Beginning to sail, learn to trust the boat

Sailboat out of water displaying keelI’ve been off the water for about two months now (the Canadian winter is upon us) and was thinking about things I learned this summer while sailing for the first time. One of the biggest fears or insecurities some of us new sailors might feel the first time they experience any real wind is boat stability, or the fear of instability. I want to share my experiences with anyone new to sailing in hopes of reassuring them that you can trust the boat.

Most sailboats have big heavy keels and look like the one pictured to the right. Without a keel a boat can capsize in high wind much easier. If you are new to sailing then the first time you feel a real gust of wind, the boat will indeed lean to one side from the force. The sailing term for this is heeling. Your first instinct might be to think the boat is actually going to capsize, since it probably would without a keel. Learning to trust the boat is the first step towards really enjoying your sailing experience. Everyone will probably have a different adjustment period, but rest assured you will get used heeling, and even enjoy it, maybe even crave it.

My first real heeling experience

Keel resistanceDuring my introduction to sailing we had very little wind for the first three days. This made it actually harder to learn the points of sail, since it was very difficult to read the wind direction. It also left us ill-equipped for real winds. On our last day we had a few gusts and a time when we all jumped out of our skin, but none of this was even close to my first race night.

We were sailing J24′s and the wind was really good, perfect for racing in fact, but kind of scary for a first timer like myself. I remember grasping on to the the cabin roof above the hatch for dear life. I was way more tense than I need to be, but you couldn’t tell me that at the time. I really thought I was going to go overboard at any moment. Now I know the boat is not going to capsize in wind like that and I have much more confidence in my balance and feel for the boat.

You can still capsize

That said you can still of course capsize in high winds, but the winds needed to do that are much higher than you will think at first, and you will learn how to cope with higher winds as you gain more experience. The last sail of this year for me was actually the strongest winds I’ve sailed yet. It was challenging and every time I go out I gain more skill, but I can see that there is a point where it no longer becomes fun. I’m sure on a bigger boat you can deal with stronger winds, and maybe I’ll find out this Winter while I’m sailing in Carribean!

Hopefully you will slowly work your way up to stronger winds. Once you learn how to handle the boat you will realize that you have much more control than you think. If you panic you can always sail head to wind, this will slow you down quickly, but pay special attention to your boom and your crewmates. Windy weather and panicking are when you will most likely get yourself or an unsuspecting crewmate smacked in the head or thrown overboard by an angry boom. A better way to slow down is to let out your mainsheet a bit, sometimes you will only need a few inches to stabilize your boat. You can also replace your the sail at the front called a gib or genoa with a storm jib or none at all. Reefing the mainsail is another option. All of these tactics reduce the area of sail, thus lessening your heel.

Practice makes perfect

Like anything, practice makes perfect. I have only been sailing for one summer, but it really is amazing how fast you start to become comfortable on a boat. If you feel intimidated by sailing, don’t give up, you can conquer this feeling; trust your boat, trust your keel, once you do this you will truly be free to enjoy this incredible outdoor activity.

Sailboat heeling

Sailing terms in this article:

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