Learn The Basics of Sailing: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide

Learn The Basics Of Sailing

Are you ready to learn the basics and embark on a sailing adventure? This guide is a great place to start! While everything may seem overwhelming in the beginning, it really isn’t all that hard.

In this guide, we’ll start by covering some basic sailing terms so that you can speak fluently with other sailors and understand the various parts of a sailboat. You’ll learn about the different components, standing and running rigging, types of sails, and how to differentiate between true and apparent wind.

Next, we’ll look at our different points of sail, how to tie knots, how to anchor your boat safely, where you can find sailing courses, and finally, we’ll go through some common questions.

By the end of this guide, you’ll have all the information necessary to begin your exciting voyage towards becoming a sailor!

So, shall we get started?

The Basic Sailing Terms – Windward, Leeward, and all the others.

You’ve probably heard fancy terms and phrases like “We’re gonna tack our way to windward” from salty sailors. Understanding the nautical terminology can be a challenge in the beginning, but it is crucial for safe and efficient sailing.

By learning the basic terms, you’ll be able to communicate effectively with your crewmates and understand the reason we use specific terms instead of general words.

Here are some of the primary and most essential sailing terms:

  • Windward and Leeward: The windward side refers to the side of a boat or sail facing the wind, while the leeward side is the side of the sail sheltered from the wind. These terms also apply to geographic features, like islands or coastlines, that offer protection from the wind.
  • Port and Starboard: Port refers to the left side of the boat when facing the bow (front), while starboard signifies the right side. 
  • Tacking and Gybing: Tacking and gybing are maneuvers used to change a boat’s direction relative to the wind. Tacking involves turning the bow through the wind, while gybing involves turning the stern through the wind. 
  • Helm – This is the position where you steer the boat. Usually, this is a wheel, but it can also be a tiller on many vessels.
  • Cockpit – The cockpit is the boat’s steering position and where you will find the helm.
  • Bow and Stern: The bow is the front part of a boat, while the stern is the rear end. 
  • Mast: The mast is the big, tall spar that holds up the sails. Some boats have more than one mast.
  • Mainsail:  The mainsail is the sail behind the mast and on top of the boom. Often just referred to as “the main.”
  • Boom: The spar that sticks out behind the mast.
  • Rudder: The rudder is a fin sticking down under the boat. It is located back towards the stern and is connected to the wheel or tiller, enabling you to steer the vessel.
  • Headsail: The sail(s) in front of the mast. Many boats have multiple headsails and can be of different sizes and shapes.

These basic terms may initially seem confusing, but knowing them is important when you’re out at sea. Besides, speaking like a true salty sailor is pretty fun!

There are many more than those listed above; you can learn them all in this article.

Let’s move on to learning about different sailboat parts – including some deck gear and hardware like winches and blocks, which play an essential role in controlling your sails.

The Different Parts Of A Sailboat – From Keel and Rudder to Mast and Sails

It’s wise to familiarize yourself with the vessel when you step onboard for the first time. A sailboat consists of many different parts, like the hull, keel, rudder, spar, and sails. Most also carry a lot of sailing equipment and gear as well, each with their own terms.

The hull is the boat’s body that provides stability and performance in the water. Meanwhile, the keel extends downward from the hull to give balance and lateral resistance while sailing.

Learn The Basics of Sailing: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide

The rudder or tiller is found at the helm and is your “steering wheel” used to alter the vessel’s direction while on the water. On the deck, you have the mast and rigging, which holds the sails and allows you to travel with the wind.

On the bow, you will typically find your ground tackle, which consists of your anchor, anchor chain, and in many cases, an electrical winch. This winch is called a windlass on a sailboat.

Your vessel probably also has a chart plotter, sailing instruments, and a VHF Radio. Play around with your systems, learn them, and figure out how they work and communicate with each other.

As a sailboat consists of such a vast array of parts and systems, it will require maintenance and repairs. Breakdowns onboard are inevitable.

Learning about each part’s function will help you understand how they work together. When you know your boat inside out, it will also be much easier to maintain and repair.

