How to navigate by boat (with pictures)

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How to navigate by boat (with pictures)
How to navigate by boat (with pictures)

For centuries, the sea has captured the spirits of sailors and adventurers from around the world. In his poem "Sea Fever", John Masefield stated that all he needed was "a tall ship and a star to guide him" to feel complete. Getting started in the boating world can be challenging, but this article will help guide you through the fluctuations of the nautical world. Note: This article will get you started, but be sure to spend some time with an experienced sailor and your boat before venturing out on the water on your own.


Part 1 of 5: Get a Basic Knowledge of Navigation

Sail a Boat Step 1
Sail a Boat Step 1

Step 1. Know the different parts of a sailboat

It is important to know the different parts, both for safety reasons and to be able to navigate the boat as efficiently as possible. If you don't know what to do when someone suddenly yells "Get ready to change tack!" or "Watch the boom!", you could be in trouble.

  • Hoist - This is the nautical term for a pulley.
  • Boom: the horizontal support for the bottom of the mainsail, which extends to the stern of the mast. This is what to watch for when changing direction on a sailboat. It can give you a good smack on the head.
  • Bow: this is what the front of the boat is called.
  • Centerboard - This is a plate (usually fiberglass) that pivots from the bottom of the keel on some boats and is used to balance the boat when the sails are out.
  • Cleat - cleats are what strings are tied to when they need to be held tight.
  • Halyard: the ropes that raise or lower the sails (together with the lines, that is, the mobile rigging).
  • Hull: The hull is the body of the ship and consists of everything that is below the deck.
  • Jib - This is the sail on the bow of the boat. The jib helps propel the boat forward.
  • Genoa: a ratchet that is larger than a jib.
  • Keel: The keel is what prevents a boat from sliding sideways ("bowing") in whatever direction the wind blows, and it is also what stabilizes the boat.
  • Ropes: they are everywhere on boats. There is only one "rope" on a sailboat, the line, which runs along the bottom of the mainsail.
  • Mainsail: As the name implies, this is the mainsail of the ship. It is the sail attached to the rear of the mast.
  • Mast: The mast is a large, vertical pole that supports the sails. Some boats have more than one mast.
  • Mooring: this is a rope positioned at the front of small boats. It is used to tie the boat to a dock or to another boat.
  • Rudder: the rudder is what the boat is steered with. It is movable so that when you turn the wheel or tiller, it directs the boat in the direction you want it to go.
  • Ropes: the ropes that control the sails (i.e. the moving rig).
  • Balloon Jib - The generally bright colored sail used when sailing with or through the wind.
  • Stays and Shrouds - These are cables that ensure the mast stays upright, even in very strong winds (i.e. rigging fixed).
  • Stern - This is the term for the rear of the boat.
  • Cane: Cane is a stick attached to the rudder and is used to control it.
  • Yugo: This is what we would call the rear of the boat. It is the rear of the boat that is perpendicular to its center line.
  • Wheel: the wheel works the rudder, driving the boat.
  • Winch - Winches help to pull the ropes. When the ropes are wrapped around a winch, a sailor can turn the winch with a crank, which will make it easier to pull the ropes.
Sail a Boat Step 2
Sail a Boat Step 2

Step 2. Get to know the different types of sailboats

In general, if you are a beginning sailor, you will most likely not be operating your own schooner. You will likely work with a lute, cutter, or sloop.

  • Sloop - Sloops are the most common type of sailboat (when you think of a sailboat, this is the one you probably imagine). They have a single mast and are rigged with a jib at the front and a mainsail attached to the rear of the mast. They can range in size and are ideal for sailing against the wind.
  • Lute: A lute has a mast near the front of the ship and is a single sail ship. They are small (or also large) and can be easily operated with one or two people.
  • Cutters: Cutters have a mast with two sails in the front and a mainsail at the rear of the mast. These boats are designed for small crews or groups of people and can be handled relatively easily.
  • Ketch: a ketch has two masts, the second mast called the mizzen. The mizzen is shorter than the mainmast and is in front of the rudder.
  • Yola: the yolas are similar to the ketch, the difference being that the mizzen are located behind the rudder. The reason for this location is that the mizzen on the yolas serves to maintain balance rather than to move the boat forward.
  • Gulet - Gulets are large sailboats with two or more masts. The mast at the rear of the boat is either higher than or equal in height to the mast at the front. Schooners have been used for commercial fishing, transporting goods, and as warships.
Sail a Boat Step 3
Sail a Boat Step 3

Step 3. Know the common terms used on a sailboat

Aside from the terms used for the different parts of the ship, there are also certain terms that sailors commonly use while on the high seas (or going to sea). A trick to remember that "port" is left and "starboard" is right is that starboard has a simple "r" behind the consonant "t", just like the simple intervocalic "r" in "right".

