The 5 Points of Sail: Discover the Sailboat’s Angles to The Wind

Points of sail

Learning how to navigate a boat through different sailing angles of the wind is the key to becoming a confident sailor and making wise decisions at sea. 

The 5 points of sail describe the angles a sailboat can sail relative to the wind direction and include:

  • Close-hauled: Sailing close to the wind 
  • Close reach: Bearing away from the wind
  • Beam reach: The wind comes from the side
  • Broad reach: Sailing away from the wind
  • Running: Sailing downwind.

In this article, we will learn the points of sail from Close-hauled upwind sailing to Running downwind. We’ll explain the technicalities of each point and how to trim the sails accordingly. You will also learn some of the nautical terms associated.

Next, we’ll look at a few tips and strategies for downwind sailing, which is the trickiest part. By the end of this guide, you should have the theoretical knowledge and confidence to easily navigate the different points of sail.

The 5 points of sail

I made this points of sail diagram for your convenience!

The 5 Points of Sail: Discover the Sailboat's Angles to The Wind

Looking at the illustration, you might wonder why the no-go zone isn’t included as a sixth point. The reason is that you can’t sail a boat directly into the wind. So, technically, it isn’t a point of sail. However, I will explain it since you head through this zone every time you make a tack.

Learn these sailing points immediately. It will make communication onboard more precise, and using sailing terms is always a good practice.

True and apparent wind briefly explained

True wind speed is the actual wind velocity measured by a stationary object. Apparent wind speed is the wind velocity perceived by an object moving through the air, such as a boat or yourself. In other words, apparent wind speed combines the actual wind and the effective wind created by your motion.

Learn more about the difference between true and apparent wind.

NO-GO-ZONE or In Irons – Head to wind

The no-go-zone is where the sail’s angle to the wind prevents them from generating lift. When sail’s cant generate lift, the boat stops, and the sails will start to flop around. This zone is usually about 35 – 45 degrees from the eye of the wind in both directions. That means you always have an area of 70 – 90 degrees towards the direction of the wind that you can’t ‘sail.

There are two occasions you want to have your bow into the wind, thoughWhen hoisting, lowering, and reefing the sails and briefly during a tack. A tack is when you move the sails from one side of the boat to the other as fast as possible to avoid losing the boat’s speed.

Close Hauled – Sailing close to the wind

Sailing close hauled is sailing as close to the wind as your boat allows.

Your sails are sheeted in tight, and if you change your course a little bit too much into the wind, your sails will start flopping, and you will lose your speed. The boat is heeling over to the side, which for some, can be intimidating.

This point of sail is often called beating – with good reason.

The sail trim is crucial, and the person at the helm has to focus on keeping his point. This is also the point of sail where your apparent wind will be the highest in relation to the wind. You will often have waves and swell pounding into the bow, which can be challenging in rough conditions.

Learn more about sailboat heeling and how high a sailing boat can point in my other guides.

Close Reach – Bearing away from the wind

Once you bear away from being close-hauled, you get into close reach. You are now sailing between 50 and 80 degrees, give or take. This is a much easier point of sail as the person at the helm doesn’t have to be as sharp on the course, and you can ease off the sheets and let the sails out a bit.

The boat will usually calm down when bearing away from beating, and you’ll sail faster too. The apparent wind strength is still higher than the actual wind making it an efficient way of working yourself toward the wind without knocking your teeth out!

Beam Reach – The fastest point of sail

You are on a sweet beam reach once you bear away from a close reach and get to 90 degrees. This is a fast point of sail for most sailboats. The wind is coming from the side, and your true and apparent wind will be at a delta and show about the same speed.

Sheet your sails out about halfway, and the boat can sail fast and comfortably with excellent stability.

Broad Reach – Rig your boom preventer

Continuing to bear off from 90 degrees puts you on a broad reach down to about 135 degrees off the wind. You can now ease the sheets as you turn and will feel the wind speed decrease. This is because you are sailing away from it, and your apparent wind speed is now less than your actual wind speed.

Broad reaching is a very comfortable point of sail due to the lack of heeling. On a broad reach, the sail’s shape is less critical, and trimming in a bit of a belly will make them more powerful. You can accomplish this by adjusting the sheeting angle. Move the cars forward until the leech of the headsail is closed. A fluttering sail is an ineffective sail.

Las Palmas to Cape Verde Genakker

A broad reach is a comfortable point of sail, and if conditions allow for it, the perfect time to get out your light-wind sail!

It is wise to rig up a boom preventer when sailing in any direction away from the wind. A boom preventer is a line run from a strong point ahead of the mast to the end of the boom. Its job is to prevent the boom from swinging over in case of a sudden wind change which can be fatal.

