Handy tips for learning how to sail

July 28, 2015

Have you always wanted to get involved with sailing, but just didn't know where to start? If that sounds like you, here's a great guide for any new sailor.

Handy tips for learning how to sail

Know the ropes

The best way to learn to sail is to spend time on the water with an experienced and responsible sailor, perhaps as part of a training course. Here are a few basic tips:

  • You should start on a small boat.
  • Most have two sails — the mainsail and the jib — or try a dinghy, which has a mainsail alone.

Sheets and sails

When sailing you need to constantly adjust or "trim" the sails.

  • You have to do this when the boat changes direction, when the wind itself changes direction, or when you want to slow down or speed up.
  • The sails are controlled by ropes known (confusingly for non-sailors) as sheets.
  • When you complete a tacking maneuver, the jib must be moved across to the other side of the boat by slackening one of the sheets that controls it and tightening the other.
  • This must be done swiftly, and at the right moment; judging and executing this correctly is one of the key skills of sailing.


Gybing (or jibing) means taking the stern of the boat across the wind. This is trickier than tacking because it causes the boom — the heavy horizontal pole to which the mainsail is attached — to swing at speed right across the boat. Timing is everything when you gybe — not just to make sure that the boat keeps moving, but also to make sure that you don't get hit by the boom when it swings. You have to be ready to duck out of the way.

  • Sailing on a broad reach, the skipper starts a slow turn.
  • The crew duck as the boom swings across the boat.
  • The boat continues on a broad reach but on the opposite tack.

Drop and set an anchor

Don't be tempted to simply throw your anchor over the side of the boat and drop all the anchor chain at once: it might get tangled in the scope (the anchor line) or anchor and then not catch properly on the bottom.

  • Approach where you want to anchor, facing into the wind.
  • Estimate the depth of the water, then pay out a length of scope equivalent to four times the depth for a chain anchor line and six times for a rope and chain combination.
  • Secure the scope on the deck cleat.
  • Reverse the boat slowly or let it drift until you feel the anchor bite, then set it in place with a short burst of astern power.
  • Allow a longer length of scope if the water is rough.
  • Check that the scope is securely tied and hoist your anchor ball or use an anchor light to indicate you are at anchor.

Like with anything, the more practice you get, the more comfortable you will feel. The best way to learn is to get out on the water as much as you can. As always, stay safe and enjoy the ride!

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