How to sail

By Carl Littke. Updated 4 years, 3 months ago. 15,132 unique views.


Most boats today have two sails, but dinghys (small boats) with one sail are generally a good place to start if you want to understand how a sailing boat works. Therefore this article will use a boat with one sail as a starting point.

If you go out sailing without anyone who knows how to, make sure you:
1. know the waters so you dont hit the bottom
2. wear a life-jacket
3. check the weather forecast
4. are not alone in the boat or atleast have someone watching from the shore
5. stay close to the shore


The most important parts of the sailing boat are drawn on the picture.

  • Rudder - Steers the boat.
  • Boom - Stretches the sail to the aft.
  • Sheet - Used to angle the sail against the wind. The sheet is connected to the boom and to the floor of the boat. (If you did not have a sheet the sail would always be facing away from the wind, like a flag.)
  • Keel/centerboard - Gives stability to the boat. On bigger boats the keel is usually made out of lead to add weight. If properly built, this ensures that the boat cannot capsize (unless in extreme waves, but even then the boat will straighten up right away). On dinghys it is called a centerboard. There is barely any extra weight added from the centerboard and the boat might capsize if you catch too much wind. But dont worry, you will already be wet from sailing.
  • Starboard and port - Right and left on a boat is called starboard and port respectively.


A sailing boat is maneuvered either by a steering wheel or by a tiller. If you use a steering wheel the principle is the same as in a car - turn the wheel right and the boat turns right and vice verse. Most smaller boats have a tiller instead of a steering wheel. When you steer with a tiller the boat turns in the opposite direction to where you move the tiller (picture). It takes some time to get used to but after a couple of hours you will most likely be comfortable with it.


In order to gain speed in a sailing boat you have to trim the sail in accordance to the wind. (If you are unsure of where the wind is coming from, look at the waves or see if you can see a flag somewhere.) If you want to sail away from where the wind is coming from you trim the sails in one way and if you want to sail up against the wind you trim the sails in another way. (A sailing boat cannot sail directly towards the wind, but it can sail at about 45 degrees into the wind.) The picture displays how you should trim your sail to make the boat go as fast as possible in different wind situations. Use the sheet to control how far out from the boat the boom and sail are. Pull the sheet to make the sail come closer to the middle of the boat, and loosen it when you want the sail further out.


In a small dinghy your own mass will most likely be the single heaviest object on board and therefore the key to keeping the balance in the boat right. When the sail fills with wind it will not only push the boat forward but also make it tilt. If the wind is coming in from port your sail will be on the starboard side and your boat will tilt to starboard. Use your own weight to balance the boat so that it does not tilt. The red dot on the picture shows where you generally should be positioned. Note that your position is not at the very aft of the boat, but a bit ahead of that. You should take a position that not only balance the boat sideways, but also ensures that the bow and the stern are level.

Tack and gybe

When you turn the boat so that the bow faces the wind and turns through it so that the boom and sail moves over to the other side you tack. When you turn the boat so that the bow faces away from the wind and the boom and sail moves to the other side you gibe. Mind your head as the boom might come fast towards you!

Comments (1)

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