Running – Sailing downwind

The last point of sail is called running. Running is when you are sailing between 135 and 180 degrees downwind. At this point, you need to trim your sails by easing your sails out as much as possible. Be careful not to let the mainsail chafe against the spreaders and shrouds. Rig up your preventer now if you haven’t already!

As you continue past 135 degrees, you’ll see that the apparent wind speed decreases until you sail dead downwind. You’ll also notice that when you bear away from a broad reach, the mainsail will start blocking the wind to the headsail, and you will struggle to make it stand up.

Closing the circle

When continuing around the running point, a gybe will put you over on a broad reach again on the opposite tack, and you can continue through the points up towards a close reach again. Then making a tack will complete your 360-degree circle! Remember that the apparent wind increases when you get past 90 degrees from the wind.

But let’s go back to the running point. Despite what many people think, sailing directly downwind can be challenging for various reasons.

Your apparent wind speed is about as low as it can get in relation to the actual wind. The keel won’t provide lateral resistance in the water without sideway wind on the sails. Add some swell from behind, and you have yourself a rolly ride swinging from side to side.

Figuring out a sail plan for down-wind sailing can be tricky, but there are good options, and I want to go through a few before moving on.

Good options for sailing downwind

You can fly your mainsail to one side and pole the genoa out to the other. This setup is commonly called wing-on-wing or butterfly.

Brand New Dacron Sails
Photo by Ofélie Quivron: Ellidah sailing wing-on-wing on a run.

Setting up two headsails is another popular option, especially for those with two or more forestays, like the cutter rig. The setup is easy to reef and allows you to sail 180 degrees dead downwind. (Check out my guide on different types of rigs here).

It is possible to fly two headsails on the same stay if you have two tracks on your furling system, but it is a bit more complicated. When flying two headsails, you can use either two poles to keep them out or one pole and the boom.

Light-wind sails

A Spinnaker will be ideal for the deepest angles. If you are not sailing dead downwind, a Gennaker also works well. The light-wind sails are lovely to fly in a breeze and usually look beautiful. 

Be careful and pay attention to the wind, though. It can be hard to notice when it increases while running, and you don’t want to overpower your light wind sails.

I’ve done it, and I don’t recommend it unless you really love action and patching sails…

Light-wind sails can be a handful to get down when the wind increase, especially the spinnaker. These sails can knock your boat down in too much wind, so keep an eye on your instruments!

The parasailor is another excellent option similar to the spinnaker in terms of performance. You can read more about different types of sails here.

Sailing through our points of sail – Example

Like I said in the beginning, when we talk about the points of sail, we refer to the wind angles in relation to your sailing direction, not the compass rose.

Let’s take a quick, simplified example:

You are sailing on a course 0 degrees north. The wind is blowing straight from 90 degrees east onto the starboard side of your boat. This means you are sailing on a starboard tack on a beam reach.

A friend tells you about this awesome beach bar not far away, and you want to change your course about 135 degrees to starboard to get there. This means you will eventually get the wind on the other side of the boat as you turn your wheel over to starboard. As you approach a close reach and get close-hauled, you tighten in your sheets and flatten your sails to keep the speed and momentum.

Once you get past 45 degrees heading, your sails will flap as you turn your bow straight into the wind or the no-go zone. Now you need to make a tack. This means moving your sails over from port to starboard.

As your heading gets close to 135 degrees, the sails will fill with wind again, and you are now sailing close-hauled on a port tack.

You also notice that the wind feels stronger because you’re sailing upwind.

The 5 Points of Sail: Discover the Sailboat's Angles to The Wind

Nautical terms used when sailing and navigating

Port Tack – When the wind blows on the port side of your sails

Starboard Tack – When the wind blows on the starboard side of your sails

Tacking – When you steer the boat from a starboard tack to a port tack and vice versa upwind.

Gybing- When you steer the boat from a starboard tack to a port tack and vice versa downwind.

Heeling – When the wind fills the sails and leans the boat over to the side.

Boom preventer – A line or rope tied to the end of the boom and led forward of the mast to prevent it from swinging over when sailing off the wind.

Overpowered – When wind surpasses the boat’s ability to steer a straight course. This typically happens when you try to sail the vessel above your hull speed, carry too much sail area in strong winds, or trim your sails poorly.

Hull Speed – The speed your boat is sailing when its created wave has the same length as the hull’s water length. Displacement sailboats get hard to steer when going faster than this.

Learn more sailing terms here.

Final words

There you have it! You now know your points of sailing and that they refer to the vessel’s angle relative to the direction of the true wind. You also learned that a sailboat cannot sail directly into the wind. Finally, we reviewed some good sailing options downwind and looked at some relevant sailing terminology.

Recommended Guides

Delve deeper into the world of sailing! This guide is part of an exclusive series designed to equip you with the knowledge needed for your next sailing adventure.

Check out the others below:


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