David Dsilo2


Dave Dellenbaugh Sailing

David Dellenbaugh is a champion helmsman, tactician, author, coach, rules expert and seminar leader who has spent his career helping sailors sail faster and smarter.Here are the learning resources that he has created to help you improve your racing skills.


The ability to handle a boat skillfully and safely in a wide range of conditions is an art known as seamanship. Seamanship covers almost everything under the sun, from knot-tying to docking to how you handle a vicious squall. We obviously don't have room to cover every possible subject in this chapter, so we will concentrate on areas that will be most helpful to aspiring small boat sailors.

Avoiding Collisions

Hitting another boat is one of the biggest fears of most beginning sailors. Fortunately, there are very clear right-of-way rules that explain which boat must keep clear in any situation. When you understand these rules, converging with other boats is much less frightful.

The most commonly used rules of the road are the Inland Rules, which apply to coastal waters, lakes and rivers. COLREGS, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, are in effect in outer coastal waters and on the high seas.  In essence, these two systems are almost the same, although there are slight differences in the wording of some rules and in the appropriate signals that boats must make.  To avoid confusion and boredom, we will discuss only the Inland Rules here.  If you will be sailing far offshore, be sure to familiarize yourself with COLREGS.

Like the laws about driving a car, the purpose of boat rules is to prevent collisions.  You wouldn't want to go for a drive in your car and have some people driving on the right and others on the left.  The same thing would happen with boats if everyone didn't obey common rules.

There is one basic principle underlying all right-of-way rules: When two boats approach, one boat, the "give-way boat," is responsible for altering course to stay clear of the other boat, the "stand-on" (or "right-of-way") boat.  In order for the give-way boat to have a predictable obstacle to avoid, the stand-on boat must maintain her course and speed. The one exception to this, of course, is if she must take last-minute evasive action to avoid a collision.  

Some of the most pertinent Inland Rules are listed here:

  1. A moving boat must stay clear of a boat not moving.
  2. Large, unmaneuverable boats such as freighters, ferryboats or tugs with barges have right of way over boats less than 20 meters long and over all sailboats in narrow channels and in traffic separation zones.
  3.  Because they are more maneuverable, powerboats must give way to sailboats in open water.
  4.  Between two sailboats: If they are on the same tack, the windward boat must stay clear; if they're on opposite tacks, the port tack boat must stay clear.
  5.  When two power boats (including a sail boat under power) meet head to head, the preferred course is to pass port side to port side (like cars).                                     
  6.  An overtaking boat (approaching from within 67.5 degrees of dead astern) must stay clear of the boat it is overtaking.
  7.  If two boats under power are on crossing courses (not head to head or overtaking), the boat on the left (give way) must stay clear, preferably by passing astern of the boat on the right (stand on).  If you forget this rule, there's an easy way to remember it -- just look over at the running lights on the boat you are approaching. If you see their green light (starboard side), it means you can keep going. If you see their red light (port side), it means you should stop and give them the right of way.

When boats are racing, there is an entirely different set of rules called the International Yacht Racing Rules.

When you are converging with another boat, there are two very reliable ways to predict potential collisions. First, look at the land that is behind the bow of the other boat. If the boat is staying in the same place relative to the land, then you are on a collision course. If the land is moving one way or the other, then you should miss each other. If there is no land visible behind the other boat, you can use your compass to take a bearing. If the other boat holds a constant bearing, you are on a collision course.  If you are gaining bearing, you will pass ahead; if you are losing bearing, the other boat will cross ahead.

Navigation lights are required on all moving boats after sunset.  The number and position of lights vary depending on the type and size of the boat, but the most common are the red and green sidelights and the white stern light.  These lights are positioned so sailors can determine who are the give-way and stand-on boats. 

For example, if you see a stern light ahead, you may be overtaking.  When you see a green sidelight, the other boat is to your left and must give way; when you see a red sidelight, you must give way.  If you see both the red and green lights, the other boat is headed straight at you.

Launching Your Boat

Getting your boat into the water can sometimes be more of a problem than sailing it. After many years of launching small boats, I can say with certainty that I've caused more damage while getting my boat in and out of the water than I have while sailing. Therefore, a bit of caution and know-how is advisable.

On a Ramp -- If you are launching from a ramp, you can rig your boat completely while it is still on the trailer -- but wait to hoist the sails.  Undo all the tie-down lines except for the bow line.  Slowly back down the ramp until the boat is in sufficient water to float.  The car should NOT be in the water; if it is, consider getting a trailer tongue extender.  Once the boat is afloat, untie the bow line, pull the boat clear of the trailer, and pull the trailer out of the water.

