Terms & Techniques in Sailing

It is important to know the names of the different parts of the boat for the purpose of learning how to sail and also to communicate with the other members of the crew. Racing is a high adrenaline sport but the result can be decided through a number or minuscule adjustments. It is of paramount importance that each part can be referred to without ambiguity. An instruction to pull that rope (a common term in family sailing trips) is of no use whatsoever in a racing situation. A short glossary is as follows:

Keel – An underwater foil that produces lift. This allows boats to sail much closer to the wind and reduces the likelihood of capsizing. A keelboat is one with a fixed keel.

Centreboard – The alternative to a fixed keel is a centreboard. This is a long fin that is lowered through the centreline of the boat. It can be adjusted depending on the angle to the wind that the boat is sailing by dropping more of it into the water. The board is attached at one corner to a pin to allow it to be adjusted more easily. A daggerboard is exactly the same but without any sort of pivot; the board simply slides up and down.

Rig – The sails, mast and horizontal bar (known as a boom) to which the sails are attached. The standing rigging refers to the metal wires or stays that hold the mast in place.

Mainsail – The largest sail, which generates the majority of boat’s power.

Running Rigging – The ropes or lines that are used to adjust the sails, these are more commonly called sheets. The mainsheet controls the mainsail, the genoa sheet controls the genoa (a smaller front sail).

Rudder – The board at the rear (stern) of the boat that is used to steer.

Tiller – The handle that is used to move the rudder.

Making Sail
This is the first step in getting the boat to move. The boat should be set head to wind, whether on a reservoir slipway or moored to a buoy at sea. The sails are hoisted and left "luffing" (flapping in the wind) until a check has been made that all ropes are free. In strong winds it may be necessary to reef, which means to reduce the sail area. This is done by taking up the sail at the base and fastening it to the boom with a line or series of ties.

This is the fastest method of sailing. It refers to the movement of the boat through the water perpendicular to or with the wind direction. The forces can be divided into the driving force that propels the boat forward (generated by the keel or centreboard) and the heeling force which tips the boat away from the wind. While reaching, the crew must transfer their weight to keep the boat as flat as possible to maximise the sail area that is exposed to the wind and thus reduce drag. The most dramatic sailing images are those of people leaning outside the boat, sometimes with the aid of a trapeze or harness, trying to keep the boat flat whilst reaching. The key to racing lies in positioning the boat and sails to give the fastest reach in the given wind conditions.

Going about and Tacking
Going about involves turning through the wind. The turn must be executed using momentum generated while sailing to pass through the wind. The boat must face the wind, and will not therefore have any power in its sails. By sailing close to the wind and going about (tacking), it is possible to effectively sail upwind and gain windward distance. A key racing tactic is to judge how many tacks to put in on an upwind stretch – too few tacks lead to a long route, but too many tacks loses time and speed. The tack refers to the leg of the zig-zag route upwind, but can also be used to describe the sailing position of the boat. If you are on starboard tack, it means the wind is coming from the starboard side. A port tack is when the wide is coming from the other direction.

This is a far more dangerous way of turning, as the rear of the boat is shown to the wind instead of the nose. The sails also change side in a much faster and less controlled fashion. The boom moves across the boat very quickly and carries a high risk of injury. Catamarans (boats with two hulls) are so wide it is difficult to tack except at high speeds, so rely a lot on gybing. When sailing away from the wind, care must be taken not to allow the boat to gybe suddenly, as you will almost certainly capsize.

Capsizing This is an inevitable part of the sport, and yet it remains one of the most daunting aspects. A sudden unexpected jibe can easily turn the boat, as can showing too much sail to a strong wind. Knowing how to capsize and right the boat quickly and safely will make up a good portion of any good sailing course. The essential points are that you stay with the boat and right it using your body weight, steadying and emptying it of water.

In racing conditions, this procedure can easily take enough time to cause you to drop significantly in the finishing order. The most experienced laser sailors sail so aggressively that they capsize and right the boat in one smooth movement. As a beginner, however, you will undoubtedly find yourself far less comfortable during the event. It’s best practiced in light, controlled and preferably warm conditions, rather than waiting for the real thing to happen on a blustery day.

Reading the wind
There are two types of wind in sailing; the true wind and the apparent wind. The direction and speed of the wind that is felt while moored or on land is the true wind. During sailing, the apparent wind comes into play, which is a combination of the true wind and the effect of the boat moving through the air. While sailing, the boat should be trimmed to the apparent wind as it represents the true forces in play. At speeds up to 7 miles per hour there is little difference between true and apparent wind.

On faster boats in good conditions, the apparent wind is incredibly important if you want to maximise speed. An example of this is when the wind gusts; the boat will suddenly accelerate, creating a force on the sails from the forward movement through the air. The sails must be held tighter to fully catch this wind, and then be relaxed once the gust has passed and the apparent wind shifted.

Sail shape When the wind speed has been assessed, it is necessary to adjust the sail to work as efficiently as possible. The most simple method is reefing the sails (or not reefing them) according to wind strength. The three-dimensional shape of the sail can be altered by adjusting the lines that are attached to the corners of the sail. These lines are called the halyard, outhaul and cunningham. Loosening them gives a fuller, deeper sail that helps the boat accelerate faster in light winds and steadies it in choppy waters. In stronger winds a more shallow sail prevents the boat from keeling too far.

All boats are designed with a mast that allows some degree of bend to prevent them from snapping. The bending action of the mast also works to flatten the sail and reduce the amount of wind that it catches. The lines which support the mast (mainstays) can be used to adjust the extent to which the mast is allowed to bend. The tension in the boom stays (or boom vangs) are used to control the attitude of the boom and, in turn, the shape of the sail. In strong winds, it is held tighter to keep the boom parallel with the water and maintain a large sail area. In lighter winds, the weight of the boom alone is sufficient to keep it low enough to maintain a good sail shape.

A firm understanding of the rules of navigational strategy are essential in planning your route or passage in a race. Below are listed some of the most important points, the extent to which they are relevant to race sailing depends on the length, course and season of the race:

  • Wind shift – This can seriously hinder your position in a race. If it can be predicted then as much distance should be gained as possible in the direction that the wind is expected to shift. Wind direction can fluctuate constantly, and to a significant extent. As such, being on the tack that gains the most distance is a tricky art to perfect.
  • Currents – Sailing towards an objective can be made much harder when a current is in play. The tide not only makes steering more difficult but also adds to the apparent wind, which can in turn dictate what direction the boat can sail in.