the past centuries, Sailing is no longer a key means of transport, international trade or war. People have been sailing for adventure and sport since the 17th century. [source: Athletic Scholarships].

Many modern sailors are sailing because they love to be on the water. Sailing is ranked as the U.S.’s 17th fastest-growing sport, and it is estimated that over 4 million Americans are recreational sailors[ source: The Boating Channel]. Sailing is an age-old attraction: 40 percent of sailors are between 25 and 44 years of age, and about 17 percent are younger than 17 years of age — [source: The Boating Channel].

And whether you’re inspired by famous explorers like Amerigo Vespucci or Vasco Da Gama, America’s Cup sailing race winners, or just love the feeling of wind in your head, sailing is a sport to saturate your side of adventure. Great winds!

Next we will learn about some of the most popular sailing styles, as well as discover some fun ways to find (and show off) your sea legs.

Types of Recreational Sailing

There are some common styles of recreational sailing that may suit you if you’re looking for a little fun and some high-seas adventure. We also have a few unusual ideas if you’re looking for something a little different.

If you’re a beginner sailor, you might want to start with small sailing boats such as dinghies, daysailers, and small keelboats. They are generally less than 25 feet in length and are easy to maneuver. These can be sailed by an individual (solo sailing) or by a crew member — [source: U.S. Sailing].

Many sailors start with small sailboats, and even as they become professionals, they continue to adventure this way. Dinghies are fun and lightweight— used by college and Olympic racing teams, and great for weekend warriors.

Nevertheless, some adventurers take their hobby of sailing to a whole new level and go cruising. Cruising is not just a hobby; it is a lifestyle. They’re cruising when you hear about someone sailing around the globe. Sailors who choose to cruise stay and fly for extended periods of time on their sailboats. Their ships range from simple keelboats to large, multi-hull yachts. Many cruising boats have many of the comforts of home below deck and may include beds, toilets, kitchen facilities, and even entertainment systems, depending on their size.

Boats can be chartered with skippers for those who want the thrill or relaxation of sailing without the job, and yachts can be chartered with crews. Sunset cruises and Caribbean sailing holidays are two common forms of family-friendly chartered sailing adventures. Sunset cruises are experiences of leisurely cruising and are usually chartered by relaxing small groups. If it sounds more like your style to sail in the Caribbean like the rich and famous, boats (with or without qualified crews) can be chartered by travel agencies. The Virgin Islands, Antigua, St. Barts, St. Martin and Grenada are some of the famous island destinations for Caribbean sailors.

Several resorts sell nude sailing daytrips as well as multi-day island-hopping cruise packages for sailors who want to break away from the norm. (Think about wearing extra sunscreen).

But if you’re looking for an alternative to the scene of heat, sand and waves, ice sailing— also called ice boating, ice yachting, ice surfing, and hard water sailing— transforms sailing into a winter sport. Ice sailing started in the Netherlands in the 1800s as a means of crossing frozen lakes in winter, and has grown in popularity as a recreational sport since ice sailing boats were introduced in the 1930s.

Did you know that it is not possible to take sailboats directly into the wind? Learn the five essential elements of sailing in the next portion.

Salty Talk

You may want to brush up on your nautical vocabulary if you’re new to the world of sailing. Here are a few words you should know:


  • Deep six: Throw overboard
  • Fair winds: Good luck
  • Fouled: Jammed or tangled
  • In irons: When your boat is pointed directly into the wind
  • Mayday: A radio distress call

Units of measure:

  • Fathom: A unit of length equal to six feet
  • Knot: A measure of speed equal to one nautical mile per hour
  • Nautical Mile: One minute of latitude, 1852 meters

Basic Sailing Skills and Terms

Sailing’s fundamentals are easy to learn in a couple of lessons, but perfecting them can take a lifetime. There are five essential skills and techniques to learn about sailing: sailing environment, boat balance, front and aft trim, centerboard position, and good course.

  1. Sail setting: You can’t take sailboats directly into the wind or they run the risk of stopping (when there is practically no wind in your sails). Depending on your sailing point— your boat’s direction in relation to the wind direction— different sailing settings are needed. Through listening to it, you can set your main sail: relax the sail until it flaps along the luff, the closest part to the mast, and then pull it back in until the flapping ends.
  2. Boat balance: It’s known as heeling when the boat starts to lean to one side. It is important to stay conscious of the wind (is it raking?) and the direction of your sails in order to overcome heeling and stay on course. Keep in mind the weight you have on board as well as how it is distributed. If the port side of your boat is leaning, you can fix it by shifting your weight (or crew weight) to the opposite side, or the side of the starboard.
  3. Fore and aft trim: A boat must be balanced from end to end as well. Generally speaking, the front of a boat (bow) is slightly higher than the back (stern), and the body weight distribution on board (you and your crew) is key to maintaining the balance. If your boat drags in the water (an example of what happens when the boat’s back is too low), shift your weight closer to the boat’s center or front. If the bow is in the water, take a seat to the boat’s back. A properly balanced boat allows you to sail faster.
  4. Position of the centerboard: There’s a delicate balance between your boat and the sea, and it can easily push you off course. The centerboard, a piece of wood, fiberglass or metal (depending on the make-up of your boat), is a mobile fine under the hull. You can correct any drift by changing it in relation to your sailing level.
  5. Course made good: Getting from point A to point B is not always a straight course, particularly if you are taken directly into the wind by the straight course. Planning a route that takes you to your destination in the shortest possible time is called “course made perfect.” This is usually accomplished through a tacking maneuver 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’re going to learn about healthy boating and some boating superstitions that have endured over the years.