  • Port: When you are facing the bow (the front of the boat), the side to your left is the port side.
  • Starboard: Starboard is the right side of the boat when you are facing the bow.
  • Windward: Windward is the direction from which the wind is blowing, the direction against the wind.
  • Sotavento: This is also called "socaire". This is the direction the wind is blowing, the direction downwind.
  • Change tack: Change tack is when you turn the bow of the boat through the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other. This is when you need to be most aware of the boom as it will swing from one side of the boat to the other when you change tack (you don't want to be in its path when it does this).
  • Facing: This is the opposite of changing tack, which means that it is when you turn the stern (or rear) of the boat through the wind so that the wind passes to the other side of the boat. This maneuver is more dangerous in a strong breeze than changing tack, as the wind always fully propels the boat's sails, and the sails can react violently to a change in the orientation of the boat towards the wind. Extreme care must be exercised to control the boom during this maneuver, as there is the possibility of serious injury if the boom moves uncontrollably across the wheelhouse.
  • Luffing - This is when the sails start to billow and lose momentum due to the boat being steered into the wind or the lines have come loose (come loose).
Sail a Boat Step 4
Sail a Boat Step 4

Step 4. Understand navigation buoys

It is important to pay attention and respect the navigation buoys; These will let you know where there are safe waters. In North America, for example, when leaving the marina, the red buoys are almost always left to port, while the green buoys are left to starboard. (Remember: red-right-back). For most of the rest of the world, this is the other way around.

Part 2 of 5: Prepare the Boat

Sail a Boat Step 5
Sail a Boat Step 5

Step 1. Perform a detailed visual inspection

Inspect all fixed rigging (the cables and ropes that support the mast), including the turnbuckles and pins that secure the rigging to the hull. Many sailboats have collapsed because a 15 cent key was missing!

  • Check the ropes (the mobile rig) that hoist and control the sails ("halyards" and "ropes", respectively). Make sure they are separated, not wrapped around each other or tangled in anything else, and that they all have a figure eight or other stop knot on the free end ("whip") so that they cannot be pulled through the mast or pulleys.
  • Remove all the ropes from their cleats and winches. There should be nothing attached to any rope; everything must be free to move at this point.
  • If you have a lift (a small rope that holds the rear of the boom out of the way when the sail is not in use), release it until the boom drops freely. Then tie it back to the ribbon. Pay attention to the boom; At this point, it is just oscillating and will cause a painful thud if it collides with you or a member of your crew. The boom will return to its normal horizontal position when you fully raise the mainsail.
  • If you are equipped for this, make sure the tiller is properly attached to it and control it. Your sailboat is now ready to hoist the sails!
Sail a Boat Step 6
Sail a Boat Step 6

Step 2. Determine the direction of the wind

If your boat doesn't have some kind of wind direction indicator (a Windex vane) on the top of the mast, tie a couple of 9-inch (22 cm) pieces of old tape, VHS tape, or oiled thread. to the shrouds (the rigging cables that hold the mast). These will show you which way the wind is blowing. Some sailors find the tape recorder too sensitive for this purpose. If this is the case with you, try using VHS tape or oiled thread instead.

  • Place them on each side, approximately 4 feet (1.2 m) from the sides of the boat.
  • To navigate effectively, you will need to know the apparent wind direction.
Sail a Boat Step 7
Sail a Boat Step 7

Step 3. Point the boat in the direction of the wind

The idea is to have the minimum amount of wind resistance when hoisting the sail, straight and back. In this position, the sail will not catch on any shroud or any other part of the equipment. This is not always easy. The boat will not turn easily because it is not moving (it is not "under sail"). Do the best you can, but be prepared to have to work!