On a hoist -- Check to be sure you know how to operate the hoist, and never exceed the marked weight limit.  Move your boat into position so it is centered under the hoist.  Often there will be a line painted on the pavement, based on the swing of the hoist arm, to indicate where the center of your boat should be. Use a bridle that has sufficient strength and holds the boat level as it lifts off the trailer. It's OK to have the bow down slightly so the mast doesn't hit the hoist.

As the hoist begins to raise the boat, check to be sure that all the hooks are clear (also be sure your bailers are closed). Someone should be holding onto a bow and stern line so the boat will not swing around and hit the trailer.  Swing the hoist over the water and lower the boat.  NEVER stand underneath the boat.

Getting Out to the Sailing Area

Once your boat is in the water, you still have to get to your sailing area. This is often a challenge in itself, depending on wind conditions, the ability of your crew and the number of obstacles in your way.

Leaving the dock -- If the wind is pushing you away from the dock, departure is easy.  Keep your bow line attached and let the boat swing away from the dock so it is headed into the wind. Then raise your sails.  Have someone on the dock push your bow to one side, or back your jib so the bow goes one way. You're off!

Leaving the dock under sail is more difficult with the wind blowing onto the dock.  If you have an outboard, push your bow off the dock and motor away from it before going head to wind to raise your sails. Without an outboard, you'll have to raise your sails at the dock and sail away. Just be sure your mainsheet and jib sheets are free so the sails will luff completely when you hoist them.  Then push the bow off the dock and trim the main first to help you steer away from the dock.

Leaving a mooring -- Sailing away from a mooring is a piece of cake because the boat will naturally swing so the bow is pointed into the wind. The only potential problem is wrapping the line around your centerboard or rudder. Once you've raised the sails, pull yourself forward on the mooring line and back the jib to push the bow away from the mooring.  Then trim your sails.  Be sure you have enough forward momentum for steerage before letting go. 

Towing a boat -- Sometimes you need a tow from another boat to get out to the sailing area. For this reason, you should always carry a towline of sufficient strength and length. This is a safety precaution as well, in case you capsize or get in a squall and need to be towed.

Your tow line should be led through a lead on the bow, then tied around the base of the mast. Cleats on the bow are meant for docking, not for towing, so don't use them unless you want to rip out your deck. Also, don't ever tie the towline around your forestay.

Keep your crew weight aft while towing to prevent the bow from plowing. And if you have a centerboard, it should be raised about half way while under tow.

Docking and Mooring

Once you've successfully launched your boat and had a lovely sail, your final challenge is returning to the dock or mooring.   

Docking -- The most common mistake is coming into a dock with too much speed, usually because sailors approach the dock on a downwind course.  There are many times when I've seen a crewmember stick his or her arm or leg out to stop the boat from crashing into the dock. This gets really dangerous! 

The key to any landing manuever is approaching as slowly as possible, while still maintaining steerageway.  Approach the dock on a course that is nearly parallel to it.  It is critical to consider the effects of the wind and current in your approach.  For example, it is preferable to land on the leeward side of the dock. And you always want to land so the wind and current (or the combined effect of the two) is abeam or forward of abeam. This way they will help you slow down.

When docking, you have to be able to use your sails to control your speed.  Try to approach the dock on a close reach so you can luff the sails to slow down or trim them to speed up (Photo sequence I). If you land straight downwind, you won't be able to slow enough.  If you land straight into the wind, you risk losing way before you reach the dock. Once you reach the dock, secure the bow line, drop the sails, then throw a stern line.

Sometimes your only option is to come in on the windward side of the dock or with the wind astern.  In these instances, drop your sails when you are directly upwind of the dock and let the wind slowly push you in.  NEVER attempt to land on a broad reach or a run with your sails up.       

Mooring -- Approaching a mooring is very similar to approaching a dock except it's much easier to avoid crashing.  You want to approach slowly from the downwind (or down-current) side, using your sails to control your speed. The basic procedure is to sail to leeward of the mooring, then go head to wind and coast to a stop right as you reach the mooring buoy (Diagram J). If you're going a little too fast, back the main to slow yourself. Of course, all this takes a bit of practice to perfect. 

Landing on a beach or ramp -- Boats with centerboards and flip-up rudders can easily land on a beach.  But don't try this if you are worried about the smooth finish of your bottom, since sand is not kind to gel coat. Approach a beach or ramp as you would a dock, lowering your sails first if the wind is blowing onshore.  Be sure to raise your centerboard and rudder before they hit bottom, then hop overboard and walk your boat to the beach.  If waves are breaking, this is not an advisable maneuver.  It only took me once to learn this lesson after crashing my Laser on a Cape Cod beach one windy summer day.

Running Aground

Running aground is never desirable, but fortunately it is usually not too much of a problem in a small boat (unless you crash into rocks). The best way to avoid this problem is to prevent it with careful observation of navigational aids (see section below). Even with the best intentions, however, you will probably feel the bottom sooner or later. I can't remember all the times that I've run aground in a sailboat.

