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 Language of Sailing

Perhaps more than any other sport, sailing has its own language.  Being on a boat or around a group of sailors can often seem like traveling to a foreign country.  Rope is called "line," a pulley is a "block," the front of the boat is the "bow," and on it goes.  While it's not critical to learn all the different terms at this point, it's good to know some of the basics. This will make life a lot easier when we get into the actual mechanics of sailing.

We've written this chapter as a sort of "Berlitz" for beginning sailors. You should read through it now, and then use it as a reference whenever you hear or read a term you don't know. We've also compiled an extensive glossary at the back of this book.

Parts of the Boat

When you want to learn a foreign language, the best approach is to go live in a foreign country. For aspiring sailors, the best way to learn all the proper terms is to spend time in a boat with an "old salt" (experienced sailor).

If you don't know any old salts (or you want to brush up on your vocabulary before you go sailing with one), here is a brief list of the most common sailing terms.

Bow -- the pointy end of the boat

Stern -- the back end

Port -- the left side of the boat (when facing forward)

Starboard -- the right side of the boat

Note that the port and starboard sides of a boat are always the same, whether you are facing forward (toward the bow), aft (toward the stern), or athwartships (across the boat).

Port/starboard tack -- A sailboat is on port or starboard tack, depending on which side of the boat the wind is coming from.  The boat is always on the tack that's opposite from the side the boom is on.  For example, if the boom is on the starboard side, then the boat is said to be on "port tack."

Tacking -- the process of going from one tack to the other when the bow swings through the wind direction. Your sails will always luff during a tack.

Jibing -- the process of going from one tack to another when the stern swings through the wind direction. When jibing, the boom often swings quickly from one side to the other, so you have to watch your head (also the word for a nautical toilet).

Leeward -- away from the wind or downwind. The leeward side of your boat is the side that your boom is on. When two boats are sailing near each other, the leeward boat is the one farthest away from the wind.

Windward -- toward the wind or upwind. This is the opposite of leeward.


The hull is the body of a boat. Most small sailboats today are made of fiberglass or wood.  Parts of the hull include:

Topsides -- the sides of the boat above the waterline

Waterline -- the line where the hull floats in the water, sometimes indicated with a stripe or a change in color.

Bottom -- the part of the hull below the waterline

Transom -- the flat surface facing aft at the stern

Stem -- the point where the topsides meet at the bow


The deck is the walking platform that extends across the hull of a boat. Some boats such as Thistles have no deck, while others like Lasers are almost all deck. Some deck terms include:

Cockpit -- This is the area cut out of the deck where you sit to sail the boat. With fiberglass construction, this is usually molded into the same piece as the deck.

Splash Rail -- This v-shaped rail is located on the deck in front of the mast. It's designed to keep you dry by diverting waves that wash over the bow. When we sailed 12-Meters in the very rough waters off Perth, Australia, a splash rail was very important to keep the boat from filling up with water.

Coaming -- a low rail around the cockpit, often made of wood. No relation to what you do with your hair.

Gunwale (sounds like "tunnel") -- the boat's rail at the edge of the deck

Rubrail -- This is a plastic, rubber or wood rail placed around the boat to protect it in case you happen to come in contact with another boat or object.

Partners -- These are not the people with whom you run a business; it's a hole in the deck where the mast goes.


Every sailboat has a centerboard, daggerboard or keel and a rudder. The main purpose of these foils is to deep the boat from going sideways when sailing upwind. The rudder helps the boat turn. These hydrofoils are also carefully shaped to develop lift, which helps propel the boat forward.

Keel -- a heavy appendage, often made of lead, fixed in place on larger boats

Centerboard -- a board that is raised or lowered by pivoting

Daggerboard -- a centerboard that slides up and down, sort of like a stabbing motion

Sideboard, leeboard -- pivoting boards that are located on the sides of a boat

Rudder -- the underwater blade used for steering

Tiller -- a bar, usually wood, connected to the rudder head

Hiking stick -- an extension of the tiller enabling the skipper to steer from the windward rail

Gudgeon -- a fitting attached to the transom that holds the rudder pintle

Pintle -- a metal fitting on the leading edge of the rudder that fits into the gudgeon and allows the rudder to swing

Most larger boats have keels to keep from heeling over too far.  Cruising boats, which need to go in areas of shallow water, often use a combination keel/centerboard where the centerboard is lowered for most efficient upwind sailing, but can be raised for shoal waters.  We are also seeing more and more winged keels on cruising boats.  Besides a marketing ploy from the America's Cup, these are an efficient way to give a boat more stability without extra draft.

