Learning to sail – building a foundation for Sail and boat trim.

This is a work in progress … more pictures to come.

This article applies to any sailboat.  The principles are the same.

Although I am a great devotee for alternative sails like balance lugs and sprit boomed sails for their much lower cost this article applies to almost any sailboat with any type of sail.


It is very possible to learn to sail by yourself. The basics are not rocket science.

There are two overlooked parts … maybe three … that seem minor but have big repercussions for the rate of learning.

Sit in the right place. The right place is not at the back of the boat unless it is a 30 footer. The water behind the boat will go smooth if you sit in the right place because the bottom of the transom will be just kissing the water. It is usually when the crew is halfway along the boat or very slightly behind that.

Learning to sail course - hull trim

This usually means that you start to use a tiller extension from the beginning.

This is me standing in a Goat Island Skiff steering with the tiller extension.  See how moving around the boat is only possible with an extension.  Usually you can’t sit in the right place unless you use one.

learn to sail - without steering using a tiller extension you cannot sit in the right place for best speed.

It’s no more confusing than a tiller (if you haven’t used one much) but easier to start the right way rather than find it confusing later. It is very easy to transition the other way. The tiller extension usually can be in front of your eyes when you change sides you can steer it through the ropes etc.

Probably most important is to get the boats rig – mast and sail setting – all worked out nicely. That is super important as a poorly set up boat will not give you the feedback you need to see if you are doing the right thing. A nicely set up boat will accelerate nicely as soon as you do the right thing. It is immediate and obvious. A poorly set up boat won’t give you any idea of whether it is you or the boat failing to make progress.

This is a super cheap OzRacer with a home made sail and everything looking very nicely set up.  A cheap sail well set up is far superior to an excellent sail bady set up.

Learn to sail - a well set up cheap sail is way better than a badly set up expensive sail

The nice thing is that boat set up can be sorted with “lawn sailing”. Set up the boat in your back yard or street (WATCH OUT FOR POWER LINES when rigging or MOVING the boat!!!!!). Then take photos and post them here. We’ll all check it out to get everything set up nicely.

Lawn sailing is trying out a lot of this in an open area with the boat on grass or on the trailer – WATCH OUT FOR POWER LINES)


Sail trim works like this …

Basically the sail needs to be as loose as possible without any flapping.

This is more interesting than it seems because wind is never constant in direction. The sails or steering have to be adjusted almost continuously to adjust for the ever changing wind direction.

This is much like driving a car. As a learner you veer all over the place but as an experienced driver there is the illusion you are going straight. But in reality you are still veering from side to side, but the swoops are small.

With sailing the straight road is relative to the wind … so you are always adjusting .. the same way you microadjust to corners and undulations in the road.

So sail trim in practice …

If you have a big enough open space (WITHOUT POWERLINES) you can get a hang of sail trim at the start. Open space is important because it means the wind will be more consistent. Move the boat around so the sails are blowing at about 90 degrees to the centreline of the boat.  Feel the wind on your face and watch the sail until the sail blows as in the diagram below..  The red arrow is the wind direction.

sailing lesson online - luffing

Totally flapping.

Stand close to the boat on the opposite side to the direction the sails are blowing. As you do this routine the sails will go to maximum power so the boat might want to tip over. Your hand or leaning on the side of the boat can help stop this.


Now pull one of the sails on slowly. The flapping will stop at the back of the sail first but the front will keep flapping a bit. This flapping at the front of the sail is called “luffing”.

You might have to prevent the boat from falling over using your weight.

Perfect trim … luffing just disappeared

Pull the sail on slowly until the luffing just about disappears – it should be just tiny luffing at the front of the sail. (that is a tautology .. luffing is always the front of the sail!).

The sail is now trimmed in the most efficient way and is drawing maximum power. There is no point in tightening the sail more than this.

Now if you imagine the wind changing direction then the sail will have to move in and out. The way to do this is to ease the sail slightly until you see it luff slightly. Then pull it in so the sail stops luffing … then a few seconds later ease the sail again until the sail luffs again.

It is like a bendy road … you have to ease the sail continuously until it luffs, then pull it in until the luffing just stops.

Bad sail trim – stalling – sailing with the sails too tight.

To pull the sail in tighter than this is the worst thing you can do. The boat will heel more giving the feeling of more power but you will notice that it starts travelling much slower – it won’t accelerate when there is a gust.  It just feels dead compared to before.

This means the sail is stalled – the airflow around the sail is a total mess. It is the biggest mistake of intermediate level sailors – who pull on the sail a bit harder thinking the boat will go faster without checking for luffing. The sail should be as eased as possible at all times but it is limited by only allowing a tiny amount of luffing.

You can never get more power than when the sail has just stopped luffing a moment ago. And now it is time to ease again and look for a tiny bit of luffing again.

