A new beginner’s guide to sailing

When all of this is over, we’ll be desperate to escape our homes! Read on for some great advice from our author Simon Jollands – all the sailing essentials, perfect for sending on to any would-be sailors in your life dreaming of days of freedom, preferably on the wide open waves…

I was inspired by my daughter Freya to write Go Sailing. For the past few years, she and her husband Chris have been on annual bareboat sailing holidays with a group of friends, some of whom have limited sailing experience. “Dad,” she said, “how about writing a book that covers the basics for sailing novices who want to join in the fun? We have several friends who would like to give it a go.” So I sat down with Freya and Chris and we made a list of things to cover in the book. They kindly took loads of photos on their next holiday, many of which are included in Go Sailing.

With events cancelled and sailing clubs closed due to Covid-19, it doesn’t look as though many people will be able to go sailing over the coming months. However, I hope those with limited experience might instead have the time to enjoy reading up about some of the sailing theory covered in Go Sailing, so that when they eventually do have a chance to get out on the water they will be able to make the most of it and gain maximum enjoyment from taking part. Here’s an extract from Chapter 6: ‘Crewing Tasks Underway’…

Keeping the sails balanced involves making adjustments to the sails as the wind gusts or changes direction. This is the job of the sail trimmer.

Having the sails balanced and trimmed correctly for the course that is required will result in the most smooth and efficient ride possible, allowing the person on the helm to focus on steering to the desired course.

When a cruising yacht is underway, most of the time it will have two sails hoisted – a headsail and the mainsail. Once hoisted, the two sails need to be adjusted so that their shapes harmonise and work together, resulting in the most efficient performance and a balanced helm. A balanced helm is where the boat is not being pulled either towards the wind, known as weather helm, or pushed away from the wind, known as lee helm.

Handy tip: You will find that some yacht crews and skippers are continuously adjusting their sails while others hardly seem to touch them. If you are aboard a racing yacht, the adjustments will tend to be continuous, as the wind shifts and varies in strength. In these circumstances the whole crew concentrates on getting the absolute maximum performance from the boat. If on the other hand you are sailing aboard a laid-back cruising yacht, you will probably find that once the sails are hoisted and a course is set that sail adjustments are kept to a minimum. A well tuned boat will sail faster and will tend to heel less than a boat with badly adjusted sails.

Adjusting the sails
The sails are adjusted by “easing” or “sheeting in” the jib sheet and main sheet, in other words by either letting out or pulling in the sheets. This action causes the sails to change their shape to take advantage of the direction of the airflow over them.

As the boat sails closer towards the wind’s direction the sheets are pulled in, which flattens the sails. As the boat sails away from the wind the sheets are eased, allowing the sails to be more curved in shape.

Most sails have telltales to help the sail trimmer see how the air is flowing both sides of the sail.

Sails have short lengths of ribbon or wool attached to them, called telltales. Telltales indicate how the airflow is moving over the sails and whether they are working at maximum efficiency. If the telltales are streaming horizontally, then the sails are correctly trimmed.

Once the boat is heading on the correct course, then the trimmer adjusts the sails until the telltales are flowing horizontally. If the telltales stop streaming correctly, this indicates the boat has either gone off course, in which case the helmsperson needs to steer back on course, or the wind has changed direction, in which case the sails need to be re-trimmed.

Mainsail trimming
• Telltales flying horizontally, luff slack – correctly adjusted.
• Sail flapping – sheet in.
• Sail tight up to the mast – ease the sheet.

Genoa / jib trimming
• Telltales flying horizontally on both sides – correctly adjusted.
• Telltale on the inside of the sail is lifting – sheet in.
• Telltale on the outside of the sail is lifting – ease the sheet.

Aside from being head-to-wind, a boat can sail at any other angle relative to the wind. In order to do so, a boat’s sails have to be adjusted to create the best aerodynamic shape for the sails to work efficiently.
Together, the different angles are known as points of sailing and a number of terms are used to describe the boat’s course relative to the wind direction, not unlike the points of a compass.

The points of sailing are:

Head-to-wind – a sailing boat cannot sail directly into the wind as its sails do not fill, begin to flap and have no effect. When this happens the boat is referred to as head-to-wind and the boat slows down and stops. Depending on the design of sails and boat, the sails will not usually fill until the boat is pointing at an angle between 40º and 45º away from the direction of the wind.
Close-hauled – as close to the wind as possible. Sails are pulled tight. The boat heels away from the wind but is prevented from being blown over by the counter balancing effect of the keel beneath the hull which not only holds the boat upright but prevents it from sailing sideways.
Close reach – the wind is forward of the beam. Sails are eased out a little. The boat continues to heel over away from the wind.
Beam reach – the wind blows directly across the side of the boat. The sails are eased further out. The boat continues to heel.
Broad reach – the wind comes over the rear quarter, aft of the beam. Sails are eased well out. The boat no longer heels.
Training run – the wind is almost directly behind the boat. Sails are eased well out. The boat does not heel but may rock from side to side, known as yawing.
Run – the wind is directly behind the boat. The sails are eased right out and the head sail is pulled onto the opposite side to the main so it can catch the wind. The boat may continue to yaw from side to side.

GO SAILING is published on 30th April (RRP £12.99). You can pre-order it with a 10% discount direct from our website here. Simon’s earlier books (Safe Skipper and the Reeds Lights, Shapes and Buoyage Handbook) are available for a 30% discount (45% for ebooks) for a limited time only.

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