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Learning to Sail

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Sailing Terms

To stay safe while sailing people need to learn a few key concepts and terms.

Sailing has been an important mode of travel for hundreds of years. Two thirds of the surface of the Earth is covered by ocean so sailing has allowed people to travel across the world and discover new places. To stay safe while sailing you need to know a few basic terms and concepts.

What to wear

Weather conditions can change rapidly anywhere in New Zealand and if you are out on a boat you will be more exposed to these changes. It is important to be prepared for all types of weather and wear clothes that are comfortable and that will also keep you warm when wet.

When sailing you need to have:

  • Life jacket
  • Layers of clothing that can trap heat when it's cold but be easily removed when its warm
  • Clothing which remains warm when wet and does not absorb too much water
  • Waterproof layers – jacket and trousers
  • Hats – sun hat and warm hat options (it is useful to have a tie to secure your hat so you don’t lose it in the wind)
  • Suitable footwear – this will depend on the size of the boat but most lace up shoes with a non-marking sole are adequate
  • Sunscreen – even in winter!
  • Sunglasses
  • Be sure to talk to the skipper to see what to bring onboard


It is important to stay well hydrated. If you do not drink enough your body will be less able to cope with the challenges of sailing and dehydration can contribute to sea sickness.


Just as we divide our world into north, south, east, and west, sailors have ways to describe locations on and around the smaller world of a boat.

Sailors refer to the right-hand side of the boat when you are facing forward as the starboard side, and the left-hand side as the port side. Since the words ‘left’ and ‘port’ both have four letters, it’s easy to remember that port means left.

The front, or forward end of a boat is called the bow while the back, or aft end, is the stern. An object located directly behind the boat is astern, and one in front of the boat is ahead.

Other terms to describe location depend on the direction of the wind. The side of the boat which is facing the wind is known as the windward side, while the downwind side of the boat is called the leeward side.


Wind powers a sailing boat so knowing about wind is very important. As a sailor, you need to know the direction of the wind relative to your boat and sails. You always need to be aware of the wind’s speed and direction. You will need to watch for clues such as:

  • The ripples and waves on the water
  • Other sailboats
  • Flags, smoke and anything else that is affected by the breeze

Controlling your sail boat

Rather than being pushed along by the wind as a sailor you need to learn how to harness the wind’s energy to get to where you want to go. Just as an airplane wing creates lift to enable it to fly, a modern sail creates lift to enable it to sail. You can harness the wind’s energy by playing the lifting force of the wind on a sail against the resisting force of the water against the hull. This will allow you to go where ever you want to.

Although modern sailboats can sail upwind, they cannot sail directly into the wind or in an area about 45 degrees on either side of the wind. This is an area called the ‘no sail zone’. To travel to a destination directly upwind you will need to make a series of tacks to ‘zig-zag’ your way to your upwind destination.


Rigging is the name for the system of wire cables and ropes that both support the sails and allow them to be controlled. Sailing is about pulling lines in tighter or easing them so the sails can be set at the proper angle to the wind. This will allow the boat to either change direction or sail in a more-or-less efficient manner. This process is known as trimming the sails.

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Find out how you could take sailing lessons and think about how to prepare for these.

When out sailing it is important to think about having suitable clothing. Image: LEARNZ.

When sailing there are some important terms to learn so you know how to describe directions and parts of the boat. Image: American Sailing Association.

Onboard a boat direction is described relative to the wind. Image: American Sailing Association.

To make the most of your time out on the water you need to learn a few sailing terms and concepts. Image: LEARNZ.

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Sailing Terms