How To Sail Against The Wind

There is a quote that when you can’t change the direction of the wind, you adjust your sails; and that's literally what we will be learning how to do in this article.

We will be exploring how to adjust the sail to be able to sail against the wind. Although the best place to learn sailing,including how to sail against the wind, is at your local sailing club.

Nonetheless, the information contained in this article will help you understand,fast-track and master the techniques involved better and faster.

This will also come in useful if you find yourself sailing into a storm or if you're a beginner learning how to sail.

Sailors depend on the wind to propel their boats forward, but situations definitely will arise when the wind is blowing in a direction opposite to that in which the sailors intend to travel.

It doesn't take much for a boat to sail downwind, but to sail upwind is quite difficult and requires some degree of expertise.

Although it is obviously impossible to sail directly against the wind, however, it is possible to maneuver the boat and sail at an angle into the wind.

Before we get started, you may prefer to watch a video illustration of how to sail against the wind. Here's a good explanation from CuriosityShow

As said earlier, a sailboat cannot sail directly into the wind, but it can sail to within about 45 degrees of the wind direction on either sides.

Oftentimes, sail boats travel diagonally into the wind with a significant component of their direction upwind. This movement is possible because the sail of a moving boat adopts the same airfoil-like shape of an airplane's wing.

When air moves over a plane's wing, from front to back,wind flowing over the top of the wing has to travel farther than wind flowing under the wing's bottom surface.

This creates a pressure difference that lifts the plane and propels it forward. Comparatively, on a sailboat wind blows against the boat at an angle and inflates the sail, and it forms a similar foil shape as the plane's wing.

Thus creating a difference in pressure that pushes the sail perpendicular to the wind direction.

sailing against the wind

Although the boat cannot sail directly into the wind it can travel in all other directions around the wind. To go in the direction of the wind you'll need to sail as close to the wind as possible, this is known as beating and the boat said to be close hauled.

Beat in one direction for awhile,turn across the wind to the other side and continue in that direction for awhile.This process, generally referred to as tacking, will need to be repeated until the boat reaches its desired destination.

The illustration below shows the different points of sail that a boat may take to maneuver through the wind.

how to sail against the wind

The direction a sailboat will move depends on the force of the wind and on the resistance of the water. The combined effect of the wind and the water is a net force that pushes the boat diagonally into the wind.

sailing for beginners

The key concept here is that a sailboat is a system comprising of two wings; the sail which is a wing operating on the air and the keel which is a wing operating on the water.

If the keel points diagonally towards the wind and the wind-force points diagonally to the keel, the boat will sail diagonally into the wind.

boating against the wind

Angling the sail slightly in a more forward direction than the sail force makes sailing into the wind  possible. The boat moves forward because the keel acts to the water as the sail acts to the wind.

sailing into the wind explained

Consequently, the force of the sail balances out the force of the keel, and this keeps the boat from moving in the direction of the sail force.

The sailboat extracts energy from the wind by slowing the wind's speed relative to the water, and then uses the energy to drag and accelerate the boat.


To sail against the wind, you have two alternatives;motoring or beating. Which means you may either lower the sails entirely and start the diesel, in which case you are not sailing anymore, or you may tack.

Tacking is a sailing maneuver by which a sailing vessel, whose desired course is into the wind, turns its bow toward the wind so that the direction from which the wind blows changes from one side to the other,allowing the vessel to progress in the desired direction.

Tacking, or coming about, involves turning from one side of the wind to the other by turning through the eye of the wind, the direction the wind is coming from, in a zigzag manner.

For instance, if the wind is coming from the north, you can sail northeast or northwest.


A series of tacking moves in a zig-zag manner is called beating, and this makes sailing in the desired direction possible. Through beating a vessel can maneuver its way upwind and advance indirectly into the wind.

Beating is basically criss-crossing against the wind alternating close-hauled point on each direction. This is performed by sailing some distance at one direction, then tacking, and sailing again towards other direction, and tacking again.

tacking sailing
photo: quora

A ship that is beating will sail as close to the wind as possible. Generally, the closest angle to the wind that a ship can sail is around 35 to 45 degrees.

Some modern yachts can sail very close to the wind,while some cannot efficiently sail close to the wind.

Practically, when a boat is tacking, it is moving both upwind and across the wind.

tacking explained

The vessel changes tack periodically, reversing the direction of cross-wind movement while continuing the upwind movement.

The interval between tacks partly depends on the lateral space available.

In a small navigable channel, tacks may be required every few minutes, while in the open ocean days may pass between tacks, provided that the wind continues to come from the same general direction.

tacking into the wind

Thus a sailor can tack back and forth, in a zigzag pattern, to travel in the direction from which the wind is coming.

If a vessel is sailing on a starboard tack with the wind blowing from the right side and tacks, it will end up on a port tack with the wind blowing from the left side.