I recommend digging deeper into a sailboat’s different parts in my illustrated guide here.

The Standing Rigging – An Essential Part of the Boat

The standing rigging on a sailboat is a system of stainless steel wires that holds the mast upright and supports the spars. Some vessels also use synthetic fiber lines or steel rods instead of wire.

The rigging’s function is to channel the wind forces from the sails into the boat’s structure, and it consists of several separate parts.

Let’s take a quick look at them:

Learn The Basics of Sailing: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide
ShroudsThe wires that support the mast from side-to-side movement.
SpreadersThe “Fins” on the mast holding the shrouds in place.
TurnbucklesFittings to adjust the tension on the shrouds.
ChainplatesConnects the shroud wires to the hull or deck.
ForestayThe wire from the top of the mast to the bow holding the headsail.
BackstayThe wire from the top of the mast to the stern.


Once you understand what each part does and where it’s located on your boat, you can start thinking about how they work together. For example, if you’re sailing upwind, you’ll want to add tension to the backstay to flatten the sails. When sailing downwind, you’ll want to slacken the backstay to get more sag in the sails to make them more powerful. 

It’s important to remember that regular maintenance is vital to keeping your standing rigging in good condition. Over time, wires will become stretched or corroded, which weakens their strength. Check often for signs that things are wearing out, like frayed cables or rusty parts. Fix or replace anything broken to ensure your rigging stays solid and safe.

The standing rigging is one of the most vital parts of your boat.

If it breaks, you may lose your mast and sails; we don’t want that!

Learning about each part’s function will help you understand how they work together and enable you to maintain and inspect it regularly.

I made an illustrated guide that goes more in-depth which you can find here.

In the next section, we’ll cover the running rigging, which includes all the lines and ropes used to control the sails.

The Running Rigging – Used to Tack, Trim, and Control Your Sails

The running rigging of a sailboat consists of lines used to raise, lower, and manage the sails and other sailing components.

The lines are usually manufactured with different colors and patterns so that the purpose and placement can be easily identified.

Halyards are essential for raising and lowering sails, and they run from the head of the sail to the masthead through a block.

Learn The Basics of Sailing: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide

Sheets control and trim the angle of a given sail, with the mainsheet being particularly important in controlling the angle of the mainsail. The outhaul is another line that adjusts foot tension on your mainsail.

Topping lifts hold the boom in place while it’s not in use, while downhauls are used for reefing the sails or lowering the spinnaker and whisker poles. Reefing reduces your vessel’s sailing area exposed to the wind, which is especially important when the wind increases.

Lazy Jacks are used for traditional slab-reefing mainsails to help guide your mainsail up and down, preventing it from falling onto your deck. Many vessels also use a sail bag called a “lazy bag” or “stack pack” attached to the boom so you can drop your sail straight into it and zip it close. Other vessels have in-mast furling, which rolls the mainsail into the mast.

As you learn more about running rigging, remember that each line serves a specific purpose tailored to different scenarios. Different rigs can also be configured differently and have fewer or additional lines than others.

For example, some use barber hauls to help adjust sheeting angles, while others rely on adjustable sheeting cars on a rail. Another example is a boom preventer to prevent the boom from swinging wildly if there are sudden wind direction or speed changes. I always recommend using a boom preventer when sailing deep angles.

Understanding every line’s functions will allow you to adjust as needed in changing weather conditions and maintain control over your sails.

It is always good practice to keep the lines tidy in the cockpit and on deck to avoid stumbling in them.

Having a tidy system will also allow you a good overview and make it easy to distinguish them from each other.

You can learn more about the running rigging in my illustrated guide here.

In our next section, we’ll look at the types of sails you’ll find onboard most sailboats.

Types of Sails On A Sailboat – Trim and Sail Away

Let’s explore the different types of sails you’ll commonly find onboard a sailboat. Each sail type serves a specific purpose, and some are rigged differently.

For example, mainsails are rigged aft of the mast, while headsails are attached to the forestay and one side of the boat.

