How To Sail A Boat: A Basic Guide

For thousands of year humans have harnessed the wind to propel watercraft, dating back to some of the earliest known sailboats along the Nile River in Africa. Needless to say, sailing has become part art, part sport and part science. There are many factors that go into properly capturing the natural power of the wind to move a vessel through the water efficiently. However, in order to sail any type of sailing vessel, you first will need to understand the following basic sailing concepts:

  1. Rigging a boat: This involves setting up the sails and other systems on a sailboat.
  2. Catching the wind: The process of adjusting the sails to catch the wind in order to move the boat forward.
  3. Steering a sailboat: Generally sailboats use a rudder to steer the boat along a course, making small adjustments.
  4. Changing direction: To change course direction, you can adjust the sails and/or use the rudder.
  5. Stopping a sailboat: You can lower the sails or drop anchor to bring the boat to a halt.
  6. Docking a sailboat: To dock the boat, slow your speed, lower the sails and use the engine (if available) or natural currents to carefully approach the dock, then use docking lines to tie the boat up securely.

In addition to understanding these basic concepts, it is important to familiarize yourself with the modern boating rules of the road, all relevant local and federal boating laws and regulations and some basic boating safety guidelines, such as wearing a life jacket and having a VHF radio onboard in case of emergencies. Some areas may require a boating license to operate certain types of vessels in public waterways.

Once you’ve grasped the above key concepts the next step is to hit the water and literally “learn the ropes”. Let’s take a look at how to set sail and what to do while underway.

Above: A sailboat underway with full sails during a regatta at sunset in the ocean. Photo by aragami12345 via Pond5.

Basic Sailing Tips & Procedures

  1. Use a checklist before you set out in order to make sure you have all safety equipment onboard, the boat is properly rigged and all systems are functioning properly.
  2. Know your rigging. Every sailboat is unique and set up for a certain type of sailing. Before departing make sure you understand your particular setup and how to lower and raise all of the sails.
  3. Pay attention to the wind direction and strength as you head out to sea and adjust your sails accordingly to catch the wind and move the boat forward.
  4. Plot your basic course. Once you’re ready to get under sail, plot your basic course ahead and plan for when you will make your tacks.
  5. Aim the boat at a 45-degree angle to the wind. Sailboats do not generally sail directly into the wind, but rather must sail in a zig-zag course (known as beating). When you first set sail, you will figure out the direction of the wind and aim the boat at about a 45-degree angle away from the direction it is blowing.
  6. Trim your sails based on speed, course and heel angle. As the sails fill with wind you can begin to learn how to trim them to capture the right amount of wind to propel the vessel forward without heeling too far to one side or another (to avoid capsizing) or going off course. Now you are ready to practice steering, trimming and tacking.
  7. Use the rudder to steer along your course. To turn the boat along its course, use the rudder to steer in the desired direction. You can also trim the sails in or out to adjust speed and heel angle, aiding in steering.
  8. Adjust the sails to change direction (tacking).
  9. To stop, lower the sails or drop anchor and bring the boat to a halt.
  10. To return to port and dock the boat, slow down and lower your sails. Here you must study the direction of currents and undercurrents in order to utilize them to your benefit when making your approach in tight spaces. Many sailboats will have a small motor that can be used for navigating in harbors, bays and marinas to approach a dock carefully.

Points Of Sail

As mentioned earlier, the direction of the wind is crucial for sailing a boat and it determines the directions that a sailboat can and cannot sail. Sailors adjust the angle of the boat and the trim of the sails based on the direction of the wind and what are known as the five “Points of Sail.” This allows them to sail in the most efficient way possible. Understanding and properly using the Points of Sail is an important skill for sailors.

The 5 Main Points Of Sail

  1. In Irons (Into the wind)
  2. Close-hauled (Beating)
  3. Beam Reach
  4. Broad Reach
  5. Running (Downwind or Dead Run)

Common Sailing Terms

  • Anchor: a heavy metal object that is dropped to the bottom of a body of water to hold a boat in place
  • Bow: the front of a boat
  • Stern: the back of a boat
  • Hull: the main body of a boat
  • Port: the left side of a boat when facing forward
  • Starboard: the right side of a boat when facing forward
  • Keel: a long, thin piece of metal or wood that runs along the bottom of a boat, providing stability
  • Rudder: a flat blade mounted in the water at the back of a boat that is used to steer the boat
  • Mast: a tall, vertical pole on a boat that supports the sails
  • Sail: a piece of fabric that is attached to the mast and used to catch the wind and move the boat forward
  • Line(s): the rope(s) on a boat
  • Rigging: the entire system of sails, masts, booms, yards, stays, and lines of a sailing vessel
  • Mainsail: the primary sail on a boat that is attached to the mast and the boom
  • Headsail: the sail that runs between the top of the mast and the bow of the boat
  • Halyard: a line used to hoist a sail, or an object, vertically
  • Cordage: The onboard set of laid or braided lines used for sailing, maneuvering, anchoring, launching and docking the vessel
  • Sheet: a line used to pull a sail horizontally
  • Leeward: the direction that the wind is blowing towards
  • Windward: the direction that the wind is coming from
  • Boom: the large horizontal arm attached to the mast
  • Helm: the apparatus in the cockpit that is attached to the rudder and is moved to steer the boat (some vessels have a wheel at the helm, others a tiller which is a long lever)
  • Helmsman: the person responsible for steering the boat
  • Tack: a sailing maneuver whereby a sailing vessel moves the sails from one side of the vessel to the other when sailing into the wind, by moving the bow through the eye of the wind
  • Tell-tale: a small piece of fabric or yarn attached to a sail, stay or any rigging on a sailboat, used to indicate wind direction
  • Gybe: (or jibe): a sailing maneuver whereby a sailing vessel reaching downwind turns its stern through the wind
  • Heeling: when a sailboat is leaning over in the water as it is pushed by the wind
  • Heel Angle: the angle at which a sailboat is leaning relative to the water surface