If you do run aground, the first thing to do is raise the centerboard and turn away from the shallow area. A keelboat obviously has a more serious problem, but you may be able to free yourself by heeling the boat over (with crew weight) to reduce draft. If there is a motorboat nearby, you can often talk them into helping. Or you may be able to jump overboard and walk yourself into deeper water. If the tide is coming in, you can simply wait for the higher water to float you free, but if the tide is dropping, do everything possible to get free immediately. 


Knots are usually the most boring part of any sailing book, so we'll cover only the basics you really need. Keep in mind, however, that knowing a few essential knots will make your sailing much more convenient and safe.

Bowline -- The bowline is perhaps the most important all-around knot. It's used to tie loops in lines such as docking lines, jib sheets and tow lines. One of the great things about a bowline is that it's very easy to undo, even after it has been pulled very tight.

Figure Eight -- The figure eight is a simple knot tied in the end of sheets and sail control lines to prevent them from pulling through a block, grommet or cleat.

Clove Hitch -- The clove hitch is used to attach a line to a post or a spar; uses include tying a docking line to a piling or a fender to a lifeline.

Square Knot -- The square knot is used to tie together two ends of a line, and most commonly is used in tying up a furled sail. Be careful when tying this so you don't get a granny.


Simply put, navigation is the art of getting your boat from one place to another in safety.  There's nothing worse than going out for a sail and getting lost, or running aground. Since most of your sailing will be done close to land, we'll discuss various techniques for coastal navigation as well as looking at the aids to navigation, such as buoys and lighthouses, that we must use.

Charts -- Next to your own observation, charts and a compass are the most important tools of navigation. Charts show everything you need to know about a body of water, including the depths (in feet or fathoms at mean low water), bottom characteristics, features on shore, aids to navigation, latitude, longitude and true and magnetic compass directions. 

Other important information about tides, danger areas, weather, storm warnings, more detailed charts, and a summary of various abbreviations used are also found on most charts. Since most charts are made of paper and are reasonably expensive, it's a good idea to take good care of them.

Aids to Navigation -- The most common aids are the buoys that mark   channels, shoals and obstructions.  The important feature of these buoys is their color.  In the United States, there is a system for the way buoys are laid out based on entering from seaward.  When you are going from a larger body to a smaller one, such as when you enter a harbor from a bay, you are considered to be "returning".  When you are returning, you leave red buoys to starboard (on your right) and green buoys to port.  The common saying is "Red Right Returning".  The buoys are also numbered with the numbers starting at "1" at the channel entrance and getting higher as you go in.  Green buoys are odd and red buoys are even. 

In a larger body of water, buoys may mark shoals or obstructions, rather than a specific channel, but if you look at an overview of the body of water you are sailing on and the direction you are going, you can determine whether you are returning or not, and therefore know which side to leave a buoy by its color.  A green and red striped buoy is called a "mid-channel" marker and can be passed on either side, although the top color indicates the preferred side.

Lights, reflectors, sounds and shape are other characteristics that help identify buoys. Green buoys have green or white lights and a green reflector strip.  Red buoys have red or white lights and a red reflector.  The light can be fixed or flashing in a specific timed pattern which is indicated on the chart.  Important buoys also have sound signals, which may be a bell, gong, horn or whistle.  The bell has one tone while the gong has several.  Finally, the shape is indicative of the buoy's color, with "cans" (flat tops) always being green and "nuns" (pointed tops) being red.

Lighthouses are other major aids to navigation.  These are built on prominent points of land or offshore platforms and have very high bright lights that can be seen from quite a distance.  As with buoys, the lights have specific characteristics listed on the chart.  You will also find information about the height of the light (above mean high water), the distance from which it is visible (on a clear day), and any sound signals or radio transmissions.

Compass -- A compass consists of a set of magnets attached to the underside of a compass card.  The magnets align with the Earth's magnetic field and the compass card shows the direction the boat is heading relative to magnetic north.  The magnets and card balance on a pin and are housed inside a dome that is filled with a liquid that dampens the effects of the boat's movement on the card. Note that there are two different compass roses on every chart. The outside one is based on true north while the inside one refers to magnetic north. You should use the inside for all your navigation.

Speed and Distance -- Distance on the water is measured in terms of nautical miles.  A nautical mile is one minute of latitude, which is 6,076 feet (a statute mile is 5,280 feet).  Boat speed and wind speed are both measured in knots (nautical miles per hour). 

There are many more navigational techniques than we can explain here.  For most smallboat sailing, the basic concepts explained above are usually sufficient. If you decide to take longer journeys on bigger boats, there are many excellent books on the subject.