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The 5 Points of Sail Explained

Points of sail

The 5 points of sail describe the angles a sailboat can sail relative to the wind direction, and we have a name for each of them:

  • 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, I’ll explain the points of sail from Close-hauled upwind sailing to Running downwind. We’ll look at the technicalities of each point and how to trim the sails accordingly. We will also walk through some of the nautical terms associated to make sure you are up to speed. Finally, I’ll share some of my best tips and strategies for downwind sailing with you!

The 5 points of sail explained

I made this points of sail diagram for your convenience. It illustrates the sailing angles to the wind and is helpful to identify the term for what point of sail you are on.

Points of sail diagram
Points of sail diagram

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 include it anyway since you head through this zone every time you make a tack.

I will talk about “true” and “apparent” wind when describing the points, so let’s take a quick look at what that actually means before we move on.

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.

This element is crucial to understand when sailing and of course, I have an excellent article on the topic: 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 it from generating lift. When a sail can’t 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.

1. 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 how high a sailboat can point in this article.

2. 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!

3. 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 will sail fast and comfortably with excellent stability.

4. 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 it 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; if conditions allow for it, it is 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, fatal wind change.

5. 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 of sailing points

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.

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 Explained

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 at which 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.

You can learn more sailing terms in my sailor’s guide to nautical 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. Now you have to hoist the sails and head out at sea!

FAQ – The 5 Points of Sail

What are the parts of a sail called?

The parts of a sail and their functions are as follows:

  • Tack: This is the lower forward corner of the sail, anchoring it at its front bottom edge.
  • Clew: Located at the lower aft (rear) corner, the clew is the point where the sail’s bottom and aft edges meet.
  • Head: This is the sail’s top corner, opposite the tack and clew.
  • Foot: The foot is the bottom edge of the sail, stretching between the tack and the clew.
  • Luff: The luff refers to the sail’s front edge, running vertically between the tack and the head.
  • Leech: The leech is the aft or rear edge of the sail, extending from the clew to the head.
  • Telltales: These are small ropes, bands, or flags attached to the sail, which provide visual cues about the airflow around the sail.
  • Battens: Battens are rigid elements, such as slates or tubes, inserted into pockets on the mainsail. They help maintain the sail’s shape and extend its lifespan.

You can read more in-depth about the parts of a sail here.

What are sail poles called?

“Spar” is the general term for a pole made of a solid material like wood or metal used to support a boat’s sail.

These include:

  • Mast: A tall, vertical pole that supports the sails.
  • Boom: A horizontal pole attached to the mast. It extends from the bottom of the mainsail, helping to control the angle and shape of the sail.
  • Spinnaker Pole: A pole used to extend the foot of a spinnaker sail away from the boat, helping to stabilize and maximize the surface area of the sail.
  • Whisker Pole: A pole used to hold out the clew of a headsail, like a jib or genoa, when sailing downwind.
  • Bowsprit: Though not always considered a pole, a bowsprit is a spar extending from the vessel’s bow and typically used to support the tack of a headsail.
  • Gaff: In traditional gaff-rigged sailboats, a gaff is a horizontal pole that, along with the boom, supports the top of a four-cornered sail.

You can read more about the different parts of a sailboat here.

Which point of sail is the fastest?

Beam Reach is the fastest, easiest, and most comfortable point of sail for most sailboats. The wind comes in from the side, and you have your sails about halfway out. When your sails are well trimmed, this is an efficient point that will allow you to sail fast with excellent stability in your boat.

Is it better to sail upwind or downwind?

What’s best between sailing upwind and downwind depends on where your destination is. Remember that your boat won’t be able to sail directly upwind but at an angle of about 35 degrees to your apparent wind direction.

Sailing downwind is comfortable, but ensure your boom preventer is in place for the deepest sailing angles. Also, remember that you will require more wind to sail downwind efficiently as your apparent wind speed is lower than the true wind speed. With enough wind, however, broad-reaching is a fantastic point of sail.

What are the three main points of sail?

The three main points of sail are:

  • Beating: When sailing as close to the wind as your boat allows, typically 35-45 degrees.
  • Reaching: Includes Close reach, Beam Reach, and Broad reaching, which means you are sailing between 50 and 120 degrees.
  • Running: When you are sailing at lower angles than 120 degrees.

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