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 Basics of Performance Sailing

A sailboat on the water is a very different animal from the sturdy structure  that sits on a trailer ashore.  It tips, moves and will steer itself unless you take control.  Like many sports, sailing requires a good deal of technique.  If you've ever watched a very experienced sailor, you may agree it's a little like watching ballet. The boat carves precise turns, the sails remain full, and the sailor's body appears to be an extension of the boat.  Learning the right technique -- where to place your body, how to move in the  boat, and how to steer -- will make learning to sail a lot easier.  

Position In The Boat

Where to stand or sit in a sailboat is not always clear to the beginning sailor. Sometimes it's even tricky for advanced sailors. I remember sailing 420s at Yale University a few years ago. When I boarded the boat I had borrowed, I stepped onto the bow, just like I did on the bigger boat I had been sailing. Unfortunately, my weight caused the boat to heel way over; as I grabbed the mast for balance, I only succeeded in tipping the boat over on top of me as I fell backward into the water. It was a shocking (and embarassing) way to re-learn the fact that you have to be very careful where you put your weight on small boats. 
      The safest way to get on a centerboard boat is to step into it from the side while someone else is holding it steady. Once you're on board, put the centerboard (or daggerboard) all the way down. The weight and lateral area of the board will help steady the boat. As you move around the boat, you'll notice that the closer you stay to the mast and centerboard, the less the boat tips. The farther you go toward the gunwales (sides) or the bow and stern, the more your weight makes the boat tip.
    When you actually sit down in the boat to start sailing, there are a number of considerations for how to position yourself. Most of these depend on whether you are the skipper or crew.


The skipper, or helmsperson, is the person who holds the tiller and keeps the boat from crashing into other boats. The skipper's stting position must allow him or her to do the following: comfortably hold the tiller or hiking stick, trim the mainsheet, and see the sails, wind and water. To do all these things, it usually works out best for the skipper to sit on the windward rail, just forward of the end of the tiller and even with the mainsheet block. This is a good spot for several reasons:

Visibility -- Sailors have known for a long time that the higher you are off the water, the more you can see. That's why the explorers and whalers sent crewmembers up into "crow's nests." On any boat, the higher you sit, the better you can see the wind and waves on the water. Therefore, the helmsperson should try to sit on the windward rail most of the time (since this is the highest, and usually most comfortable, position).  Sitting fairly far forward will also give the helmsperson a good view of the telltales on the jib and the water in front of the boat.

Mobility -- The skipper must be able to cross easily from side to side during tacks and jibes. Therefore he or she should sit near the space between the end of the tiller and the mainsheet block.

Ease of trimming -- As we'll discuss later, the skipper usually trims the mainsheet while steering. Therefore, he or she must sit close to the mainsheet block, so it's easy to cleat, uncleat and adjust the mainsheet.

Weight -- The location of your weight will also affect boatspeed. In general, the skipper (and crew) should move forward in light air (to keep the stern from dragging) and aft in heavy air and waves (to keep the bow from plowing). 


While the skipper stays mostly in one spot, the rest of the crew must be a lot more flexible. Crew priorities are balancing the heel of the boat, trimming the jib, and helping the skipper look around. The best place for the crew is usually just forward of the skipper, within easy reach of the jib cleat. You also must be able to move easily from side to side. Considerations include the following:

Weight -- Sitting just forward of the skipper allows crew weight to be centered fore and aft, which reduces pitching of the boat and keeps the stern from dragging or the bow from plowing. It's also a lot cozier.

Maneuverability -- With the skipper sitting on the windward rail, the crew must move his or her weight to windward or leeward to keep the boat from tipping too far in one direction. If you're not hiking on the windward rail, face forward with one foot on each side of the centerboard trunk so you can move either way quickly.

Visibility -- It's the crew's job to keep a lookout for wind puffs, waves and other boats, especially in places where the skipper has a blind spot.  These include the area to leeward that is obscured from the skipper by the jib, and everything behind the skipper's back.

Ease of trimming -- The crew must be ready to trim or tack the jib at any time, so he or she should be within reach of both starboard and port jib sheets.

What To Hold

Now that you have some idea of where to put your body, what about your hands? Who holds what, and why?

Skipper -- The skipper normally controls the tiller with his aft hand and the mainsheet with his or her forward hand. While this means he has his hands pretty full,  holding just one would be like driving a car and letting someone else press the accelerator. It feels strange, and it's hard to coordinate the two. As we'll explain later, the mainsail and helm are closely related, so I'd suggest having the same person do both.

