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Transform basic sailing skills into true mastery
No other sport is as complex or as gear- and technique-intensive as sailing. The details and nuances are vast, but beneath the surface are 22 elements, or core areas of knowledge. By understanding these principles you can attain true mastery: tie any knot, shape any sail, take the helm of any boat, no matter how large or ...
Transform basic sailing skills into true mastery
No other sport is as complex or as gear- and technique-intensive as sailing. The details and nuances are vast, but beneath the surface are 22 elements, or core areas of knowledge. By understanding these principles you can attain true mastery: tie any knot, shape any sail, take the helm of any boat, no matter how large or unfamiliar.
One of the great things about sailing is that it can be incredibly satisfying even if you don't really know what you're doing. I was born in Boston and got my first taste of sailing aboard a little dinghy named My Yacht that my grandparents kept on the beach near their house on Marblehead Neck. My earliest memory afloat is of steering My Yacht back to the beach from Roaring Bull Rock, just off Tinker's Island, keeping the starboard shroud lined up with the east end of the causeway. I had little idea what I was doing or why, but I loved every minute of it.
Then my parents moved the family to Bloomington, as in ... Indiana.
For the next eight years, except for an annual two-week pilgrimage to visit my grandparents, the only way to satisfy my growing interest in sailing was to read everything I could get my hands on. Sailing magazine, Sail magazine, National Fisherman, the entire Horatio Hornblower saga, a shelf full of books on sail shape and racing, The Last Grain Race, and on and on—a sailor in exile, I devoured them all with the dedication of a cloistered monk, even when I wasn't entirely sure what I was reading. When we moved to Cleveland and I found myself in close proximity to Lake Erie, I was surprisingly well prepared for that city's thriving racing scene. Of course it took some time to put all that book learning into practice, but it all made sense. That was the main thing.
For all their apparent complexity, sailboats are refreshingly straightforward creatures, and the same can be said for the principles that make them work. Better still, thanks to the generations of accumulated knowledge that goes into their design and construction, the vast majority of sailboats are wonderfully sturdy and forgiving even when handled by the clumsiest of neophytes. It's as if they want to take us sailing, like a frisky horse looking for an excuse to romp.
So let's get started.
Beating, Running, and Reaching
When it comes to sailing, the single most important thing to know is your angle of sail, or what mariners traditionally called their point of sail. (There were thirty-two points on the traditional compass card, with one point comprising 11 ¼ degrees—a bit of esoterica few sailors bother to learn anymore.) That is, you need to know whether you're on a run, a reach, or a beat. These terms refer to the angle of the wind relative to the direction in which your boat is moving. Whether you're daysailing, racing around the buoys, or battling a storm, this concept cuts to the vital core of sailboat motion, efficiency, and even safety. Even if you're sailing for the first time, to know what angle of sail your boat is on is to pump a sailor's blood through your veins.
A boat is beating, or sailing close-hauled, when it's sailing as close as possible to the direction from which the wind is blowing. A good boat can sail to within 45 degrees of the wind before its sails start flapping and it slows down. If you turn much closer to the wind than that, your sails will lose all drive and your boat will grind to a halt. Without forward motion there will be no flow of water over the rudder, and the rudder will no longer steer the boat. The boat is then likely to turn its bow into the wind and remain that way, at which point it's said to be in irons—drifting head to wind without steering control. Some high-performance racing boats can sail a little closer than 45 degrees, but only under ideal conditions and certainly not in big waves.
Keep in mind that, to be beating, a boat must be sailing as close to the wind as possible. A good helmsman will not just sail a straight-line course but will continually adjust his heading to take advantage of every favorable wind shift and to make grudging concessions to every unfavorable one. This angle of sail tests boats and sailors like no other. A heavy-weather beat can be both physically punishing and emotionally exhilarating. It's what defines modern sailboats and sailors. Crack off just a few degrees from close-hauled, ease the sails a little, and you're no longer on a beat.
At the other end of the wind-angle spectrum is sailing on a run, or running. A boat is on this angle of sail when it's heading directly downwind, or away from the wind. If the wind is blowing from the north, you'll be running when you sail south with the wind blowing from directly astern. In practice, the definition of this angle of sail is a bit more forgiving than beating, but when the wind is more than 10 degrees or so from being directly astern, strictly speaking, you're no longer on a run. Think of it as running away from the wind. What could be simpler?