A light-wind sail will typically fly in front of the forestay, and some require a pole.

Learn The Basics of Sailing: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide

Understanding the basic sailing terms we went through earlier in this guide will help you differentiate between different types of sails, and knowing the points of sails, which we will go through later, will help you determine which one to use for different situations.

A Jib is a headsail that does not overlap the mainsail, while a Genoa looks like a large Jib but extends past the mast and overlaps the mainsail.

Staysails are typically found on cutter rigs and is set on the inner forestay or cutter stay. Yankees are similar to Genoa and Jib but have high-cut clews. Mizzen sails are set on the aft mast of boats with multiple masts, such as ketch rigs.

Light-wind sails, such as Spinnakers, Gennakers, Code Zeroes, and Parasailors, are large and made from thin nylon material. They’re shaped like half-balloons and used when there isn’t enough wind for standard sails to work effectively.

Storm sails are used when the reefing setup doesn’t allow the standard sails’ area to be reduced enough to prevent overpowering.

Once you get familiar with the different sails, you’ll be able to identify which one to use in different situations.

For example, a Spinnaker would be the preferred choice in light conditions sailing off the wind, while a Jib will be ideal for sharp upwind angles.

A Genoa is great for most purposes and works well on any point of sail.

If you want to learn more about sails, visit my detailed guide here.

It is great to know our sails, but we also have to understand how the wind affects them to actually sail a boat. The next step in this guide is significant as it involves understanding how actual wind speed differs from apparent wind speed.

The Difference Between True and Apparent Wind Speed

The difference between true and apparent wind speed is the key to properly navigate and sail at different angles relative to the wind. The wind velocity measured by a stationary object is called true wind speed. Apparent wind speed is the wind velocity experienced by an object in motion, for example, a boat or a person.

Since we’re in motion when we sail, we trim our sails to the apparent wind as that’s what’s affecting us.

Here are three reasons why understanding this concept is essential in sailing basics:

Learn The Basics of Sailing: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide
  • Wind direction and speed affect the behavior of a sailboat, and when you set sail, the true wind speed determines how fast your boat will be able to move. But when you start moving, the apparent wind speed changes depending on your direction and velocity relative to it. The angle of attack of your sails also affects this relationship, making it necessary to understand how it will affect your boat depending on your point of sail.
  • Knowing how to control your boat’s movements requires an awareness of apparent wind speed. When turning the bow or trying to avoid being overpowered, you need to adjust your sails based on changes in apparent wind direction.
  • Sailing techniques rely heavily on understanding true versus apparent wind speeds. For example, when you sail in any direction toward the wind, your apparent wind speed will be higher than your true wind speed. When you sail in any direction away from the wind, your apparent wind speed will be lower than your true wind speed.

An upwind sail in 20 knots of true wind will feel very different from a downwind sail in the same conditions.

Once you understand these concepts, you’ll become more self-assured and efficient at sailing and be better prepared to maintain the safety of yourself, the boat, and your crew.

I recommend that you study my in-depth guide to the Difference Between True and Apparent Wind Speed here.

The upcoming section will explore our five points of sail and explain how these points connect directly to true and apparent wind speed.

The 5 Points of Sail – Everything You Need To Know

A sailboat sails angles in relation to the wind, and these angles are described by names or terms. The first thing you need to know is that there are five points of sail:

  • Close-hauled: Sailing as close to the wind as possible.
  • Close reach: Bearing away from the wind.
  • Beam reach: The wind is coming from the side.
  • Broad reach: Sailing away from the wind.
  • Running: Sailing downwind.
Learn The Basics of Sailing: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide

If sailing upwind or close-hauled, you’ll travel at an angle into the wind. Conversely, if you change direction and sail downwind or on a run, you’ll be cruising with the wind behind you.

It’s important to note that you can’t sail directly into the wind; this area is known as the no-go zone. Upwind sailing requires tacking (zig-zagging back and forth across the wind), while downwind sailing often requires gybing (turning with the stern passing through the eye of the wind) or a downwind setup.

