Sailing for beginners: How-to guide 

by Kshaunish Jaini, on Dec 24, 2016

Sailing a boat is brilliant! It is probably one of the coolest things to know how to do. It is full of action and excitement and requires continuous monitoring of eighty different things - keeping an eye on the telltales, controlling the tiller, the mainsail, the boom and balancing the boat by leaning outside till you're almost falling over while pulling on the halyard (the Haul-yard). Confused much? Worry not, because this post is meant to be a guide for beginners on how-to sail a boat and what-is the in's and out's of sailing (including the sailor lingo!) A thorough grounding in the basics of sailing can make a huge difference when you're in the boat. We shall discuss the basic terms and sailing techniques for a craft with 2 sails - The Mainsail and the Jib sail (like the Enterprise Class). This is also known as the Sloop. This will also be applicable, however, to boats with only one sail (like the incredibly swift Laser Class).

Sailing the high seas!

Most modern sailing crafts have two basic sails - a small one in front of the mast and a larger one behind it. The sail in front of the mast is called the jib while the one behind the mast is the mainsail. A sailboat's steering mechanism consists of two main parts - a rudder and a tiller. The rudder is the vertical board or plate which projects out like a fin from the centre-line of the hull. It acts like a fin as its inclination creates a resistance on that side of the boat and swings it in that direction. The tiller is the horizontal bar by which the rudder is operated. It is attached to the rudder through a fulcrum, so pushing or pulling the tiller to one side will swing the rudder to the opposite side. Many boats and dinghies have extensions fitted to the tiller that help to control the rudder from a further distance. Before we go on, I think a lesson in sailing jargon will help make more sense of this post. These are the basic boating terms to know when sailing.
  1. Aft - My favorite moment while reading Asterix ( from Astrix the Legionary ) was when the Egyptian says "Let Go Aft!". The aft is the back of a ship. If something is located aft, it is at the back of the boat. a.k.a The stern.
  2. Bow - As some of you may know, the front of the ship is called the bow. The bow is important to know because it is also used to define two of the other most common sailing terms: Port (to the left of the bow) and Starboard (to the right of the bow).
  3. Port - Port is the left-hand side of the boat when you are facing the bow. This is because “right” and “left” can become confusing sailing terms when used out in the open waters. Port is used to denote the left-hand side of the boat with respect to the bow. ( An easy way of remembering this is the both words Port and Left have 4 letters)
  4. Starboard - The starboard is the right-hand side of the boat when you stand facing the bow. The side that is not the Port is the Starboard. Easy, right?...I mean.. Easy, starboard?
  5. Beam - The broadest or widest section of the boat.
  6. Telltales - The little pieces of string attached to the side of the sails that tell the direction of wind.
  7. Rudder - The rudder is a flat piece of wood (or metal ) that is used to steer the ship and is located under the boat. In case you have seen Popeye steering a boat using a wheel and were wondering - Larger sailboats control the rudder via a wheel, while smaller sailboats will have a steering mechanism attached aft (see what I did there?).
  8. Boom - The onomatopoetic boom is the horizontal pole which extends from the bottom of the mast. Adjusting the boom towards the direction of the wind is how the sailboat is able to harness wind power in order to move forward or backwards.
  9. Keel - The keel, more like a mini anchor, is a steel structure in the middle section of the boat used for stabilisation purposes. It creates drag and thus can be pulled upwards to increase speed (a technique usually used when in the running position (read on for more on running a boat)
  10. Windward - The direction the wind is blowing from. Windward is the opposite of leeward (the direction the wind is blowing to). Sailboats move with the wind, making windward an important sailing term to know. (Also a term used in Meteorological Departments)
  11. Leeward - This is the direction opposite to the way the wind is currently blowing.
  12. Tacking - This basic sailing maneuver refers to turning the bow of the boat through the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other side. The boom of a boat will always shift from one side to the other when performing a tack or a jibe.
  13. Jibing - The opposite of tacking, this basic sailing maneuver refers to turning the stern (or aft) of the boat through the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other side. Jibing is a rarer technique than tacking, since it involves turning a boat directly into the wind
Keep practicing these terms and incorporate them in everyday use as that is what will help them become a part of your vocabulary. All hands on DECK! Aye, aye cap'n. She jump'd off starboard. Let go AFT!