So one technical term … if you don’t include “sail”.

WHEN THE WIND IS BEHIND – and one new technical term

If the wind is behind you ease and ease and ease the sails looking for luffing to start … and it doesn’t. With a boat with wires supporting the mast … the wires will prevent the sail from going out further … so that is your stopping point … the sail is full and the sail is as far out as it can be.

You can try this on the lawn or park. Feel where the wind is coming from and point the front of the boat away from that direction.

If there are no wires holding up the mast it is possible to ease the sail a lot further. I don’t recommend this 🙂 Stop easing out the sail when the sail is out at about 80 degrees to the centreline of the boat.

Zero degrees is when the sail is along the centreline of the boat. 90 degrees is when the sail is out completely to one side or another.

As I said .. the sail is at its most powerful when the luffing stopped just a moment ago. This is not possible when the wind is from behind. But there is no choice – at least until when you start sailing crazy fast boats. But that’s a year or two down the line.

So the limit is the 80 degrees or when the sail hits the wires that hold up the mast.

Stop before the sail gets to 90 degrees because the boat might start rolling. If it does pull the sheet in a bit tighter so the angle of the sail is now more like 70 degrees. With more experience you can go out to 90 degrees and further – once you know what to expect … but let’s play it safe.

When the wind is behind the boat … it is called RUNNING. RUNNING with the wind behind you.

So there is the second technical term – RUNNING.


So what happens if you pull the sails in all the way and they are still completely LUFFING?

It means the boat is pointing into the wind. And no boat can sail when it is pointing into the wind.

So you have to steer to change the angle of the sails to the wind. The ropes are at their maximum adjustment. So the only option is to steer.

The boat won’t be moving much so just move the steering to one side and hold it there. The boat will very slowly change direction and slowly the sails will start to fill and the luffing will stop gradually with the sails filling at the back first until the LUFFING just stops.

You can do this lawn sailing. Point the boat into the wind, adjust the sails to be tight … but not super tight and then change the direction of the boat. You will see the same thing. The luffing will stop.

When you feel the boat start to move – put the steering in the middle and try to go straight – you will be wobbly at first but slowly as you get better the wobbles will get less.

Remember from before … that the maximum power is when the luffing just stopped a second ago. So the moment that happens you know you are at maximum power.

Keeping the boat from falling over- If the boat starts heeling … you will have to move to use your weight by moving gracefully 🙂 to the uphill side of the boat. If the heeling is too much to control … let out a metre – or yard of the rope quickly – you can repeat this. When you feel composed again pull the sail in again.

The LUFFING has just stopped or is very tiny … you are sailing UPWIND. Not right into the wind but at about 45 degrees to the wind direction. The sail is at its most efficient.

If the luffing gets too much you need to steer the boat so it gets less – steering away from the wind direction.

If the luffing disappears you need to steer the boat so you can see a tiny bit of LUFFING again. Never accept that you “think” it is LUFFING, but steer a little further so you are sure.

When it starts LUFFING a tiny amount then steer back the other way.

When the LUFFING stops then change the direction so you can make it luff again.

Just like a car this weaving/swerving will get less and less. Lots of intermediate sailors never learn to do this properly and wonder why their boat won’t go upwind.

KEEPING THE BOAT UPRIGHT – not falling over!

I had to mention this out of sequence … but will mention it more carefully here.

First of all .. a boat capsize has another name – swimming.  And you will be near a large floating object.  So safety is quite good.  Never leave your boat – which is a large floating object that will help YOU float.  Also once you are swimming you can see the value of a Flotation vest 🙂  You don’t have to spend energy to keep floating.

We have a page here to help with capsize.  But every boat is different.  So you should test your boat in calm conditions with the wind blowing towards the shore.  You will need enough depth of water to get the centreboard oe leeboard down and might need the recovery line on the page if you have a leeboard on one side of the boat only.

But how to stop the boat from going over in the first place?

We saw that the sail almost LUFFING had the maximum power. So what if the power is making the boat feel like it is falling over there are two options.

Option 1 – Use Your Weight

Move your weight to the high side to keep the boat flat. The crew can do it too. Generally one person will move less than the other but both need to help. Usually the skipper will move quickly and the crew will more gradually move to where they need to be to make the boat sit flat.

Option 2 – Reduce the Power of the Sail

if option 1 is not working, or not working fast enough you can release a metre (yard) of the rope that controls the angle of the sail. It is called the SHEET. The rope to change the angle for the big, main sail is called the MAINSHEET. If it doesn’t work another metre. If nothing works then you can just drop the whole thing.

When you have too much power … luffing is your friend. You now know two ways of luffing.

  1. By increasing the sail angle to the boat by easing the SHEET
  2. Or by steering so the sail LUFFs.

In general if you are going upwind you do both. The boat starts to heel… you use your weight …

If the heel continue to slowly increase steering to let the sail luff.
If the heel increases quickly release a metre of SHEET. If the boat is now heeling the wrong way pull some of the sheet in to increase power. Or steer to decrease luffing.

