This is Part One of a six-part series
on Learning to Sail excerpted from
Colgate's Basic Sailing, used as a text
at the Offshore Sailing School. Steve Colgate
calls upon a vast experience gleaned from teaching
thousands of students and competing at some
of the highest levels of the sport. His clear
and straightforward approach focuses on reasons
why a sailboat moves with the wind the way it
does and seeks to allay the fears of beginning
Editor's NoteFirst time sailors are
faced with a lot of unfamiliar material. The
centuries-old terminology can be bewildering,
and at times it may indeed seem as if you are
learning a new language as you incorporate these
words. It is important not to get discouraged
while sifting through the meanings. The sailor's
language and onboard movements eventually become
second nature after repeated exposure. That
said, it doesn't do any good to plow along blindly
not knowing your clew from your tack or your
outhaul. Proceed slowly, and when an unfamiliar
term comes up, take the time to consult one
of the accompanying diagrams and study the text
until the concept is clear.
Bending and Hoisting the Sails
Locate the clew of the mainsail. Starting at
the point where the boom connects to the mast,
insert the clew into the groove of the boom
and pull it out to the end while another person
feeds the foot of the sail into the groove.
A pin is placed through the tack corner, the
"outhaul" is attached to the clew, pulled tight
to stretch the foot, and "secured" or cleated.
The battens are then placed in the batten
pockets of the sail. Check that you have the
right length of batten in the proper pocket.
Starting at the tack, follow along the luff
to make sure there are no twists in the sail.
Attach the main halyard, looking "aloft" (up)
in case it's "fouled" (twisted) around a spreader
or backstay. If the main luff has slides, put
them all on the mast track starting at the head
of the sail. If the mast is grooved, you will
have to feed the luff of the sail in the groove
as it goes up. However, before you hoist the
mainsail, it's best to get the jib ready.
If the jib is not rolled up on a roller furler,
it will have to be attached each time you go
out sailing. The tack of the jib is the corner
that is attached first. There are a number of
ways to quickly identify this corner: (1) the
sailmaker's label or emblem is almost always
located there since there is an International
Sailing Federation rule to this effect; (2)
the angle at the tack is much wider than the
angle at the head; (3) the jib hanks, or snaps,
usually attach to the jibstay from right to
left, for right-handed people—in other words,
with the opening in the snap on the left. If
you dump a large sail out of the bag, just by
looking at one jib hank you can tell which way
to follow the luff to the tack; (4) a good crew,
knowing that the tack is needed first, will
leave that corner on top of the sail after "bagging
it" (putting it away in a sailbag); and (5)
on larger boats, "Tack" is often written at
the corner so there can be no mistake.
Attach the tack of the jib and start hanking
on the snaps from bottom up. If you start at
the top of the sail, you would have to hold
the sail up and hank on each snap underneath.
This would get mighty heavy after a while. Also,
the sail would be up high where a gust of wind
could blow it overboard. So you start with the
tack first and pull the sail forward between
your legs to keep it low, protected from the
wind, and to avoid draping it over the side
of the bow in the water.
The jib sheets (the lines that adjust the
jib in and
are now attached to the clew and led through
their proper "leads" (blocks, or pulleys, that
adjust the trim angle of the jib), and either
a "figure-eight" knot or "stop" knot, as shown
in Figures 1 and 2, is made in the end of each
sheet. This keeps the end of the line from running
out of the jib lead when you let it go. Of the
two knots, the "stop" knot is the better. Now
attach the jib halyard that will pull the sail
up, and you're all set to go.
The mainsail is raised first for various
reasons. It acts like a weather vane and keeps
the boat headed into the wind. This is most
important on a cruising boat since you are apt
to motor out of a harbor, head the boat into
the wind, and idle the engine while the mainsail
is raised. If the boat swings broadside to the
wind, which might happen if you raise the jib
first, the mainsail will fill with wind, press
against the rigging, and bind on the sail track,
making it virtually impossible to raise the
The same problems arise on smaller boats,
but if you start from a mooring, the boat automatically
"lays" with her bow pointed directly into the
wind. Sometimes the current is strong enough
to overpower the wind's effect, but in that
case, usually the wind won't be strong enough
to create problems in raising the sail. Therefore,
with small boats sailing from moorings, the
only reason to raise or unroll the jib last
is because it flails around during and after
raising. This tangles the jib sheets and causes
an awful commotion on a windy day, which continues
until the main is raised and you start sailing.