How to Perform Tacking

Tacking normally would involve two or three crew members working together. Tacking methods for sail crafts would differ, depending on whether they are fore-and aft, square-rigged, a windsurfer, or a kite surfer.

How To Tack a Small Boat With a Mainsail.

sailboat into the wind

Step 1

to tack by initiating a gradual turn towards the wind. In a boat with a mainsail traveler, center the traveler before the tack and readjust it when stable on course afterward.

Gently push the tiller away from you and towards the sail, using the tiller extension or hiking stick. Sheet the mainsail tight and sail as close to the wind (close hauled) as possible without losing boat speed.

Step 2

Alert other crew members that you are about to tack. The traditional command is “Ready about!”

In a small boat with little or no ballast, while the boat is turning, stand up on the 'old side' and step across the boat without letting go of either the main sheet or tiller extension/hiking stick.

You will have to swiftly move to the other side of the boat during the tack or the boat may capsize.

Step 3

When all is set, alert other crew with the signal “Hard alee!”. Push the tiller hard to the lee side, causing the boat to turn up and tack.

Carefully stay out of the way of the boom and sit down on the side opposite the sail as the boat comes up into the wind and momentarily goes flat on the water.

Step 4

As the boat turns, the boom and mainsail cross the center line and the sail fills on the other side. Now you can steer to stay on a new heading close hauled on the other tack.

Step 5

Center the tiller immediately, to stop the boat from turning. Now re-establish a straight course and make sure that you'removing in a straight line.

Step 6

Slide the hand aft that holds the sheet along the mainsheet, to reach the tiller extension/hiking stick. Grab the tiller extension/hiking stick with your 'old' sheet hand and let go of it with your 'old'tiller hand.

Step 7

Your 'old' sheet hand now becomes the'new' tiller hand, and will be holding both the sheet and tiller extension/hiking stick. With your 'old' tiller hand reach out and grab the sheet.

Step 8

Trim the mainsail if you will not be staying on a close hauled course. Make sure your sail is properly trimmed, without over-steering too far on the other side of the wind, as a small boat with the mainsail trimmed in tight can be blown over and capsize.

How to Tack a Sailboat with a Jib

For a jib, the old leeward sheet is released as the craft heads through the wind and the old windward sheet is tightened as the new leeward sheet to allow the sail to draw wind.

Step 1

Prepare the jib sheets before you start the turn. The one in use must be released during the tack, and the other quickly brought in as the jib crosses over to the other side. Make sure your crew is set and ready to follow your commands.

Step 2

One or two crew members are put in control of each jib sheet winch, depending on the size of the boat and number of crew available.The skipper or helm decides on the right time to tack, ensures that the new courseis clear and alerts the crew.

Step 3

The helm calls “ready about”. Acrew member then puts two turns of the slack or “lazy” jib sheet around thewinch (A) on its side of the cockpit and pulls in the slack.

Another crew member uncleats the “working” jib sheet, keeping it tight on the winch (B).

Step 4

The helm calls “lee-oh” and turns the boat towards the wind. As the head sail starts to flap the crew on the working sheet eases and releases the sheet from winch (B).

The boat continues to turn through wind and the jib blows across to the new side, flapping a little as it goes.

Step 5

The crew on winch (A) then pulls in the new working sheet. The winch handle is inserted into the top of the winch,the crew winches in the sheet and the sail is trimmed for the new course.

Tacking Tips

Tacking is usually not difficult with two or three crew when everyone’s actions are coordinated. However, it is worth noting and avoiding likely problems that may arise during the tacking process.

  • Your boat could get caught in irons if you turn it too slowly or try to tack without having enough boat speed.The boat may stall and stop when it faces the wind, in which case you may have to wait for the boat to regain speed and then try tacking again. To prevent stalling, move the boat as fast as you can and as close to the wind as possible before tacking, and then turn quickly with the helm hard over.
  • Over-steering is another problem you need to watch out for when tacking. It’s easy to accidentally turn the boat too far after a tack. If you are working your way upwind, go from close hauled on one tack to sailing close hauled on the other tack, as smoothly as possible.
  •  Also, jib sheets might tangle upon some fixture on the fore deck, and will need to be unwrapped. To prevent this from happening, close all fore deck hatches, keep some tension on both jib sheets before and during the tack, and clear off any item that may snag the sheets.

In conclusion, a boat sails when wind pushes on the sail positioned to deflect the wind. This deflection of the wind causes the boat to move forward and sideways.

The keel prevents boat from going sideways, but leaves it free to move forward. This happens regardless of which direction the boat is sailing relative to the wind. However, it is practically impossible for the boat to sail directly into the wind. But by pointing 20-45 degrees off the direction the wind is blowing from, you'll be able to maneuver your way against the wind.

Written by Paul