Most small sailing boats have tillers with hiking sticks. My preference is to steer as much as possible with the hiking stick and avoid holding onto the tiller directly. The reason for this is that the hiking stick lets you sit outboard and forward. There are only a few times when I'd suggest steering directly with the tiller: when it's so light that the skipper has to sit inside the boat to get enough heel, and when you're sailing downwind in breezy conditions on the edge of control.   

There are at least three different ways to hold on to the hiking stick. These grips are 1) "underhand" -- holding the hiking stick on your aft side with your fingers wrapped around it; 2) "overhand" -- holding the stick across your lap with your fingers wrapped around it; and 3) "pencil grip" -- holding the hiking stick like a pencil with the end pointed toward your chest.  My preference is the latter, though you should certainly use what's most comfortable for you. The advantage of the second and third styles is that your aft hand is near your mainsheet hand and can therefore help when trimming the main.   

As skipper, you should hold the mainsheet in your forward hand. You can grip the sheet by simply wrapping your hand around the line (Photos F,G), or when there is a lot of pressure on the sheet, you can wrap the sheet around your hand. If you do this, be sure you can quickly release the sheet in case you get a puff.

There are a number of ways to make trimming the main easier. Most boats have cleats built into the base of the mainsheet block, which make it easy to cleat off the main once it's trimmed properly. However, I don't ever recommend cleating the mainsheet. There are two reasons for this: first, since the wind and the boat's course are always changing, you have to adjust the mainsheet constantly to keep the sail working properly. Second, in order to prevent a capsize when you get a puff, you have to be able to ease the sheet immediately. This is difficult if it's in the cleat.

A ratchet block provides a nice compromise between holding the sheet and cleating it.  This block is made to turn in one direction only. It lets you pull the sheet in, but then locks so the line won't slip out (as long as you keep some tension on the sheet). The locking system can be turned off on light-air days so the sheet will run freely in both directions.

Another way to make trimming the mainsail easier is by using as many parts in the sheet as possible. This gives you the best mechanical advantage. I generally prefer to use as few parts as possible (usually a two to one advantage), since this gives the best feel for the sail and also allows me to ease and trim the sail quickly. However, it's often a good idea to use three or four parts, especially on bigger boats or in heavy air. 

Finally, wear sailing gloves on windy days if you have tender hands. And when you sheet in, hike out at the same time so your entire body, not just your arms, will be helping trim the main.

Crew -- As a crew, you're lucky because you have fewer things to hold than the skipper, at least when sailing upwind. Your primary responsibility is the jib sheet. It's OK to cleat this, but it's a good idea to keep it in your hand, or at least within easy reach. When there's a chance you will tack or jibe, hold onto both jib sheets. On a windy day, you can use the jib sheet to help support your weight while hiking upwind. Downwind you will be very busy with the spinnaker (if your boat has one), and we'll talk more about this in Chapter 7.

Steering and Turning

Steering a boat may seem like one of the simplest things about sailing, but it's actually an art that requires a lot of practice to perfect. Just getting used to a tiller takes a while, especially if you've spent a lot of time driving a car.  It's a little like going to England and trying to drive on the left side of the road. After a while, though, it will feel normal to push the tiller left when you want to go right, and vice versa.
      While the rudder is normally used to turn a boat, other variables such as weight placement and sail trim can have just as great an effect on where the boat goes. In fact,  with a little practice you could even leave the rudder at the dock and still have a nice sail.  However, the best way to control the boat is to use a combination of rudder, crew weight and sail trim.

The Rudder

If you've ever been in a rowboat or canoe and stuck one oar in the water, you know the boat will turn toward that side.  A rudder works along similar lines: it directs the stern of the boat in one direction and turns the boat by pivoting it around the centerboard or keel. It's important to keep a few principles in mind when you are steering with the rudder:

  1. You can't steer if you are not moving.  The rudder will only work when there is water flowing over its surface. A common mistake of beginning sailors is to jam the rudder over and try to turn the boat when they're not going anywhere. You have to build speed before you can turn.
  2. Steering with the rudder slows you down.  The further you push the tiller to one side, the more of the rudder's surface area will be exposed to the flowing water, and the more the rudder will act as a brake. Oversteering is like slamming on your brakes to do a skid turn rather than gently guiding your car around  a curve.
  3. Steering with the rudder is more effective when your centerboard or daggerboard is all the way down. In fact, if your board is all the way up, the boat will go sideways when you turn the rudder.