  • If your boat has a motor, use it to keep the boat pointed into the wind while you hoist the sail.
  • Here's a helpful tip: If the water at the pier is not deep, or if you don't have a side pier, move the boat away from the pier, anchor it in the sand, and the boat will automatically point in the direction of the wind.

Part 3 of 5: Hoist the Sails

Sail a Boat Step 8
Sail a Boat Step 8

Step 1. Place the candles

Secure the lower forward ("embroidered") portion of the mainsail and jib to their respective shackles on the boom and bow of the boat.

  • There will be a small chord ("sheet") connecting the rear corner of the mainsail ("clew") to the end of the boom. Pull it so that the bottom of the mainsail is taut and tie it to the cleat. This helps the mainsail to have a smooth shape for the air flowing over it.
  • Hoist the mainsail by pulling down on its halyard until it stops. It will be flapping (luffing) like crazy, but this is fine for a short period of time. (Luffing excessively will drastically reduce sail life and durability).
  • The leading edge of the sail ("luff") should be tight enough to eliminate creases, but not so tight that it creates vertical creases in the sail.
  • There will be a cleat in the immediate vicinity of the halyard where it comes down from the top of the mast. Tie the halyard to the cleat. Using the jib halyard, hoist the headsail (jib or genoa) and tie the halyard to the batten. Both sails should now be luffing freely. Sails are always hoisted starting with the mainsail, then the jib, because it is easier to point the boat into the wind using the mainsail.
Sail a Boat Step 9
Sail a Boat Step 9

Step 2. Adjust the heading and sail offset based on the wind

Sailboats cannot sail directly into the wind. As shown below, the red zone in the diagram indicates a "risk" zone when the candles are set. To navigate against the wind, a boat must navigate approximately 45 to 50 degrees from the wind and change direction by changing tack (or zigzag).

  • Turn the boat to the left (port) or right (starboard) so that it is around 90 degrees to the direction of the wind. This is known as "through."
  • Pull the main ("trim") line until the sail is about 45 degrees from the stern. This is a safe place for the mainsail while trimming the jib.
  • You will start by moving and tilting the boat ("heel") in the opposite direction to the wind. A list of more than 20 degrees generally indicates that the wind is dominating you. Releasing the sheet momentarily ("breaking the major") will decrease the amount of heel and return you to a more comfortable sailing angle of 10-15 degrees.
Sail a Boat Step 10
Sail a Boat Step 10

Step 3. Trim the jib lines

Although the mainsail is raised first, the jib is trimmed first. There are two lines on the jib, one for each side of the boat. Pull the rope on the side opposite the wind (the "leeward" side). This is the active end while the other is called the loose end.

The jib will form a curve or pocket; Trim the sail until the leading edge just stops luffing. Keep your hand on the tiller (or the rudder) and stay on course

Sail a Boat Step 11
Sail a Boat Step 11

Step 4. Trim the mainsail

Release the sheet until the leading edge just begins to luff, then pull it back just until it stops.

  • If you or the wind haven't changed direction, this is the most efficient place to set up your sails. If something changes, you have to adjust the sails to deal with it.
  • You have just entered the world of sailors and you will have to learn to do many things at the same time or suffer the consequences.

Part 4 of 5: Sailing the Ship

Sail a Boat Step 12
Sail a Boat Step 12

Step 1. Look at the front of the edge of the mainsail and the jib

If it starts luffing, you have two options: adjust the sail sheet until the sail stops luffing, or move the boat away from the wind ("undock"). When the sail luffs, it means that you are heading into the wind too far for your current sail setup. If you unhook slightly (move away from the wind), the sails will stop luffing.

Sail a Boat Step 13
Sail a Boat Step 13

Step 2. Observe the wind indicators ("wind catchers")

If you see that they change in such a way that the wind is coming from a direction that is further behind you, you will be wasting energy. Release the sail until it is perpendicular to the wind. You should be constantly watching the sails and wind catchers and trimming the sails because the wind will not blow from a constant direction for long.