Sail trim will be different on each point, and sailing off the wind requires some extra considerations.

Rigging up a boom preventer when sailing deep angles will prevent accidental gybes, which can injure you, your crew, and your boat. 

I made an article about the five points of sail that digs deeper into these concepts, and you can read it here.

Now that you have learned about the five points of sail, it’s time to move on to another fundamental skill required for any sailor – knot-tying.

Tying Knots – An Easy Skill to Learn for Beginner Sailors

You’ll need to use appropriate knots for different purposes, and luckily, the most important ones are pretty easy to learn!

There are also great apps like Knots 3D (read my review here) that give you a vast library of knots for all different purposes.

These four are a great place to start, and knowing them will get you a long way:

Learn The Basics of Sailing: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide
Bowline knot


The bowline knot creates a loop that won’t slip or loosen, making it ideal for tying off sheets and halyards. It’s also great for tying two lines together if you need to extend your mooring lines, for example. It is also easy to untie.

two half hitches

Two half hitches

Two half hitches are easy to remember and can be used in various ways. You can tie the half hitches around the line itself or around a pole or object you want to secure. Add additional half hitches to make it stronger, but remember that there are stronger knots for securing heavy items.

Learn The Basics of Sailing: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide

Cleat hitch

The cleat hitch secures your mooring lines to cleats on docks or boats. You want to get this one right, or your boat might slip away from you!

Pro-tip: You don’t have to fold a line 20 times around a cleat. You have probably seen it on the dock, but a proper cleat hitch is all it takes!

Learn The Basics of Sailing: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide

Clove hitch

The clove hitch is perfect for securing fenders and other equipment to rails or cleats. It’s easy to tie and untie, even when the wind blows hard. This knot can be tied with a release line- simply pull it to undo the knot. If your fender is very heavy, you can secure the clove hitch with two additional half hitches.

To master these knots, practice them until they become second nature. Once you feel comfortable with them, try tying them aboard a boat – it’s much different than tying them on dry land.

Tying them quickly and accurately will give you peace of mind knowing that your sails and equipment aboard your vessel have been securely fastened.

A complete knot-tying guide is on its way here shortly.

How to properly anchor a sailboat safely – A recipe for a good night sleep at anchor

Get the anchor ready on the bow

Every sailor needs to learn how to anchor a boat properly. You won’t believe how many boats get lost every season due to poor anchoring techniques. Don’t become one of them!

With some practice and a good plan, securing the boat to the seabed is pretty simple. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll sleep better knowing your vessel is safe, even if the weather picks up during the night.

Here is my 11-step plan on how to anchor a boat:

  1. Plan and research the location you want to anchor.
  2. Identify obstacles and hazards in the area.
  3. Get the anchor ready.
  4. Locate the spot you want to anchor.
  5. Navigate to your spot and set the boat up against the wind.
  6. Aim at your spot and drop the anchor at the bullseye.
  7. Pay out your scope of chain and rig up your snubber or bridle.
  8. Tension up the chain and set the anchor.
  9. Test your ground tackle’s holding.
  10. If the test fails, go back to step 4 and repeat the process.
  11. Optional: Inspect that the anchor is adequately dug into the seabed.

I made an in-depth guide on anchoring that you can find here.

Sailing courses – Sign up now and get two courses for FREE!

free sailing courses

There are many sailing courses available, both online and practical. One of the biggest providers of online sailing education is NauticEd.

NauticEd blends digital technology and advanced learning techniques in a globally recognized program. It’s not just about reading theory. You will experience interactive simulations that mimic real-life sailing scenarios. The best part is that you’ll get two courses for free to test the platform and NauticEd’s unique learning style before committing to their more comprehensive paid courses.

Look at this article about NauticEd to access two free sailing courses immediately.

Safety Gear

Safety Gear

Before you go sailing, ensure you have life jackets for everyone onboard, flares, a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher, and all the necessary navigation charts, maps, and GPS equipment. Always check the local tide charts and the weather forecast before heading out.

