First things first..
The number one most important thing to know when sailing is:
Where is the wind coming from?
You see, in a car or truck, or jet boat, motorcycle, horse & buggy or even somewhat in aircraft, the thinking is "point and go". Basically you point the machine in the direction you want to travel and push go. This model just doesn't work at all for sailboats. At least sailboats that are sailing.
When sailing, one doesn't drive in a certain direction, one holds the wind at a certain angle. This is an important concept to get your head around early. The sailor's world is in relation to the wind, not locations on the ground.
For example: Pretend your buddy comes over, points at a distant shore and says, "Sail me to that restaurant over there and I'll buy you a Cheeseburger." The typical car driving, plane flying horse jockey will look toward the restaurant, point his machine in that direction and go.
The sailor first looks at the wind direction. Then he checks how the wind direction compares to the direction he needs to go to get to the restaurant. Is it a reach? (Wind across our path) Is it a run? (Wind at our backs) is it a beat? (Wind on the nose) Can we lay the restaurant? (Get there in one shot without changing direction.) Or will we need to tack? (Change direction by bringing the wind across the bow.) Or, God forbid, will we need to gybe? (Change direction by bringing the wind across the stern.)
Wind direction first. That decides the path to follow to the destination. At first its confusing. But, in time, it becomes second nature.
Head hurting? Good. Ok, now lets pretend we're going to sail..
Your sitting on a sailboat. There is one sail up, the mainsail. The wind is blowing across the boat from your port (Left) side. Your one sail is flappin' in the breeze and your going nowhere. But, to make things easy, The boat is pointed in a direction that you won't mind going. What to do?
Kick it into gear.
How do we do that?
In your left hand is a rope, err line. It's called the main sheet. The main sheet is your primary control for the main sail. You use this to pull the sail in. (Set the sail's angle to the boat/wind)
Pull it in some. - More than that, pull 'till the sail stops flappin'.
Zoom! As soon as the sail stops flappin', it fills (takes a shape) and the boat starts going forward. Congratulations! Your sailing! Remember to keep the boat headed straight using the tiller (in your right hand, controlling the rudder angle). See how easy this is?
How the world looks to a sailor..
The picture represents the world from the sailor's point of view. Most boats can point (angle to the wind direction) up to about 45 degree's into the wind. Some can point closer, some not so close. In the picture the green area represents the direction one can sail. The yellow represents the scary area where the boat might gybe. Black lay lines are drawn at 45 degrees to each side of the wind. These are the barriers to how close the boat can point into the wind.
The direction the wind is coming from is called upwind. The direction the wind is going toward is called downwind. The sailor's world is not about locations, it is an endless mass of moving air over an endless sea of water. Either your heading up into the wind, down with the wind or across the wind. That and the boat, pretty much sums it up.
Changing direction..
In this bizarre world, where only wind sea and boat exist, heading up means to point the boat more in an up wind direction. Heading down is, of course, heading the boat more in a down wind direction. How do you set the direction your going to move in respect to the wind?
With the rudder!
No! - Car diving, power boating types always think its the rudder.
Actually its with the sails. The sails define the angle that the boat is heading in respect to the wind. The rudder is mostly just used to fine tune this angle. If the sails are set wrong, the rudder is not going to do much of anything besides plow through the water. So..
To head more up wind: Pull the sails in.
To head more down wind: Let the sails out.
Back on the boat..
Remember we left you sailing across the wind on an endless sea? Sailing across the wind, by the way, is called reaching. Lets head up a little shall we? (Remember? Head up means into the wind?)
What happened? The sail started to flap again and the boat slowed down. How did we fix this last time? We pulled the sail in some using the main sheet. Try it now. Pull the main sheet 'till the fluttering stops and the sail fills.
..And we get moving again...
Now we're sailing a little upwind. The more upwind you want to sail, the tighter you need to pull in the sail to set its angle to the wind. As you head more and more into the wind, the boat will sail slower and slower. At some angle, the boat won't go forward at all anymore. This is as high as this particular boat will point. Asking how well a boat points is asking how well it will sail up wind. Remember, the rule of thumb for most boats is 45 degrees from the true wind. This means that if you tack across the wind, you will turn at least 90 degrees (45 one side + 45 on the other), before you can fill the sails and start moving again. Older sailing ships couldn't point as high as 45, high tech racing yachts will sometimes be able to point higher. Most boats can do about 45 degrees.
Ok, we can sail across the wind and up to 45 degrees into the wind, green area in the picture above. Pretty neat! If we want to go closer than 45 degrees to the wind we will need to tack back and forth to do that. One way, then the other, then back. Pretty soon, if everything works out, you will be in a position that is closer upwind than 45 degrees from where you started.
What if we want to head with the wind? Its the same, but in reverse. Start heading the boat down wind and let the sail out 'till it starts flappin'. Then, adjust it back in 'till it fills. The further you point the boat down wind the more you will let out the sail.
Now, what happens when you go too far and the wind crosses over your stern? Lets think about this. As we headed more and more down wind, we let the sail out more and more. At the point that we are sailing with the wind at our back, dead down wind, we've let the sail out all the way to one side or the other. The side depends on what way we were turning to get to dead down wind. When the wind crosses our stern (boat bow crossing the yellow zone) the sail suddenly wants to be on the complete opposite side of the boat. WHAM!! This is what is known as a gybe. If a gybe happens by accident, people can get hurt. High wind gybes can hurt the boat. Be careful with gybing. If your a beginner and the wind's strong at all, maybe you should wait 'till later to try one.
Well, that should give you enough to be dangerous. :)
How does one “Drive” a sailboat?
Or, what to do when someone hands you the tiller and says "Hold this for a sec' Ok?”
Ain't that the question? Well, lets see if we can explain some of the basics of making a sailboat go.