  • When the wind is at your back and to the side ("a quarter of the stern"), it is called "downwind." This is the most efficient point of the sail, as both sails are full of wind and pushing the boat with full force.
  • When the wind is at your back, you are "running with the wind." This is not as efficient as the strong wind, because the air moving over the sail generates lift and more force than that generated when only the wind pushes the boat.
  • When running with the wind, you can pull the jib to the other side of the boat, where it will roll. This is called "sail versus sail" and you have to keep a steady hand on the rod to maintain this sail setting. Some boats have a "pole", which is attached to the forward part of the mast and the clew of the jib, making the jib much easier to control and keep full of wind. Make sure to keep an eye out for obstacles and other vessels, as having both sails in front of you blocks a significant part of your vision.
  • Be careful: When the boat is sailing downwind, the sails will be to one side and, because the wind is basically behind you, the boom may suddenly change sides ("face"), crossing the bridge of I command quite strongly.
  • If you have a wind direction indicator on the top of the mast, do not sail in the direction of the wind so that the indicator is pointing towards the mainsail. If it does, you will be sailing with the boom on the upwind side ("sailing downwind") and you run a very high risk of accidentally leading the boat. When this happens, the boom can hit you hard enough to knock you unconscious and throw you off the boat ("overboard").
  • It is good practice to rig a disconnect (a rope from the boom to the rail or any other available slat) to limit the movement of the boom across the wheelhouse in case the boat accidentally takes over.
Sail a Boat Step 14
Sail a Boat Step 14

Step 3. Navigate to a dismemberment

Turn the boat slightly into the wind so that the heading is approximately 60 to 75 degrees from the wind. You will need to trim the lines more tightly so that the sails are more closely aligned with the boat. This is called navigating a dismemberment. The sails are acting like a plane's spoiler: the wind is pulling the boat instead of pushing it.

Sail a Boat Step 15
Sail a Boat Step 15

Step 4. Sail upwind

Continue turning into the wind and tighten the lines until you cannot go any further (the jib should never touch the spacer beams in the mast). This is called upwind riding and it is the closest you can get to the wind (about 45 to 60 degrees off the wind). On a gusty day, you'll have a lot of fun with this angle of the wind!

Sail a Boat Step 16
Sail a Boat Step 16

Step 5. Sail into the wind to a destination upwind

Cruise at good speed on a heading that is close to windward in the direction of your destination, to a dismemberment. Sailing upwind will be with the mainsail and pawl pulled snugly along the center line of the boat and will allow the boat to sail as close to being sailing directly to windward, but the speed will be less. On most sailboats, this will be around 45 degrees from the wind direction.

  • When you've gone as far as you can on this tack, turn the boat through the wind (or change direction by changing tack), releasing the jib line from its batten or from the winch drum as the front of the boat (the bow) turns through the wind.
  • The mainsail and boom will traverse the ship. The mainsail will position itself on the other side, but you will need to quickly pull the jib line on the side that is now downwind to its batten or winch while steering the boat to get the sail going. older and she starts calling again.
  • If you do this correctly, the boat will not slow down much and you will sail windward in the other direction. If you are too slow to adjust the jib line again and the boat is too far off the wind, don't panic. The wind will push the boat sideways a bit until it picks up speed.
  • Another scenario would be failing to get the bow of the boat through the wind fast enough and the boat to come to a complete stop. This is known as being "in the iron", which is embarrassing, but every sailor has experienced it (whether they admit it or not is another story). Being in the irons is easily remedied: when the wind blows the boat backwards, you can move the rudder and, as the bow moves away from the wind, you will reach an appropriate angle of the wind to sail.
  • Point the rod in the direction you want to go and adjust the jib line so that it is windward (backwind the sail). The wind will push the bow through the wind. Once you have completed the tack, release the winch line on the windward side, pull the line downwind, and you're on your way again.
  • Since you lose speed very easily when changing tack, you should perform this maneuver as smoothly and quickly as possible. Keep switching embroidery from one side to the other until you reach your destination.
Sail a Boat Step 17
Sail a Boat Step 17

Step 6. Go slowly when learning

Understand that it is better to practice on calm days, and therefore learn, for example, to row the boat (to make the sails smaller). You will need to do this when the wind is too strong and is taking over you.