If there’s any chance of strong winds, high waves, or thunderstorms in the area, it may be wise to consider postponing your trip. Also, ensure your boat is in good condition and check all the safety equipment for damage and wear.

Remember that while the safety gear is essential, the most critical part of safety onboard is your ability to make wise decisions and know how to handle your boat in any condition.

Protective Clothing

Once you’ve sorted all your safety gear for your next sailing adventure and checked the wind is blowing in the right direction, it’s time to think about what clothes you’ll need. Sail clothes are designed specifically for wet and salty conditions and offer protection from the sun, the cold, sea spray, and rain.

Your clothes will depend on the climate and conditions in the area you are preparing to sail. While sailing in swimming shorts is lovely during the day in the tropics, it won’t cut it in colder climates. And even in the warmer climates, it gets cold at sea when the wind is howling and the rain is pouring down. Or when you get sprayed constantly by the sea.

I recommend having a comfortable, light, and waterproof jacket with a decent hood and high neck as a minimum. Ensure you find a size that allows you to put on multiple layers of clothing under it.

A pair of sailing bibs, or sailing pants, is also highly recommended. The cockpit can be a wet workspace in many conditions, and these will keep the bottom half of your body dry and prevent you from going cold.

Next, you’ll want to look at footwear.

A good pair of non-slip shoes is great for moving around the deck when the vessel is in motion. An additional pair of waterproof boots will keep your feet dry and is worth their weight in gold when the conditions get wet. I discovered the hard way when mine started leaking while sailing from Gibraltar to Las Palmas…

Many people also invest in fancy sailing gloves, and I have a few sets onboard myself. And they have been mostly untouched. I recommend saving the money and spending it on other things.

Like a pair of polarized sunglasses, which are excellent at sea as they filter out much of the light flickering in the water, which can be hard on the eyes. Polarized sunglasses also allow you to see through the water better and notice color changes, which may indicate a shallow or a reef that isn’t in the charts.

Food and Provisioning

Packing food down onboard
Packing away our provisions before crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

Provisioning is another crucial aspect that often gets overlooked by beginners. It’s vital to bring enough food and water so that everyone stays energized throughout their sailing adventure. When provisioning for multiple days at sea or longer trips away from home ports, consider storing meals with long shelf lives, such as canned goods or pre-made meals.

I will eventually write a complete guide as this topic is significant, especially for longer voyages.

Cooking Onboard

We got a bit of tidying up to do...

Cooking onboard under sail in moderate conditions is a challenge I can testify to! Food bouncing out of the pan and broken plates is not uncommon… It is part of sailing, and you can apply some excellent tips and techniques to make cooking easier and more enjoyable.

  • Store your food in convenient boxes. Nothing is worse than navigating a mess of food in drawers and cabinets when the boat bounces. These are also great if you have a top-opening fridge.
  • Find a steady position and make sure you can brace yourself in a sudden movement. Dealing with hot food or liquids can seriously hurt you if you drop it on yourself.
  • A gimballed stove is excellent for keeping the pans on top. Many stoves also come with additional pegs to secure the pots and pans, and I always use mine when sailing.
  • Keep drawers and cabinet doors closed and secured. Whatever is in there will not stay there when the conditions get rough. I broke half of my cups and plates when I forgot to close it underway.
  • Keep the number of items on the bench to a minimum, and don’t leave anything sharp unsecured. A sudden wave can send a knife across the boat at a deadly speed!

Another thing to consider is your galley equipment. Ensure you have enough electricity to keep your fresh food cold in the fridge and enough propane to cook it. Preparing some meals that can be heated quickly is also extremely helpful, especially when sailing solo.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some standard safety precautions that should be taken while sailing?

When sailing, there are several safety precautions you should take. Ensure everyone on board wears or has a life jacket readily available. Be aware of the weather forecast and conditions before setting sail, and keep an eye on it while underway for longer passages.

