Points of Sail
The Points of Sail are a convenient way of describing boat angle compared to the direction of the wind.
Learning the Points of Sail will help you trim your sails at different boat angles to the wind and make you a better sailor. When the skipper says, “head up into a Close Haul”, as a crew member this will tell you that you need to tension the sheets (pull in the sails). Alternatively, if the skipper says, “bear away onto a Broad Reach”, you will know to ease the sheets (let out the sails).
Sailing too directly into the wind prevents the sails from being able to fill and this will cause the sails to luff (flutter). In this position (head-to-wind) is held, the boat will slow and soon stall. When forward movement is lost, the ability to steer is also lost and the boat is said to be In Irons.
Stalling a boat, head-to-wind has it’s practical applications, recovering a crew overboard or docking under sail.
Most sailboats are able to sail at or near a 45 degree angle towards the wind – Close Hauled.
The sail acts like an airplane wing. The wind on the outside of the sail has to travel farther and and therefore faster than the air passing across the inside of the sail. This creates a difference in pressure between the outside of the sail (negative) and the inside of the sail (positive). On an airplane, wing pressure differential creates lift, on a sail boat, sail pressure differential creates forward lift or pull.
There is a term in sailing Close Hauled called finding the ‘groove’. If the bow is pointed too directly into the wind, the sails will luff and the boat will lose speed. Alternatively, if the bow falls off the wind, your overall forward advance towards your mark is reduced.
Sailing Close Hauled is useful if your destination lies in the direction the wind is coming from. Tacking back and forth onto a Close Haul is called ‘Beating’. Beating is the best way to make the most progress against the wind. It is usually a rough ride because you are headed more towards the waves with the bow bouncing up and down, it is often a wet sail in heavy seas with spray being blown back into the cockpit.
Sailing Close Hauled is also useful when dealing with stronger winds. The more in line with the wind angle of the sails will reduce the impact of strong winds and reduce boat heel. Good skippers will head the bow of the boat up into the wind when they see a wind gust approaching to reduce it’s impact.
Bearing away (turning downwind) the boat will fall onto a Close Reach. As a general rule, you let out more sail the further you turn downwind. When sailing a Close Reach you will ease the sail from the close hauled position.
Sailing on a Close Reach is a comfortable and fast point of sail. Unlike sailing on a Close Haul, where a slight wind shift can cause the sails to luff, a Close Reach is a bit more forgiving.
Your tell tails will work well on a Close Reach so make sure you use them for optimal sail trim.
Bearing away from a Close Reach and easing the sheets a bit more will put you into a beam reach.
The wind will be hitting the beam of the boat directly on which gives this point of sail it’s name – Beam Reach.
Sailing on a beam reach is a fast, exciting and comfortable sail. This is when the boat will heel the most. If the sails are in too tight the boat will heel excessively causing the boat to turn up into the wind (weather helm). Weather helm is a sign that you need to let ease your sails to create a more balanced helm.
Bearing away from a Beam Reach the boat will fall onto Broad Reach. This requires the sails to be eased out a little further.
Once a boat bears away from a beam reach, the sail dynamics change. The boat is now sailing downwind. There is no longer a pressure differential between the outside and inside of the sails creating lift. Instead the sails now act like a umbrella, catching and being pushed by the wind.
This is generally a slower point of sail than a Close Reach or Beam Reach.
The boat is now traveling with and across the waves creating a more rolling effect. It feels like the wind speed has dropped because you are now moving with the wind. This can often surprise skippers who later head up into the wind not realizing that wind speed has actually picked up.
Your tell tails will not help you sailing down wind. Your boom should be a right angles to the wind and you should tighten your boom vang prevent your boom from lifting.
Always keep an eye on your jib – if it starts to relax you are probably pointed too far leeward and could risk an accidental gybe.
Running or sailing directly downwind is an exciting but also the most dangerous point of sail. Boats that have spinnakers will have them flying on this point of sail. For the experienced sailor, there is nothing like sailing wing-to-wing (foresail out one side and the mainsail out the other).
The hazards of Running are an accidental gybe and broaching. To prevent an accidental gybe you should always favor the mainsail side, but in sudden wind shifts you still risk an accidental gybe. It is good practice to rig a preventer off the boom. This will hold the boom out and stop it from swinging across the deck in the event an accidental gybe type situation.
Broaching is where the boat spins violently around. Knowing your theoretical hull speed is important. As the boat increases speed to near or over it’s theoretical hull speed, it no longer wants to keep going in a straight line, the helm gets ‘squirrelly’. Also, as waves run under the stern of the boat, the boat is lifted taking more hull and rudder out of the water increasing the boats propensity to spin on it’s keel.
Learn and practice your points of sail. Proper use of your points of sail will allow you to sail from one location to another in the quickest and most efficient manner.