Sail Trim

Just like the rudder, you can use your sails to turn the boat around its underwater pivot point. Sailboards are a great example of how this works. Since boards don't have rudders, they have to rely on the position of the sail for turning. If you ever watch a boardsailor, you'll notice that when she wants to turn away from the wind (or "bear off"), she'll push the whole sail forward over the bow. There is now more wind pressure pushing on the bow, so the board will pivot.

The same principle applies to a sailboat. If you want to turn away from the wind, pull the jib in tight and let the main way out. This moves the effective sail area quite far forward, which pushes the bow away from the wind and pivots the boat around the centerboard. If you want to head up toward the wind, let the jib luff and trim the main in tight. Now the working sail area is behind the centerboard, so the boat will turn toward the wind.

Weight Placement

Another factor that determines how a boat will turn is the shape of its bottom. When a boat is level (not heeled to windward or leeward), the part of its bottom that is in the water is shaped symmetrically -- exactly the same on each side (Diagram K). This makes the boat want to continue forward in a straight line.  However, when you heel the boat one way or another, the underwater shape changes and is no longer symmetrical. The result is that the boat will want to turn one way or the other.

If you know roughly how this works, you can shift your weight to help steer the boat. If you want to turn to port, for example, make the boat heel over to starboard. When you do this, the underwater hull shape on the starboard side becomes much more curved than on the port side, and the boat will turn to port to follow that curve. The opposite is true if you heel the boat to port -- it will tend to turn to starboard.

To understand how these three steering forces work together, try a few excercises (once you are fairly proficient at sailing).  First, sail along on a close reach and try to head off without changing the position of your weight or letting out the sails. This will be difficult if it's windy. Then repeat the same exercise; only this time ease your mainsail and hike out so you heel the boat slightly to windward. It should be a lot easier to turn the boat. 

When you're ready, try sailing without your rudder (a medium breeze is best). Steer by moving your weight from side to side; then steer only by trimming and easing the mainsail and jib. If you are successful at this, you will  have gained a great deal of mastery over your boat. (One word of caution: Before taking your rudder out, be sure you will have a calm spot where you can put it back in.)

Points of Sail

Now that you know how to turn the boat, let's talk a little about where you can point the boat. The most common way to explain the course sailed by a sailboat is to describe the angle between the boat's heading and the direction of the wind. This is called the "angle of sail." It's easiest to picture this by imagining a huge compass rose with the wind coming from due north and your boat in the middle.  Let's look at what happens as the boat turns clockwise around the points of the compass.

When the boat is heading due north, it is sitting "head to wind," and its sails are luffing. No boat can sail straight into the wind; if it stays in this position very long it will lose headway. At that point you'll have trouble turning the boat, and you are said to be "in irons," a term that dates back to square rigger days. We'll talk more about this in the next chapter.

The closest a boat can sail to the wind is around 45 degrees. In order to fill her sails, the boat in our example will have to turn toward the northeast. On this course her sails will be trimmed in all the way, and we'd say she is sailing "closehauled" or that she is "beating" to windward. This boat is on port tack because her boom is on the starboard side of the boat.        

As our boat heads farther away from the wind, we say she is "bearing off."  Between northeast and east, she is on a close reach with her sails eased slightly from the closehauled position. When the boat heads east, she is "beam reaching," since the wind is now coming from abeam. She is still on port tack.

As our boat continues to bear off, her crew eases the sails farther out. When she heads southeast, she's on a broad reach, and when she steers due south her sails are out as far as they can go. This position is called "running" or going dead downwind. Notice that with the wind dead astern, the mainsail boom could be on either side. If it remains on the starboard side, then our boat stays on port tack. But if a crewmember pulls the boom over to the other side, then the boat has "jibed" and she is on starboard tack.

To complete the circle, our boat heads up toward the wind on starboard tack, passing again through broad reaching, beam reaching and close reaching. When she gets to northwest, she is steering closehauled on starboard tack; if she steers any closer to the wind, her sails will begin to luff and she'll lose speed. In order to head northeast again, she has to swing her bow through the wind, which we call "tacking." Her sails will cross the centerline of the boat, putting her on port tack again.  

Polar Diagram

We've now described a circle of all the possible headings for any boat. One thing we know is that the speed of a sailboat varies according to her angle of sail. A boat on a beam reach, for example, will sail significantly faster than a boat that is closehauled or running. 

An interesting way to visualize the differences in speed is by using a graph called a polar diagram. This shows how fast a boat will go at every point of sail. It also shows that more wind will generally make a boat go faster.