Pic Credits

After this post, you can explain sailing to your newb friends! Thanks us later. (Pic Credits)

Now that that is out of the way, there are three basic positions in which a boat sails. These are Run, Reach and Beat. In the simplest of terms, A boat is Running when the wind is blowing from astern (behind the boat), Reaching when the wind is blowing from broadside-on and Beating when it is blowing from ahead. When sailing in dinghies (which are small open boats with mast and sails esp. used for pottering around and racing), the helmsman (and crew, if any) will keep to the windward side when reaching or beating and towards the middle of the craft, either port or starboard when running. This is because the weight of the crew is an essential factor in the balance and stability of the boat. When reaching or beating, their weight is needed on the windward side to balance the capsizing force of the wind!


A boat is running when the wind is blowing from astern (you should know what this means by now). When a boat is in run position, the mainsail should be adjusted so that it is at nearly right angles to the wind. The mainsheet, which controls the angle of the mainsail, should be slacked off till it is at nearly at right angles to the direction of the boat (where the nose of the boat points). When a boat is running, the wind does not exert any lateral thrust (sideways force), so the keel of the boat may be raised to reduce the drag. This will noticeably increase the speed of the craft. Though it may seem so, a run position is not the easiest point of sailing. In the others, the wind exerts a steadying effect on the sails. This does not happen when the wind is blowing from astern and the boat is thus, more liable to roll. Many prefer to keep the keel partially submerged during running so that rolling and yawing (swinging from side to side) is reduced.


A boat is reaching when the wind is blowing from the beam (remember beam?). To catch the wind during reaching the sails (both the main and the jib) must be pulled in closer. There are many angles from which the wind may blow for the boat to be reaching. The wind directions vary over a wide arc. The boat is said to be on a close reach if the wind is coming from forward of the beam. If the wind is coming from further aft, the boat is said to be on a broad reach. One must sheet (pull in) the sails closer on a close reach than on a broad reach. If the wind does not fill in the sails properly, it is an indicator that the sails haven't been sheeted in close enough. It is more difficult to tell if the sails have been sheeted in too close. The best indicator for this is the luff of the mainsail. The luff is the part of the sail closest to the mast. Under these conditions, the luff should be soft, which means that it should be gently pressed by the wind.

Pic Credits

Reaching is the most exhilarating point of sailing. The craft moves fast (the fastest in fact), it is easiest to steer and the safest direction in which to sail. There is also little danger of gybing (the violent swinging of the sail to the wrong side of the boat).


A boat is said to be beating the wind or in beat position, when the wind is coming from ahead (the bow) of the boat. No boat will sail directly against the wind. A craft is beating when the wind is coming from diagonally ahead, from a point fairly close to the bow. The sails must be sheeted in even closer than when they are during reaching. Similar to reaching, if the sails have not been sheeted enough they will be slack as the wind will not fill them properly. If they have been sheeted too much, they will be too hard (as indicated by the luff). One must keep a continuous eye out for the wind during beating since if the wind changes direction (or mishandling the tiller), it may lead to the wind coming from directly ahead. This will then have no thrust on the sails and the boat will lose speed and stop. The boat then loses control since the rudder will not work. If the wind is rough and boisterous, and changes direction, a sudden gust may heel the boat and even capsize her! Beating takes practice and skill to determine how close you can sail to the wind and the correct angle of the sails.

Several sailing dinghies racing on a lake (Pic Credits)

Now that you know the bare basics of Sailing, try your hand out at them. Skills are only sharpened by practice and the best part about sailing is that it is so much fun! Header image credits