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Sailing 101

How does Sailing work? What are the basic fundamentals of the game? Get ready to learn about Sailing 101. You don't need any prior knowledge to start learning.

Sailing 101

Table of Contents


Sailing The Basics

Sailing is a sport that can be done from a competitive standpoint or simply for enjoyment. The object is to capture wind gusts using sails attached to the center or front of a boat, using them to steer the boat towards the desired direction or destination. Sailboats can be deployed in both saltwater and freshwater. Whereas oceans tend to be environments for casual and explorative sailing, lakes and rivers are better for competitions due to the fact that there generally aren't rough currents to impede each team's progress.

When sailing merely for pleasure, time is not of the essence. Competitive sailing, however, requires participants to compete against each other in races known as regattas. Races are far more complex, as sailors have to pay careful attention to wind patterns and constantly reposition their sails in order to reach each checkpoint as quickly as possible and post a better time than the opposition.

Sailing Basics

Sailing Equipment and Gear

First and foremost, sailing requires a boat. Sail boats do not have motors and are much smaller than a cruise ship or commercial vessel, ranging anywhere from 16-50 feet in length. There are many different types of sailboats, with some designed to be extremely maneuverable and accommodate larger groups of people while others fit far less passengers and reach fairly high speeds.

Aside from the boats themselves, the most important pieces of sailing equipment are the sails. Modern day sails are made out of durable, synthetic materials such as nylon or polyester. These tend to be the preferred materials because they are inexpensive and hold up well to the significant wear and tear imposed by constant sunlight and water damage. Sails are knotted to thick metal posts that are securely fastened to the base of the boat before being hoisted into the air. Depending on whether or not there are significant wind gusts to take advantage of at any given time, ropes can be utilized as a pulley system to draw the sails back in towards the boat when needed.

Often times, sailors make a point of storing proper safety equipment within the boat. Life jackets, for example, are a necessity in the event that the boat capsizes or passengers are forced to evacuate due to unforeseen circumstances (i.e. a breakage/leakage). In fact, many sailing competitions prohibit teams from starting a race without first proving that emergency floatation devices and first-aid kits are on hand.

Sailing Equipment

Sailing Penalties and Rules

Many of the violations associated with competitive sailing revolve around using additional outside influencers to propel the boat forward. For example, the United States Sailing Association (USAA) explicitly states in its official rulebook that sailors cannot use their body weight to rock the boat in any direction, nor can they repeatedly raise and lower the sails to generate extra movement. If caught committing any such an infraction, the guilty team is subject to disqualification from the race.

Another common violation is failure to pass through checkpoints. Many races have checkpoints that are clearly marked by two poles attached to buoys. Prior to arriving at the final destination, teams must weave through the designated areas or otherwise incur a penalty in the form of additional seconds added onto their recorded finish time.

Sailing Positions

There are several different positions occupied by the members of a sailing team, each with a distinct set of responsibilities. Some of the main titles include the helmsman (responsible for steering the boat), tactician (tracks wind patterns and maps out the most efficient route), mastman (monitors the sails and decides on the most opportune time to raise them) and crew boss (oversees all operations and ensures that each team member is executing their job properly).

Sailing positions may also be used to refer to the position of the boat at any given time. When trying to make up time and quickly advance towards the finish, crew members will likely align the boat in the exact direction of the wind so that each gust provides the boat with a significant push forwards. Should a team miss one of the checkpoints, it is helpful to turn the boat towards the opposite direction in which the wind is blowing in order to backtrack and retreat towards the markers.

Sailing Positions

Important Sailing Concepts

If you are new to the sport of sailing, here is a list of the most important sailing concepts...

  • Boat sections
  • Wind patterns
  • Race checkpoints
  • Tying knots
  • Raising the sails
  • Piloting upwind versus downwind
  • Steering the boat
  • Time penalties
  • Outside assistance
  • Trimming sails
  • Emergency planning
  • Starting/stopping/docking
  • Proper boat selection
  • Rigging the boat

Sailing 101 Terms

Listed below are some of the most widely used sailing terms

  • Dinghy: a lightweight sailboat that requires the weight of its passengers to stay upright and afloat
  • Windward: moving in the same direction as the wind (opposite is leeward)
  • Port side: the boat's left side (right side is starboard)
  • Mast: the metal pole that holds up the sails
  • Jib: smaller sail that accompanies the much larger, main sail
  • Hull: the body of the boat (usually made of fiberglass)
  • Rudder: blade attached to the back of the boat that skims the water to help with steering and changes of direction
  • Single-Handed/Double-Handed: the former describes a sailboat that is manned primarily by one crew member, while the latter requires two people


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