Finally, there is reaching. This angle of sail—or angles, really—encompasses every possible course between a run and a beat. Because this constitutes a pretty wide arc—on both sides of the boat you're talking about some 125 degrees— sailors break it into three more manageable chunks.
The first, which largely defines the other two, is the beam reach. On this angle of sail the wind is blowing directly from the boat's side, or beam, at right angles to the boat's direction of travel. (A boat's beam is the width of its hull measured at the widest point—a term derived from the sturdy transverse members used to hold together old-time wooden sailing ships.) If the wind is blowing from forward of the beam—i.e., from a direction between 45 and 90 degrees off the bow—the boat is said to be sailing on a close reach. In other words, it's sailing somewhere between a beat and a beam reach. Similarly, if the wind is coming from aft of the beam but not directly over the stern—i.e., from somewhere between 90 and 170 degrees off the bow—the boat is said to be on a broad reach. In other words, it's sailing somewhere between a beam reach and a run.
And that's it. You now have the means of defining the primary relationship of a sailboat to its world in pretty much any situation imaginable.
The importance of knowing a boat's angle of sail can't be overemphasized. Where do you want to go? What is the best way to get there? Is it even possible to get there, and if so, will your route be a safe one? Such questions are impossible to answer if you don't take into account both your present angle of sail and the angle you will need to sail in the event of a future course change.
Let's say, for example, that you want to sail to a small island a couple of miles seaward from the marina. The first thing you need to do is figure out where the wind is blowing from and therefore what angle of sail you will be on when you point your bow in the island's direction. Will you be on an easy run or broad reach, or will you have to sail close-hauled, or will it be impossible to point your bow at the island even when close-hauled?
This same way of thinking applies when crossing oceans. Sea captains often sail great looping courses, as opposed to the shortest distance between two points, in their search for favorable sailing angles that will ensure an easy passage.
The clipper ship captains of the mid-nineteenth century, for example, would sail hundreds of miles east from Boston and New York before turning south for Cape Horn, at the southernmost tip of South America. They did this because it allowed them to sail an easy broad reach through the prevailing westerlies of the North Atlantic's temperate latitudes. Then, after turning south, they remained on a broad reach while riding the northeast trade winds to the equator. The alternative—sailing directly southeast—would not only have meant contending with the light winds that plague the North Atlantic's central gyre. It would also have meant sailing a close reach through the trades, something clipper ships, which could sail no closer than 60 or 70 degrees off the wind, did poorly despite their vast spreads of canvas.
Similarly, the vast majority of modern circumnavigators prefer to sail from east to west to take advantage of the easterly trade winds north and south of the equator. They also carefully time their journeys for the seasons that are most likely to bring tailwinds and fair weather. The expression "gentlemen never sail to windward" sounds snooty but reflects ocean-voyaging reality. Beating into a stiff headwind can be a barrel of fun on an afternoon in a sheltered bay, but beating your way across an ocean is another matter entirely. "Fair winds and following seas," goes the sailor's benediction—for good reason.
Angle of sail also plays a role in the design and construction of sailboats. In Maine, for example, fishermen and sailors transporting small cargoes of timber, cod, and salt long relied on the fore-and-aft schooner rig because it allowed them to sail closer to the wind than the square rig it supplanted (though not close by modern standards). They did this because of the prevailing westerlies in the area. Sailing east from Boston to, say, Rockland meant easy reaching conditions. That's why sailors refer to Maine as being "down east." Going the other direction, however, was an entirely different matter and required a rig that was good for beating.
Similarly, modern America's Cup boats are extremely slender so that they will sail to windward well. In fact, these boats are so finely tuned that they can sail closer to the wind than 40 degrees. Boats that compete in long-distance events such as the Volvo Ocean Race, on the other hand, will often spend days or even weeks sailing on a broad reach. The same goes for the big 50- and 60-foot boats sailed by "extreme" solo sailors in around-the-world events like the VELUX 5 Oceans race and the Vendée Globe. These boats are often built wide and shallow in order to skim across the water downwind, sometimes even surfing down waves like oversize racing dinghies.
Where's Your Lade Board?
Left and right mean different things depending on what direction you happen to be facing. Ashore this is rarely a problem, but precise communication is often critical aboard a sailboat. If a crewmember facing aft is asked by a skipper facing forward to untie the "left-hand" line, the crew's justified response is, "Whose left?"
