Tacking and Gybing a Small Daysailer

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Turning Across the Wind

Turning Sailboat Across the Wind
Tom Lochhaas

Tacking and gybing involves turning the boat across the wind. Tacking turns into the wind and across. Gybing (jibing) turns away from the wind and across. There are key differences but both are similar in certain ways. In both, the sails move from one side of the boat to the other. Also, with both you need to reposition your body weight from one side to the other.

Another similarity is when the wind is up, the sails flap around and you may feel a moment of chaos before getting back in control. It’s easy to tack and gybe, and once you’ve practiced, these turns will become second nature.

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Review the Points of Sail

Points of Sail
Tom Lochhaas

The words used for sailing at different angles to the wind are also known as the points of sail. Sailing close to the wind, on either side, is called being close hauled. Look at this diagram and imagine the wind coming straight down from the north. You can sail close hauled to either the northwest or northeast. If you are working your way to a destination upwind, you might sail northwest then tack (turn across the wind) to go northeast, then back northwest.

Running the Sails

Sailing directly downwind is called running. The sails still must be on one side of the boat or the other, and it is usually more comfortable to sail slightly off downwind, on a broad reach. Imagine the wind from the north and you’re sailing slightly east of south. If you turn slightly west of south, you have gybed (turned across the wind downwind).

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Get Ready

Prepare to Tack
Tom Lochhaas

To tack across the wind, first get ready:

  • Tighten your sails by pulling in the sheets and sail close to the wind.
  • Get your speed up so that the boat doesn’t stall halfway through your turn as it faces into the wind.
  • Get yourself ready for the tack. The boat is heeling to one side and now is about to heel to the other side, so be ready to shift your weight over quickly.
  • Keep a hand on the mainsheet so that if the boat heels too much or you feel you’ve lost control for a moment, you can let it out to slow down.
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Head Up

Tacking Step 1
Tom Lochhaas

In this photo, the boat is ready to tack. It is sailing well close-hauled on the starboard tack. “Starboard tack” means the wind is coming over the boat from the starboard side. In this photo, the wind is coming from the right.

Remember that the boat needs to be moving well if it is to tack well. If it is moving very slowly, it could stall completely as you turn into the wind.

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Into the Wind

Tacking Step 2
Tom Lochhaas

Put the tiller over to make the turn into and across the wind. In this photo, the boat is turning and is approximately direct into the wind at this moment. Note the sailor is crouched low, because the boom is swinging from one side to the other– and you don’t want to be hit in the head.

Move Over

As the boat crosses the wind in the tack, it stops heeling. This is the time to quickly move over to the other side before the boat starts heeling the other way. Note that usually in a tack, you don’t have to adjust the mainsheet at all. The sheet is in tight from sailing close hauled, and it stays tight as the boom crosses over and you start sailing close-hauled on the other side.

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Getting Across

Tacking Step 3
Tom Lochhaas

As this photo shows, the sailor is now positioned on the port side as the boat crosses the wind. Very quickly, the mainsail will fill with the wind now coming over the port side (called being on a port tack).

  • Be ready for the mainsail to snap into shape and the boat to start accelerating.
  • Your last task during a tack is to release the jib sheet that had held the jib in position before you tacked, and pull the jib sheet on the other side. In this case, you will pull the jib in on the starboard side because the wind will now be coming over the port side.
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Trim the Sails

Tacking Step 4
Tom Lochhaas

After your turn across the wind, adjust your steering so that the boat is close hauled on the new tack. In this photo, both sails are trimmed well and the boat is accelerating well on the port tack.

The same general principles hold true for tacking a larger sailboat, although there are some differences. See these instructions for how to tack a larger sailboat.

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Prepare to Gybe

Gybing Step 1
Tom Lochhaas

Gybing is similar to tacking in some ways: you turn across the wind so the sails will move from one side to the other and you need to move your own weight across too. You will have to release the jibsheet on one side and bring it in on the other.

When You Gybe

The biggest difference from tacking is that the sails– and the boom– will move from one extreme to the other. As described in this course, when the boat is running or on a broad reach, the mainsail is let far out and the boom is way out to one side. When you gybe, the boom will come across the boat very fast. Be sure your head isn’t in the way.

The snapping action of the mainsail and boom crossing over can also stress the rigging, especially on a bigger boat and in stronger winds. Because of the danger of an accidental gybe, when a small change in course caused by careless steering or a gust or wave, many sailors prefer to sail on a broad reach with the wind safely well to one side, rather than trying to run directly downwind.

In this photo, the boat is on a broad reach with the wind coming over the starboard from aft. To perform a gybe, move the tiller to turn the boat slightly to port.

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Complete the Gybe

Gybing Step 2
Tom Lochhaas

During the gybe, the mainsail crosses the boat. In this case, the wind is now coming across from the port side from aft– when the boat turned as little as twenty degrees. As the photo shows, the sailor is still crouched down from avoiding the swinging boom but he has moved his weight to the port side for the new point of sail.

At this point in the gybe, he is still adjusting the sails. The jib will fill on the starboard side and that jib sheet will be trimmed. The same general principles hold true for gybing a larger sailboat, although more care must be taken to prevent damage. See how to gybe a larger sailboat.

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Practice Tacking and Gybing

Practice Tacking and Gybing
Tom Lochhaas

As with all sailing techniques, perfection comes with practice. When learning, it helps to review the basics mentally, but get out on the water to really get a feel for sailing at all points of sail and in different conditions.

Coordination of Actions

In a small boat, one of the most important things to practice is the coordination of several actions that ideally occur at the same time:

  • Steering
  • Moving your body position
  • Managing the sails with the sheets

This lesson has shown how one can sail the boat alone, but you may find it easier to sail with others. The Hunter 140 used in these lessons can hold two adults or three youths. One person can work the sails while another one steers. Communication is essential so that everyone shifts their weight at the same time to avoid a capsize.