How to Sail: The Ultimate Sailing Guide for Beginners

Learning to sail can seem like a daunting process. Besides just learning how to sail a boat, the terminology of boating is completely different, and most of what needs to be learned can only be acquired by doing, meaning practice is required. But before you head out on the water, you can increase your knowledge by reading up on sailing, which will further help to keep you safe while on your boat. Discover our ultimate sailing guide for beginners!

(Guide via Jen Reviews)

Sailing Defined

Sailing is the art of taking a boat, turning off the motor, and harnessing the power of the wind to make the boat go where you want it to go. It might seem difficult, but it is really very simple, provided you take the time to understand how the boat utilizes the power of the wind. More than likely your boat will also have a motor (for times when there is no wind), but we will mainly focus on the actual process of sailing, and how that can be achieved.

Before you leave the dock

Before you head out on your own boat (or before you go to purchase a boat), search online and find the nearest sailing school or yacht club. You can find the local sailing school where you can take one on one sailing lessons, or even take an instructor out on your boat to show you the ropes, and how to safely sail. There are also free classes you can take online, which can better prepare you for learning the basics of sailing.

Make sure and check the weather before heading out. If there is a storm headed your way, or in the direction you want to go, it might be prudent to wait a few days until calmer weather is in the forecast. It also can be quite boring to head out on the water if there is no wind, as you will be forced to motor the entire time.

Dress for the weather, but be sure and bring lots of layers. Even if it’s hot out, while out on the water there is nothing to shield the wind, so it might seem colder than on land. Always have a jacket, hat, sunscreen, long pants and or shorts, shoes, and bring lots of water and snacks. Better to be over prepared than under prepared.

ultimate sailing guide

Make a Checklist

Make a checklist for necessary equipment you will want to bring with you on the boat (or even things that are US Coast Guard required). This could include items such as:

  • Life Jackets
  • Drinking water and snacks
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses, hat, jackets, extra clothing
  • Engine fuel and spare parts
  • Binoculars
  • Chart (handheld GPS as well)
  • Bucket (can be used to bail water, clean off the boat, or as a restroom if need be)
  • USCG required equipment for the boat
  • Sound signals (whistle or fog horn)
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Visual distress signals (flares or flashlight at night)
  • Navigation lights (required at night, or if visibility is reduced)
  • Anchor and chain/line
  • Extra line (mooring or various other uses)
  • Fenders (Plastic hard ‘balloons’ that keep your boat from bumping on the dock)
  • VHF radio and cellphone
  • First-Aid Kit and booklet
  • Tool Kit and Knife
  • Lifesling or throwable buoy
  • Bilge pump
  • Radar reflector
  • Ditch kit (full of life saving necessities in case you have to abandon ship)
  • Life raft of some sort (depending on where you are sailing, and the size of your vessel)

These are all useful and necessary items to have stocked on your boat: some are required by the Coast Guard, and some are just common sense. It might also be helpful to bring a sailing buddy when you head out, to assist with docking, hoisting the sails, or just giving a second opinion in case something should occur.

Know your boat

Before heading out on the water, make sure and inspect as much of your boat as you can: understand where the lines (ropes) are going, how the sails are hoisted (lifted) and lowered, and where the safe places to walk or sit will be once you are out on the water. This article will discuss the basic terminology (with important words defined in bold), and try to explain as much as you need to know about the basic parts of your sailboat.

Let’s start with the simple terminology first.

When you get on your boat, and are facing towards the front of the boat, that would be forward, with everything behind you being aft. The very front of the boat is the bow, with the aft part of your boat called the stern. The left of the boat is the port side (think left and port both having four letters), with the right side being the starboard side. That seems simple, right? So let’s keep going.

The mast is the vertical pole that supports the sail. If you only have one big sail, there will only be one mast. Some boats have more than one mast, but sailboats always have at least one. The horizontal pole that comes off the bottom part of the mast is called the boom (which is also the sound it makes when it hits you in your head… be careful of this one!).

The tiller is a horizontal lever arm that turns the rudder (steers the boat), and is either by itself or is attached to the wheel, which is what you use to steer the boat. Standing in the boat you will be on the deck, but if you go inside the boat you will be below-deck. The sides of the boat are called the hull, and the draft is the distance from the surface of the water to the deepest part of the boat underwater (important to know if you don’t want to run aground).

The lines that hold up the mast on the starboard and port sides up to the top of the mast are called the shrouds, while the wire that runs from the mast to the stern is called the backstay, and the wire that runs from the mast to the bow is the forestay (also called the headstay). The beam is the width at the widest point of your boat, and the total length overall is the horizontal length from the tip of the stern to the tip of the bow (necessary to know depending on where you want to dock or store your boat).

It may seem like quite a few terms to know, but while being on a sailboat everything is called something different. But we are only concerned with the most important terms at the moment.

When you start putting up a sail, you will be pulling on a halyard. If you are putting up the mainsail (largest sail that is attached to the mast), you will be pulling on the main halyard. To let the sail move towards the starboard or port side of the boat, you will let out the main sheet (line that is attached to the bottom aft section of each sail, which moves it side to side). You may need to use a winch, which is a round drum that increases your power capabilities to pull on a line (rope).

Jen Reviews
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