To solve this problem, sailors long ago replaced right and left with starboard and port—or larboard, as the latter is sometimes known. Something on the left side of the boat as you face forward—whether it's aboard the boat or across the water—is said to be to port. Something on the right side of the boat is to starboard. The port side will be to your right if you turn and face the stern, but it's still port. If you ask a crewmember to untie the port halyard, there should be no confusion about which halyard to untie. If there are two halyards to port, it should be understood that you mean the one that's farther to port.
According to etymologists, starboard comes from "steer board." In the days before Europeans figured out how to make rudders, the Vikings steered their longships with an oar mounted on the right side when facing forward—i.e., the starboard side. It made obvious sense when tying to a dock to position the boat so its other side, the one unencumbered by the oar, rubbed against the stone facing or pilings. That side therefore came to be known as the lade-board or larboard side, the side across which a cargo was loaded. The word port came into use in the 1700s and 1800s to remedy the fact that starboard and larboard sound deceptively similar when shouted through a gale of wind.
The concepts of port and starboard are especially useful when referring to the direction from which the wind is blowing relative to a boat's direction of travel. For example, if the wind is arriving over your boat's port side, the boat is said to be on port tack. When the wind approaches from starboard, your boat is on starboard tack. Beat, reach, or run, port tack is port tack and starboard tack is starboard.
If you're having trouble visualizing which tack is which, just look at the boom. It will always hang over, or point, toward the side opposite the boat's tack—i.e., away from the incoming wind. When a boat is on starboard tack, its boom will be to port of the boat's fore-and-aft centerline. When a boat is on port tack, the boom will be starboard. This rule of thumb is especially useful when figuring out the tack of a boat that's running. Because the wind on this angle of sail is coming from astern, boom orientation means everything when determining the boat's tack—or its jibe, as some sailors call an off-the-wind tack. If a sailor tells you he approached an island on starboard jibe, you'll know he was sailing a broad reach or run with his boom to port.
Windward and Leeward
Another important concept is windward versus leeward (pronounced loo-ward). Anything upwind of you—anything between you and the direction the wind is blowing from—is to windward. Anything downwind of you is to leeward. To alter your course more to windward is to sail higher. To turn more to leeward is to sail lower.
The windward-leeward dichotomy is critical to any number of situations—especially in extreme conditions—because of a boat's tendency to drift downwind when the going gets rough. It's also important because the air immediately to leeward of a boat, dock, island, or any other object will be more turbulent and move at a slower velocity—which can be a good thing when seeking shelter from a storm but not so good when racing or when sailing through a crowded marina. Even in moderate conditions, you should keep track of whether objects—ledges, islands, docks, moored boats, and the like—will be to windward or to leeward when you sail past. Except when sailing directly downwind, all sailboats make leeway—slide a bit to leeward—so it's always a good idea to leave yourself a little extra room when passing to wind-ward of an object.
Let's say you're sailing to an island a couple of miles offshore, and your course will take you past a rock marked by a green daybeacon (a pole topped by a green triangular board). Heading toward the island, you find that the wind is about 60 degrees off your port bow, which means that unless the wind changes (always a possibility), you will be able to sail to the island on a close reach on port tack. The question then becomes, should you leave the rock to port (i.e., pass to the right of the rock so that it's on your port side as you sail past) or to starboard? To the uninitiated, this question may seem academic. What does it matter as long as you don't hit the rock? To a sailor, however, the two choices couldn't be more Different. In leaving the rock to port, you will be passing to leeward of it, whereas leaving the rock to starboard will mean passing to windward of it, which could result in serious problems should something go wrong.
And we're not talking about something truly catastrophic here, like the mast falling down. It could be something as simple as a sudden wind shift or getting tangled up in a stray lobster pot or fishing line—rocks being especially common in "lobstery" places such as Massachusetts and Maine. What if the wind dies and your engine refuses to start, leaving you at the mercy of the residual waves and swells? (Smart sailors continually play these kinds of what-if games as they sail along.) Sailing just to wind-ward of the rock leaves you little if any margin for error.
If on the other hand you pass to leeward of the rock, the world looks completely different. Now if something goes wrong, you will move farther away as you drift downwind, downcurrent, or downsea—unless of course the wind shifts 180 degrees, but some what-ifs are more improbable than others.
Excerpted from THE BLUE BOOK OF SAILING by Adam Cort Copyright © 2009 by Adam Cort. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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