Knot Knowledge

Sailors are familiar with their knots. You should recognize that there are two general types: bend and hook. A bend is a knot that ends up fastening the rope. To tie the boat to a rail or post, a hitch wraps a rope around itself.

There are hundreds of knots on your practice list, but there are only a few basics that should be:

  • Bowline: You’re standing by a bowline knot. At the end of a run, it produces a circle, is solid, and easy to untie. If you know the old story, you already know the bowline, the rabbit comes out of his pit,’ round the tree and back down into his hole. Use this knot if in question.
  • Square knot: The square knot, or reef knot, is used to tie together two ropes of the same size. Through Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, First Aid training or from fixing your shoelaces, you may be familiar with it.
  • Clove hitch: This loop is a quick way to moor a small boat temporarily on a chain, rail or post.
  • Round turn and two half hitches: This knot is often used to tie a boat to the docking ring or docking post.
  • Figure-of-eight: This stopper knot is used to avoid the unraveling or slipping of a rope from a ring or other unit. In both sailing and rock climbing, this type of knot is important.
  • Bend of the sheet: Do you need a longer rope? A sheet bend knot is a fast way to fasten two sides temporarily.

Sailing Safety and Regulations

In order to keep recreational sailing a fun and safe sport, there are certain guidelines that sailors are expected to follow. Next, it’s important to be honest about your skill level. If you’re a novice or an accomplished professional, going beyond your abilities could put you and others at risk. Seventy percent of reported deaths occur at sea, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, because the boat operator did not have enough (or any) instructions for boating. Source: United States. Coast Guard, Coast Guard.

Your abilities will only carry you so far— to get you out on the water, you’ll need wind in your sails. Once you set off, be sure to assess the wind speed and direction. Test the forecast as well. While you plan, it may be sunny, but a change in weather may lead to a dangerous expedition.

You’ll also want to check your port, equipment and tools with determined skill level and wind direction to make sure they’re all in good condition, and remember if you’ve got everything you need on board before setting off. You are required by federal law to have safety equipment on board. You and your crew will wear life jackets and they should all be able to use the safety equipment of the ships. Make sure you know how to make an emergency call for immediate help— the moment you’re in trouble isn’t the time to figure out how to call for help.

Having a plan is also clever. You are likely to be out of reach of the land on your journey, and if you have an emergency, it may be difficult to find you for help. Set up a float plan and leave a copy before you set sail with a friend or nearby marina. At the very least, the plan should include:

  • The boat description
  • Your boat operator’s name and the names of all people on board
  • What kind of protection and survival equipment you have with you (food, flares, paddles, marine radios, etc.)
  • Your destination, time of arrival and departure

Ability, weather, inspection and a schedule— verify. Be alert and aware of your surroundings once you launch your boat. You are less likely to crash with other vessels or objects by simply keeping a safe speed and looking around you (the top two causes of accidents). [source: U.S. Coast Guard]).

And leave the alcohol on the shore: at sea, drinking and running machinery is as risky as it is on the roads. Violators with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or higher may face civil and criminal penalties, incarceration for one year, or both. [source: U.S. Coast Guard]. Alcohol use is a leading factor in fatal boating accidents — nearly 20 percent of reported fatalities [source: U.S. Coast Guard].

Consult the U.S. for a complete list of rules and regulations. The guard of the coast Navigation Center.


Sailboat Racing

A lot of sailors enjoy testing their techniques, strategies and tactics in races as their sailing skills improve. Races are organized around the world by sailing clubs and colleges. There are two types of sailboat races: team racing (or group racing) where two to four boats compete with each other and match racing where two boats compete head to head.

One of the most popular two-boat races is the America’s Cup, where the best sailors, mechanics and boat builders will show their skills. The rules are developed by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) and are published every four years. Visit the ISAF for a copy of Sailing’s Racing Rules.

How Sailing Works: Sailing: Author’s Note

I was overwhelmed by my gut reaction to being asked to write about sailing. I love the water, so much so that I wanted to be able to live underwater as a child, but I would have sailed only once. To get this right, I’d have to do a lot of research and talk to people with sailing experience.

As a water lover, when I read that most sailors today sail because they love to be on the sea, I was instantly engaged. Yes, I’ve been addicted. I started to imagine a life at sea, sailing around the world from place to place— which, as it turns out, is called cruising. Although cruising is a lifestyle, not a sport, there are plenty of sailing hobbyists who set out instead of keelboats or yachts in dinghies.

While I wouldn’t suggest any set sail without extensive training and on-board experience, I hope to have learned all of the sport’s basics— and show anyone like me the difference between starboard, side, stern, and bow.


Sailing: Cheat Sheet

Stuff You Need to Know:

  • Sailing is ranked as America’s 17th fastest-growing sport, and an estimated 4 million Americans are recreational sailors.
  • Every sailor should be aware of five essential skills: sail setting, boat balance, fore and aft trim, centerboard position, and good course.
  • First safety: be true to your level of skill, assess the direction of the wind and file a float plan before setting.
  • There are two types of sailboat races: racing team (fleet) where two to four boats compete together, and racing matches where two boats compete head to head.

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