The flailing also reduces the life of the jib
because it breaks down the cloth fibers and
fatigues the sail. If the jib is rolled on the
forestay, just release the furling line and
pull on the leeward jib sheet to unroll it for
One important item to remember when raising
sails is that all the sheets must be completely
loose so the sail will line up rather than fill
with wind. At the same time, all lines that
might be holding the boom down (like the cunningham
or the boom vang) must be eased so that nothing
can keep the main from going all the way up.
A crew member should hold the end of the boom
up in the air to relieve the pull of the leech
of the sail if the boat does not have a topping
lift (line to hold the boom end up).
Leaving the MooringBefore leaving
the mooring, let's get a couple of basic terms
clear: starboard and port are two terms in constant
use on board a boat. Starboard is right and
port is left when facing forward (toward the
bow). Some remember this by the fact that "port"
and "left" have the same number of letters.
It's been said that the words came from sailing
ships of long ago that used a sweep, or oar,
for steering. It was called the "steering board"
and was over the right side of the boat when
one faced the bow. Thus the right side was called
the "steering board" side and later, the starboard
side. The left side was clear to lay next to
a dock while the boat was in port and became
the "port" side.
Now we're ready to sail away, but since the
boat is headed directly into the wind at a mooring
and is not moving through the water, it is what
we call "in irons" or "in stays." This can happen
at other times when a boat attempts to change
tacks by turning into the wind, is stopped by
a wave, and loses "steerageway" or "headway."
In order to steer a boat, water must be flowing
past the rudder. If the boat is "dead in the
water" (motionless) the rudder is useless, so
the sails have to be used in its place.
Because the boat is pointing directly into
the wind, the sails are "luffing" (shaking).
To "fill" the sails, you will have to place
the boat at an angle
the wind. Usually this angle is 45 degrees or
more, and when the boat reaches this position,
the sails will fill with wind and the boat will
start moving forward. Until that point, however,
the sails have to be manually forced out against
the wind to fill them. This is called "backing"
the sail. If you want to turn the bow of the
boat to starboard (to the right), you hold the
jib out to port as in Figure 3. The wind hits
the port side of the jib and pushes the bow
to starboard. After the boat is pushed 45 degrees
to the wind, the jib is released and trimmed
normally on the starboard side.
the jib is the fastest and surest method of
falling off onto the desired tack, there are
other ways. If the boat is drifting
backward as in Figure 4, put the tiller to starboard.
The rudder will turn the stern of the boat in
the direction of the arrow and the boat will
"fall off" onto the port tack.
You might be sailing a small boat that has
no jib. In that case, you can push the main
out against the wind. This starts the boat moving
backward and turns the stern to the opposite
direction of the side that you are holding the
main. In other words, if you back the main to
the starboard side, the stern will go to port
as in Figure 5. Help the boat to turn by putting
the tiller to starboard as described in Figure
If you are sailing a yawl or a ketch, you
can back the mizzen (aftmost smaller sail) out
against the wind in the same manner, and with
the same effect, as backing the main of a small
boat. Note Figure
6. The standard procedure when leaving a mooring
is for a crew member to untie the mooring line,
but hold on to the end of it (or, if possible,
use it to pull the boat forward to gain a little
forward momentum) while another crew member
backs the jib. When the bow is definitely swinging
in the desired direction, the mooring line is
released and you're off sailing.
As the boat starts moving forward, the rudder
becomes effective. Though it eventually becomes
automatic, at first one has to think which way
to push the tiller to steer a sailboat. As the
boat sails along, water flows past the rudder.
When the rudder is turned, it deflects the water
flow and pushes the stern opposite from the
direction of the deflected flow.
Study Figure 7. The hull and keel of the
boat act as a pivotal point, so the bow goes
in the opposite direction of the stern. When
leaving a dock in a cruising boat under power,
one often sees the new owner try to swing the
bow out too sharply. The stern bumps along the
pilings because the skipper is so intent on
turning the bow, he forgets he is actually throwing
the stern toward the dock. To turn to port you
have to push the tiller to starboard and vice-versa,
which confuses many beginners. It's interesting
to note that the fireman who steers the rear
wheels of a hook-and-ladder truck is called
the "tillerman." The theory is the same. There's
no easy way to remember how to steer a sailboat.
Practice is the key. Just sail on a "beam reach"
(see Figure 8) and make a series of small turns
to get the feel of it.