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Points of Sail

Points of sail is a nautical term that describes a sailboat's orientation relative to the direction of the wind.
point of sail

Starboard and Port Tacks

Unless the sailboat is pointed directly into the wind it is either sailing with the wind coming over it's Starboard side (its right side as you face the bow), this is a Starboard Tack, or with the wind coming over the Port side, a Port Tack.

The wind is assumed to be coming the opposite way the boom, or if there is no boom, the sail, is pushed by the wind.

This becomes a bit theoretical when the wind is coming from almost exactly the back and you are teetering on the edge of a jibe. In that case the tack is determined by the position of the boom first or the sail.

No Go / No Sail Zone

Sailboats for the most part cannot sail much closer than about 45 degrees of the wind direction. That means that there is a 90 degree area that is a no go / no sail area.

Some boats and rig designs are more weatherly than others. Weatherly means the ability to sail close to the wind. If a boat is weatherly it points well.

Some racing boats can sail up to 30 degrees into the wind and some working boats, particulaly low square sails, can barely reach 60 degrees.

Many factors come into play to influence how well a sailboat can point upwind: The rig, the design of the boat and its foils, the strenth of the wind, conditions of the waves and current.


If you point your boat into the wind, it will slow down, your sail will flap and you will stop moving forward and your rudder will stop having any effect, you will be in IRONS

A boat often gets in iron after a failed tack. If the sailboat does not have enough momentum to carry the boat through the no sail zone across the wind, then the sail cannot shift to the other tack and the boat starts drifting backwards or gets pushed back to the original tack.

Very light boats don't have much momentum to turn across the wind. If there are high sides then the windage might push the boat back as well. Sometimes high waves make it hard to bring the boat about.

To recover from being "in irons" you need to either move the boat by backwinding the sail that is pushing it against the wind to get the bow to go to the other side and get some forward momentum going. If the boat stats moving backwards then the rudder can be used to move the boat so it can fill its sails and move on. Sometimes shifting the crew will move the boom and sail enough to gain headway. Sometimes a good push with the rudder will do the trick.


A boat that is Close Hauled is sailing as close to the wind as possible. In order to sail upwind the sail is pulled in tightly and crew is doing its best to keep the boat from heeling too much. Healing alot can induce weather helm (the boat turns into the wind).

If a boat is going upwind throuh a series of tacks, essentially zig-zagging upwind, then it is said to be beating or beating to winward, or working to winward.

If the boat is turned too close to the wind, (feathering or pinching) then the sail starts to luff and the boat looses forward momentum. This is inefficient but can be used as a safety measure to depower the boat in a gust or when the wind is getting too strong.

Close and Beam and Broad Reaches

When the wind is coming over the boat more or less at a perpendicular angle then the boat is sailing on a Beam Reach. It's a close reach when the boat is slightly pointing into the wind and a broad reach when the boat is sailing more downwind.

These are usually the fastest points of sail. In my keelboat the slose reach, going slightly upwind was the fastest and most comfortable direction. In my Skerry the Broad Reach is the best point. The boat just flies through the water. If you have a sail that has a sprit such as the leg of mutton sprit or the true sprit, or balanced lug sails, then the spar or the mast might interfere with the sail shape, making port or starboard tacks more efficient. In practice the effect seems to be less than expected and in many cases the bad tack actually sails better.

Running Downwind, or Running Before the Wind

When the wind is coming from behind the is said to be running. It can be deceptively quiet going from very windy and turbulent to almost earily silent. There is usually a gentle rolling motion since the sails are no longer stabilizing the boat.

Many people consider a run to be the most dangerous point of sail. Accidental jibing can quickly happen if the wind shifts or after a slight adjustment of the rudder or if the boat is pushed by a wave. In a jibe the boom comes crashing across the boat and bonks anyone in its path. There are various forms of preventers that can be set up and are used to control the boom.

In smaller boats a "death roll" can start since the sails are not steadying the boat. This, at first gentle, and gradually stronger, back and forth roll can tip a boat. It is more common in square sails such as the sprit. Once it has happened to you, then you watch for it and stop it by changing the angle of the boat to a broad reach and pulling in the sail. Just pulling in the sail can also work.

Because of the apparent wind which is much slower in a run, it is easy to misjudge how fast the wind is blowing and get in trouble when changing the point of sail and finding that the boat is healing dangerously.

Sprit Sail are the most efficient sails for running and will outdistance many boats of similar size.

There are many ways of increasing speed when on a run. Some boats drop the jib and put up huge spinnakers to increase the sail area tremendously. Other boats will push the main sail on one side and the head sail the other. This is called wing to wing.

Some boat are faster if they jibe back and forth rather than run.

Small Print

This information is for general knowledge and entertainment. I try to be accurate and check my information, but mistakes happen. Use your head and do your research.

email me if you find mistakes, I'll fix them and we'll all benefit: Christine