A metre is a lot … as you get better you will know exactly how much to release to keep the boat neatly level.

When sailing in any other direction but UPWIND you should ease a lot of SHEET. But never let the sail go out past 80 degrees on boats without wires to hold the mast up .. the boat will suddenly get unstable. If it does pull in a metre of sheet really fast.

Remember the weight should be about halfway along the length of the boat. Lots of people drift back to sit near the steering. This is not right in small boats if you want to sail well.

One nice habit to build is that most boats sail much better if they are sailed very level.  You will read in many places that heeling the boat is more efficient in some way.  This is just not true with 90% of small sailboats.  One exception is very light wind when it is hard to get the boat moving at all.  In that situation you can allow the boat to heel 10 or 15 degrees to give the sails some shape through gravity.  It also has other benefits which you will find out about later.  As soon as you have reliable speed the boat should be sailed as flat as you can.


As we talked about already the boat will not sail directly into the wind because the sail will start luffing completely and the boat will lose all speed.

When the boat is going upwind well the wind comes from one side of the boat at about 45 degrees. Now if you steer toward the wind, let the sails LUFF, because the wind starts to come from the other side of the sail.

Keep turning.  The tiller is best at about 30 degrees.  Too much … like 45 degrees will slow the boat too much.  Think of what 45 degrees looks like and don’t quite steer that much.

So LUFFING has started – it reduces power so you will have to move into the middle of the boat. Then as the sails fill on the other side you will have to move to the other side too to keep the boat level.

And you can recommence your routine of trying to make the sails LUFF then steering or to stop them from LUFFING, and then steer to make them LUFF again … the same routine as before to get maximum power.

If you are going UPWIND and change direction so the wind comes over the other side of the boat it is called TACKING. It is good to give the crew a warning that you are doing it by saying “TACKING” loudly before you start the turn!

Another problem is that it is easy to oversteer … you should stabilise your direction when the sail first stops luffing after TACKING. One thing that helps me is i look over my shoulder at something about 90 degrees out from the boat … after I TACK I can end up pointing at that object and don’t need to change the angle much more. That way I can focus on steering rather than think about both steering and luffing. But as soon as the object is ahead … then you start to work on your steering to LUFF cycle again to get maximum power.


We just talked about changing the side the wind is coming from when going UPWIND by TACKING. It is slow and progressive.

More dramatic is when you are RUNNING with the wind behind and the sail near 90 degrees. When you change direction so the wind comes from the other side it is called GYBING

ONLY GYBE in very light winds at the beginning. It is more complicated than tacking.

Two things happen relatively quickly. The sail will change side suddenly and the heeling forces will reverse. So you have to be quick but not too quick. There is an important trick I will tell you in a moment.

If RUNNING already you will usually be near the middle of the boat – not really on one side or the other. so you stand or crouch or kneel in the boat with a foot each side and then steer towards the side of the boat the sail is on slowly.

The wind will get behind the sail and move it across the boat suddenly. You have to keep your head low so the sail won’t hit it. But what you have to focus on is quite different.

The whole time watch the angle of the boat … and move your weight to keep it level. This is the first priority. If you watch carefully you won’t have to move super fast.

I didn’t learn this trick until I had been sailing for years. Everyone’s feeling is to panic and rush to the other side. But it is better … much better to just focus on balance. This allows you to fix the angle little by little rather than rush like a crazy beast!

One neat thing is a little steering trick too. When you are sure the sail is coming over for sure change your steering direction and go the other way. When the sail is on the other side completely go straight again.

Steer until the boom starts to come over.
Correct in the other direction once you are sure the boom is coming over
Then steer straight when the boom stops.

But every moment the priority is balance during gybing.


Master these and you will be a good sailor with no bad sailing habits. A great foundation to build on.


  1. Life Jackets and Bailer – you’ll need them no matter how good a swimmer you are.
  2. Wind direction – should be “onshore”.  The wind should be blowing toward the land to some extent.  One person I know was picked up on his windsurfer 6 miles out from the beach.
  3. Wind Strength – it should feel like a nice day to be outside.  If the wind feels brisk … leave it until next week.  Under 12mph (or 12 knots is ideal).
  4. Clothing – Small boats are strongly related to swimming. When you are learning to sail … if you wouldn’t go swimming with the clothes and gear you are wearing .. you probably shouldn’t go sailing. If the water is cold you should wear a wetsuit or something you can stay warm in. In Australia or Texas in summer there is less risk of getting too cold but you still need to think that maybe you will be in the water for an hour if something goes very wrong.  In sunny climates – hat sunscreen – long sleeves.
Here were the specialist words again



Tiller Extension



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