Always carry a first aid kit and know how to use it in case of an emergency. Keep your boat well-maintained and regularly check for any leaks or damage. It’s also necessary to have a plan in case someone falls overboard.

How do you navigate through different types of weather conditions while sailing?

Navigating different weather conditions while sailing can be compared to a game of chess. It requires strategy, forethought, and adapting to changing conditions. Wind direction, wave height, precipitation, and temperature all play a role in determining the safest course of action.

If you are setting sail for a round trip starting downwind, remember that those conditions will affect you differently when you turn around to return upwind. In other situations, the wind may change direction and strength completely, and you want to be prepared for that. If you sailed in the Mediterranean, you know exactly what I mean.

Trimming and reefing sails are essential aspects to master for navigation in any weather. Once you get confident, you’ll notice that you can sail in pretty rough conditions and still be safe and comfortable. Sailboats are built to withstand tremendous amounts of force and can, in most cases, handle rougher weather than you think.

Understanding how to read a weather forecast is essential, as is having an emergency plan in case conditions take a turn for the worse.

Learn The Basics of Sailing: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide

What equipment is necessary to have on board a sailboat for a successful trip?

To have a successful sailing trip, there are several pieces of equipment that you must have on board. First and foremost, safety gear such as life jackets, flares, and a first aid kit should be easily accessible.

Navigation tools like a compass, charts, and chart plotter will help you stay on course, while communication devices like a VHF radio or satellite phone can be used to call for help in case of emergencies.

Sails and rigging are essential for moving the boat forward, while the ground tackle (anchor and chain) will keep the boat in place when you want to park. Most sailboats have an engine for maneuvering in marinas and tight spaces, so ensure it is in working condition and that you have fuel or electricity enough for your trip.

Finally, basic tools and equipment like extra ropes, duct tape, and spare parts should also be onboard if something needs repairing during your journey. Things do break on sailboats, so make sure you have a proper tool kit and knowledge to improvise underway. 

How do you properly anchor a sailboat?

Anchoring a sailboat is like securing your bike to a post; it’s essential for safety and peace of mind. To properly anchor, find a suitable spot with appropriate depth and good holding ground. Lower the anchor and chain while backing up the boat to let the chain lay out evenly.

Once you’ve dropped enough chain, allow the anchor to set by pulling back on it with moderate force in reverse. Check that the boat isn’t dragging by monitoring landmarks or using GPS, and adjust as necessary.

Remember to monitor weather conditions and tidal changes to ensure your boat stays put. With patience and attention to detail, you can anchor safely and enjoy being parked with a 360-degree sea view!

I wrote a detailed article about how to anchor your boat. Check it out here.

How do you communicate effectively with your sailing crew while on the water?

To communicate effectively with your sailing crew while on the water:

  • Start by establishing clear communication protocols before setting sail.
  • Use a combination of hand signals, verbal commands, and visual cues to convey critical information like changes in course or wind direction.
  • Ensure everyone on board knows their roles and responsibilities and assign precise tasks as needed.

It’s wise to use positive language when giving feedback to your crew and always remain calm and composed under pressure. Some like using wireless communication devices like a WalkieTalkie, but I have never personally felt the need for one. Brief the crew of your plan, make clear signals, and you’re good to go!

Final words

Congratulations! You have taken the first step towards becoming a sailor by learning some sailing basics. With this foundational knowledge, you are now equipped to get out on the water and experience the thrill of sailing.

Remember to practice tying knots and familiarizing yourself with all parts of your sailboat before setting sail. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll become on the water.

Now that you have learned the basics, why not further broaden your knowledge even more? 

With so much to explore in the world of sailing, there is always something new to discover. So go ahead and ask yourself: What else can I learn about sailing? The possibilities are endless, and this website has much more great content to explore.

If you are serious about sailing, ASA and RYA have sailing lessons and courses aimed at those who want to learn to sail. These may be a good option if you don’t have a boat to sail on and still want to get your hands on the lines. Alternatively, you can always join someone else as a crew.

Learn The Basics of Sailing: A Comprehensive Beginners Guide