  • Rising is almost always needed before you think you need to.
  • It is also a good idea to practice rollover procedures on a calm day. Knowing how to straighten the ship is a necessary skill.
Sail a Boat Step 18
Sail a Boat Step 18

Step 7. Browse carefully

Remember that your anchor and its chain or rope are important pieces of safety equipment and can be used to prevent the boat from running aground, or can even be used to float the boat again if it runs aground.

Part 5 of 5: Save the candles

Sail a Boat Step 19
Sail a Boat Step 19

Step 1. Lower and put away the candles

Once you are in safe harbor, lower the sails by removing the tension from any of the ropes (the halyards) that hold the sails. Once the mainsail has been lowered, it can be carefully folded down and secured to the boom with several lashings and then covered. When candles are not in use for a significant amount of time, they should be loosely folded and placed in the candle bags. You may need to do this for both the mainsail and the jib. Remove all battens from their pockets before folding the mainsail. Do not fold the sails the same way each time or they will develop deep folds that will not smooth out in the wind. Candles should be stored when dry and mostly salt-free, as candles that are kept wet are generally prone to mildew.

Sail a Boat Step 20
Sail a Boat Step 20

Step 2. Clean up anything that may have gotten out of place

Secure the strings by tying them to the slats. Carefully wrap all loose ropes and secure them with ties out of the way of anyone walking on the deck. Wash the deck to remove the salt, particularly if you have a teak deck. Salt can stain wood.


  • If something bad happens (too much wind, a man falls overboard, etc.), remember that you can stop everything simply by removing the three ends of their slats or winches. The ship will (almost) stop.
  • Try to learn to determine the direction of the wind using your ears. Let the wind blow on your back, then slowly turn your head from left to right and back until you feel the wind "level" over your ears. Once you find that point, you will know the direction of the wind and, using this method, you will be able to better understand the wind without having to use your eyes.
  • Learn at least two types of rope knots. The eight knot is tied at the ends of the ropes to prevent them from passing through the fairlead or pulley. The bowline (the "king of knots") is used to tie a loop through something to bind it. When tied properly, it never slips off and is easy to unravel even after being pulled tight from a heavy load.
  • Get a boating book that has more extensive information on the mechanics of navigating your specific boat.
  • Be sure to learn about any tides in your area, as in some places this can have an effect on your movement almost as strong as the wind.
  • It is not an exaggeration that, before you start, you should ask an experienced sailor to show you the fixed and mobile rigging on the boat and its functions.
  • Learn all you can about the navigation equipment you are going to use, and even the equipment you may never use. It will give you insight into what is going on out there.
  • Learn how to read the clouds and the weather they can bring with them. A good website for this is
  • If there is a yacht club near you, you can volunteer for the crew for regattas. You will learn more in a year of racing than in years of sailing on your own.
  • Most sails have wind catchers (pieces of colored material attached to the front edge of the sail). The sail will be properly trimmed when all the wind catchers are blowing aft along the surface of the sail.


  • In sailing, your own life may depend on getting things done before they need to be done, the first time they occur to you. If you wait until they have to be done, it may be too late or too difficult. Follow your instincts.
  • Learn how to use very high frequency (VHF) radio. Make a mayday call. In an emergency, this is generally the fastest way to call for help. Cell phones can be used, but the VHF radio will be able to reach a nearby vessel much faster if you need assistance or could do the same for others.
  • Remember the old aphorism: "It is better to be on the dock wishing you were on the lake, than to be on the lake wishing you were on the dock." Don't let enthusiasm take over your good judgment on a day when you shouldn't go sailing. The apparent wind while you are tied up on the dock can be very different in the open sea. Many novices (and indeed many seasoned sailors) get into trouble venturing out when it's too windy to sail safely.
  • Falling overboard is serious business, especially if you are alone. Cold water, currents, and other boats can pose serious hazards, and if the sails are up, the boat will go much faster than you might expect. Additionally, many boats float so high in the water ("freeboard") that it is difficult to get on or others on without help. When navigating at night, always wear a shoulder flashlight and a strobe emergency signaling device, which will make it much easier for a search and rescue team to find you in the water.
  • It is highly recommended that you have at least a working knowledge of the boat's nomenclature and read some detailed material before attempting this sport on your own. Some highly recommended readings are: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Sailing, Sailing for Dummies, and Sailing the Annapolis Way by Captain Ernie Barta.

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