Sail Trim

The way in which the sails are used and shaped by letting out (easing) or pulling in (trimming or hauling) is known as sail trim. Generally, when you’re sailing upwind (in irons or close-hauled) you’ll want the sails to be tighter and flatter, but when sailing downwind, you’ll want them to be more curved and full to catch as much wind as possible. Sailing well is all about sail trim. Every time you change direction you’ll need to trim your sails according to geometry and physics.

Telltales help sailors understand how the wind is flowing over the sail. Most sailors are familiar with using telltales on the jib or genoa, and try to keep them streaming. If the telltales start disappearing around the leeward side of the sail, it indicates that the trailing edge of the main is trimmed too tightly, causing the sail to “stall” as the airflow separates from the leeward side. Trimming the main correctly can increase boat speed, reduce heel, minimize weather helm and decrease leeway, resulting in shorter, more comfortable passage times and more enjoyable sailing, especially when sailing to windward. However, simply keeping the sails full is not the whole story, and over-trimming the sails, or trimming them too tightly, can make the boat more difficult to steer and increase the angle of heel.

Basic Sailing Knots

Knots are important to learn when sailing because they are used for various purposes, such as attaching sheets to sails, tying a dinghy to the mothership, and securing a line under load. On the dock, the safety of the boat may depend on the knots used to secure fenders and dock lines. In rough sailing conditions or when climbing the mast, the knot used in a safety harness or tether setup could be a matter of life or death. It is important to choose the right knot for the specific application and type of line being used, as some knots are better suited for high pressure situations and others are only used in non-load bearing situations. Modern materials like plasma rope, dyneema, and spectra can be slippery and may not hold well with traditional knots, so it is essential to choose the correct knot for these types of lines.

Here are some of the most basic sailing knots to learn before you head out on the water:

Bowline: One of the most frequently used, and important, knots on a sailboat. Used to fix a rope to an object or to create a fixed loop at the end of a line. This knot is easy to tie and untie but does not slip, jam or come loose, even under extreme strain.

Reef knot: Sometimes called a square this is a well-loved knot for tying two pieces or ends of line together. If you ever tied a Scout or Girl Guide neckerchief then you have tied a reef knot.

Figure Eight: Also called a Stopper Knot, it is commonly tied at the end of a line to prevent it from slipping though a block and escaping.

Half Hitch: A simple knot, used when tying something temporarily but not intended to support a lot of strain. It is also used to make other knots stronger. A series of half hitches is often used to secure a dock line on a dinghy.

Clove Hitch: A secure knot used to lash a line to an object such as a rail, ring or post. This is an overlapping knot that is secure and can withstand some parallel force without slipping.

Fisherman’s Knot: A handy knot also known as the Englishman’s, angler’s or lovers knot. Used to secure the ends of two pieces of similar line together, it is simply two overhand knots that jam together.

There are many more different knots that are useful to know when sailing, and it can be helpful to have a reference book on board to consult as needed. The Morrow Guide to Knots, written by Mario Bignon and Guido Regazzoni, is a good resource to have because it includes clear illustrations and detailed instructions

Rules Of The Road

There are international rules called the International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea 1976, or COLREGS, that apply to all vessels, both large and small, and both power-driven and sail-powered. When learning to sail, it is important to understand a few key COLREGS rules, and you can learn the rest as your skills improve and you sail farther from home.

The right of way rules for sailboats depend on the direction of the wind and the direction the boat is traveling relative to the wind. For example, when two boats are sailing side by side in the same direction, the upwind boat must give way because it has more maneuverability. When two boats under sail are traveling in opposite directions, the right of way is determined by the side of the boat on which the sails are set. In general, sailboats have the right of way over powerboats, but there are exceptions. The main goal of these rules is to prevent vessel collisions. However, in situations between a small boat and a large ship, it is important to follow the rules, but also to remember the saying “Might has right” and not put yourself in danger by challenging a large ship.

Remember, sailing can be a lot of fun, but it’s important to be safe and responsible on the water. Make sure you understand the rules of the road and always be mindful of other boats and swimmers in the area.

Written by: Ryan McVinney

C. Ryan McVinney is a film director, producer, writer, actor, boat captain, outdoor enthusiast and conservationist. He's currently the host and director of Boat Trader's award-winning Stomping Grounds TV show that explores boating culture across America. McVinney also directs and produces the documentary series Cult Classics and the extreme superyacht show LEGENDS for YachtWorld, as well the popular Factory Fridays video series for He is a regular contributor to leading marine industry publications.