Smaller boats that rely more on the weight of the crew for stability have a centerboard or daggerboard, which can be raised and lowered.  A centerboard pivots on a pin and is usually adjusted with a handle, block and tackle, or drum. Daggerboards, on the other hand, slide up and down a thru-hull slot.  

The rudder is the primary means of steering the boat and is also a carefully shaped foil.  On most small boats, you steer with a tiller that is fastened to the top of the rudder.  This can be permanently attached or may be removable, in which case it must be secured tightly.  Many tillers have an extension called a hiking stick which allows you to move your weight farther outboard while steering.

If your rudder is the removable type, insert it when the water is calm, preferably before you hoist your sails. The rudder is held in place by a combination of pintles and gudgeons that are very difficult to line up if you are bouncing around.  Be sure to engage the safety catch to keep the rudder from popping out.  Some rudders can pivot in the rudder head, which allows you to attach the rudder before you launch your boat.  It also means that you will have to pull and secure the rudder downhaul line to keep the rudder in position.


Spars are the poles used to support your sails.  The biggest spar is the mast.  For centuries, masts were made of wood, but now most are aluminum extrusions.  On some smaller boats, like a Laser or Finn, the mast is free-standing and is supported only at its base.  As masts get taller and need to hold up more sail area, however, they must be supported by wires called stays.  The stays on the side of the mast are called shrouds, while the forestay and backstay support the mast in fore and aft directions.

The boom is a shorter spar that's connected to the mast with a swiveling device called the "gooseneck."  I have loved this term ever since I first heard it around age 9. The boom attaches to the bottom of the mainsail, allowing you to control the trim of that sail.  It usually hangs at about head height, so you have to watch out while sailing or you'll get a "boom" on the head.


The standing rigging refers to all the rigging that stands in place, including:

Shrouds -- wires that hold up the mast from the side of the boat

Spreaders -- struts on the side of the mast that hold the shrouds out, increasing the sideways support

Turnbuckles -- threaded devices used to adjust the length of the shrouds

Chain plate -- eyes or straps on the hull to which the shrouds are attached

Running rigging refers to all the rigging that "runs," including:              

Halyard -- Halyard are the lines (wire) used to hoist sails.

Sheet -- The lines used to pull sails in and out are called sheets.

Guy -- This is not a person; it's the spinnaker sheet, on the windward side of the boat, that goes through the spinnaker pole.

Outhaul -- the line that attaches to the mainsail clew and pulls the sail to the end of the boom

Cunningham -- Sometimes referred to as the "smart pig," the cunningham is a line at the forward end of the boom used to adjust luff tension of the mainsail. It was named after famous America's Cup sailor Briggs Cunningham, who popularized its use.

Boom vang -- block and tackle attached to the underside of the boom, about one third of the way aft from the mast. The vang is used to hold the boom down in heavy air, so you maintain good sail shape and control.


There are a lot of gadgets and gilhickies on sailboats. In fact, boats are a tinkerer's delight, which you probably know if you have ever had to maintain one.

Cleat -- a device used to hold line securely when under pressure. There are many types of cleats for different uses. Two of the most popular are:

Cam cleat -- uses two jaws that pivot to hold the line between them

Clam cleat -- a cleat with two jaws in a vertical plane

Blocks -- pulleys used for gaining mechanical advantage or simply turning lines around corners     

Ratchet block -- a block that turns one way only so it's easier to hold a line under tension. Ratchets are most commonly used for the mainsheet.


In the previous chapter, we talked about how the wind makes a sailboat go.  Now let's take a closer look at the sails that harness this energy. Depending on the type of boat you sail and the direction you are going relative to the wind, there may be one, two or three sails in use at any one time.  Some square riggers carried thirty or more sails, with names such as "mizzen upper topgallant" and "fore royal."  At present, we are only concerned with the three most common sails -- the mainsail, jib and spinnaker.

The mainsail, as you might guess from its name, is the primary sail on a sailboat.  Every boat has one attached to the mast and boom.  There are several different ways that a mainsail can be fastened to these spars, including slides, bolt rope, sleeves (e.g. Laser) or "loose-footed" where the mainsail only attaches to the boom at the tack and clew.

A jib is found on most boats in front of the mainsail, running along the headstay. It is usually attached to the forestay with hanks or snaps.  Sometimes the jib has its own internal wire that acts like the forestay when pulled tight. If the jib is large and has a significant overlap with the mainsail, it is called a genoa.  Most small boats have jibs, while most larger boats (over 25 feet) use genoas.

Boats that have only a main and no jib are called cat-rigged.  Some popular cat-rigged boats are the Laser, Finn, C Scow and Hobie 14.  Boats with a main and a jib (and only one mast) are called sloops. Almost all popular sailboats today are cats or sloops.

The spinnaker is a very large, full sail that is used when the wind is coming from the side or back of the boat.  It's usually very colorful and requires a bit of practice to get it flying right.

Each of these three sails - the mainsail, jib, and spinnaker - has a unique function and appearance, but they all have certain things in common.  Their three corners and three edges all have the same names.

Head -- the top corner of the sail

Tack -- the lower forward corner of the sail

Clew -- the lower back corner of the sail

Luff -- the forward edge of the sail

Leech -- the back edge of the sail

Foot -- the bottom edge of the sail  

Rigging and Hoisting the Sails

To put the mainsail on, first find the foot and clew of the sail.  Slide the clew along the boom.  At the end of the boom is the outhaul, which may be either a shackle or a piece of line.  This attaches to the grommet in the clew and allows you to adjust the tightness of the foot of the mainsail.   Next you should attach the tack of the mainsail to the gooseneck, usually with a pin.

Before hoisting the mainsail, there are three other controls with which you should be familiar.  The downhaul, which is also called the cunningham, is used to tighten or loosen the luff of the sail once it is raised.  The boom vang controls how tightly the end of the boom is pulled down, thus affecting the amount of tension on the leech.  Finally, the mainsheet is used to pull in or let out the sail.  We'll explain how to adjust these controls to get the best performance out of your mainsail later.

When you're ready to put the jib on, begin with the tack.  This attaches with a shackle, pin, or hook at the base of the forestay.  If your jib has hanks or snaps, fasten these around the headstay, starting with the one closest to the tack.  Next, you should tie or snap the jib sheets into the grommet at the clew of the jib.  One sheet is led back on either side of the mast, through the jib leads and then tied with a figure eight knot at each end.  The jib sheets allow you to trim the sail in and out.

You are now ready to hoist the sails with the halyards. It's usually a good idea to raise the mainsail first.  Attach the main halyard to the headboard of the mainsail, making sure the halyard leads straight from the top of the mast. Ease the mainsheet, boom vang, and the downhaul/cunningham so they will not restrict you from raising the sail all the way to the top. 

Next, position your boat so the bow is headed into the wind.  This is very important.  It means you will have less pressure on the sail, the halyard won't jump out of the sheave at the top of the mast, and the head of the sail or the battens won't get caught inside the shrouds.  You do not want the boat to start sailing away before you are ready to go. 

It is easiest if two people raise the mainsail together.  One person should pull up the halyard as the other feeds the luff of the sail into the mast.  If you have trouble getting the sail all the way up, check to be sure that nothing is caught and that the control lines are released.  If the weight of the boom makes raising the sail difficult, have someone hold up the end of the boom. 

Once the sail is all the way up and securely cleated, carefully coil the halyard so it can be quickly released in case of emergency.  In a recent J/24 championship, the fleet was approaching the finish line when a squall with gusts recorded at 50 knots hit.  The smartest boats were able to drop their sails immediately, while those who couldn't sustained a lot of damage to their sails.

Once the main is up, you are ready to hoist the jib.  Attach the jib halyard to the head of the jib, again making sure that the halyard is clear.  Then pull up the sail.  Raising the jib is usually a lot easier than hoisting the main. The spinnaker is used only when reaching or running.

Safety Equipment

One of the most important parts of sailing is ensuring the safety of your boat and crew.  This means thoroughly checking all of the boat's equipment to be sure there is no faulty gear, making sure you have all of the required safety gear and that it is functional, and always being aware of the weather conditions.

Before going sailing, you should routinely check for wear and tear on the parts of your boat, especially those that are constantly under stress such as the rudder pintles and gudgeons, hiking straps and rigging.  Check all the pins and shackles holding everything together to be sure that the pins are securely in place.  You should tape over these pins so they cannot come out and also so they don't expose a sharp edge that might tear sails, clothing or skin.

If your boat has air tanks, the port covers or plugs must be snugly in position to keep the tanks airtight.  Any water that gets into these tanks should be removed, and if there is a leak, it should be sealed, as these tanks keep the boat floating if it capsizes or fills with water.  Some boats have through-hull bailers that drain water when the boat is moving fast; make sure these are shut tightly when you launch your boat and first set off.

It's essential to carry the proper safety gear. The Coast Guard requires specific equipment to be carried on varying sized boats, while some states have additional regulations.  Check with your local Coast Guard Auxiliary to ensure that your boat is properly equipped.  You must have one personal flotation device on board for each person as well as a throwable cushion or life ring if your boat is over 16 feet long.  It's critical that the flotation device be the proper size as well, since one that is rated for a 60 pound child is not suitable for a 200 pound adult.