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Boating Safety

Seamanship: page 5

Sailboats Racing

1. Navigation

2. Boat Handling

3. Weather

4.  Communications

5.  Sailing

6.  Emergencies

7.  Courtesy On the Water



Sailing is both an art and a science. Hundreds of books have been written about sailing from the basics to racing.  Like playing an instrument, it is easy to learn the basics, but difficult to become a master.  Sailboats also range from simple dinghies with one small sail, to large sailing ships with many sails in various configurations.  Sailing is even an Olympic Sport.   So this is a subject that requires some special attention if you have decided to take up sailing.

Sailing Instruction:

The best way to learn is take a course.  Many yacht clubs and racing clubs offer basic sailing classes. Most major metropolitan areas have many places where you can learn to sail. One good place to start looking for classes is the American Sailing Association (ASA)  They list over 300 schools in the US alone and have affiliates internationally.  There is also the US Sailing Association  They also offer sailing classes around the USA.  A quick search on the internet will find a sailing school near you, some are even free.  Some colleges and universities have sailing teams and offer classes as well.

These are just a few examples. 

Additionally, if you want to go beyond basics there are professional sailing schools who will teach you how to sail the bigger boats, how to crew on sailboats, and the fundamentals of racing.  There are schools specifically for women to learn sailing. (these links are examples only and not an endorsement of these schools)

Sailing Terminology:

Of course the first and most fundamental lessons deal with the names of things on a sail boats.  Sails and all of the lines and rigging that are used have their own language.  To be  a good sailor you need to learn the language just as you would with any boat.  It is not all that complex on small sail boats and most of the jargon applies to big sailboats.

Sailing Safety:

Safety on sailboats is not discussed much on boating safety sites, and boating forums,  because boating accidents seem to primarily involve powerboats.  I say "seem to" because the accidents we see in the Coast Guard Boating Accident Statistics,, are "reportable" accidents, that is accidents causing death, injury requiring medical treatment, or damages valued at more than $2000.00 USD.  Most accidents in sailboats happen at relatively slow speeds, and involve minor injuries. But the potential exists. So safety is as important on sailboats as it is on powerboats.

Safety is of course the first item taught.  Wearing a lifejacket on a small sailboat is almost mandatory. These little boats often turn over, and one of the first things you will learn is how to right the boat, bail it and sail away.  In boats that are larger and have a weighted keel this is not as much of  a problem.  They rarely capsize. But you need to learn the tactics to keep these boats sailing at an optimum speed and angle of heel. Allowing them to heel too far reduces speed and ability to maintain course. And this can result in a knock down, a different name for a capsize.

Another huge safety item is all the lines that run around the boat and how to make sure you don't get tangled in them.  If the boat capsizes there is a real danger of being caught under the sail.  You need to know how to prevent this  and how to extricate yourself if it does happen.

Of course you need to learn what all those lines are for; what sails do they hoist or position. On a small boat there may be only a few, but on a large sail boat with many sails the number of lines multiplies. There are halyards that raise and lower sails, and sheets that control the position of sails. There are downhauls and lazy jacks, and other lines. You need to know the names and what they do. 

On larger sailboats used for cruising or offshore racing, use of a safety harness becomes extremely important especially when the weather is bad.  A safety harness attaches you to the boat by a line.  This does not prevent you from falling overboard, but makes your rescue far easier.  Many lifejacts used by offshore sailors have a built in harness to clip a line to.  There are also harnesses for those not wearing a lifejackets (even though they should be).

Another danger, particulary for trailer sailors, but can happen to larger sailboats, is over head powerlines. When launching a trailerable sailboat at a boat ramp, the owner should check for overhead power lines before putting the mast up.  Every year we read about people hitting overhead powerlines at boat ramps.  This has resulted in some serious injuries, and fires that destroy the boat.  For larger sailboats the danger is primarily from waterways that have overhead powerlines crossing the waterway.  There have been incidents where tall masts have contacted these lines. It is just like being struck by lightning. Some sailboats that have aluminum masts have a plastic spacer in the mast so the top of the mast does not conduct electricity down to the rest of the boat.  An example of this is Hobie Catamarans.


Beyond the safety issues you need to learn the science of how sails work to drive the boat forward, how to trim the sails (position them) to use them most affectively and how to sail the boat at different angles to the wind.  Sailboats cannot go directly into the wind so you need to learn how to tack, that is, sail the boat close to the wind to make progress up wind.  You need to learn the interaction between the sails, the wind, the keel (or a centerboard, that is a board sticking down under the boat) and the rudder. 


If after you have learned the basics, you decide to take up racing, then you will need to learn the rules for racing.  These rules are used internationally so  once you have learned them you can sail anywhere and know the rules.

There are many sailing clubs and yacht clubs that sponsor races.  There are races specifically for class boats, that is boats that are all exactly alike, called one-design.  This eliminates the factor of one boat being faster than another, and the winning depends on the skill of the sailor.  These boats range from small dinghies to America's Cup boats and even boats that race around the world.   Many people start by sailing dinghies and then  progressively move up to bigger boats.

International Sailing Federation:

List Of One Design Classes:

One Design Classes:

Other Sailing:

Of course not all sailors race.  Many like to just go out for a day sail, or a weekend cruise. Some who own bigger boats with a cabin like to go on extended cruises, from a few days to even years.  Cruising around the world is not unheard of and has been done by many amateurs.  There are also groups that like to sail and cruise together. They have events and get togethers for their members.  Then there are Yacht Clubs for those with larger boats and deeper wallets.  Or, you can do it on your own.  You do not have to belong to a club or association to go sailing or cruising.  Many people do what is called gunk holing:  That is, just sailing from place to place and stopping for the night or just for lunch.

The Fine Art of Gunk Holing:

Pocket Cruiser Guide:

The Pocket Cruiser:

Trailer Sailor:

Seven Seas Cruising Association:

Cruising Club of America:

Once you have learned these basics you will find that sailing is fun. It is just you, the boat and the wind. No engine, no gasoline or other fuel needed. The original "green" machine.   Me, I just like to take my sailing dinghy out for an hour or two.  It is very relaxing. 

Motoring in Sailboats: 

The most important thing for sailors to remember when your sailboat is under power, you are a powerboat, and the navigation rules for powerboats apply.

Most sailboats that are too large to paddle with an oar have an engine. Most dinghies just use a paddle when they need to move without sails or there is no wind.  But bigger heavier boats will have an engine.  On small sailboats much under 25 feet or so this will be an outboard.  Large sailboats will have an inboard engine.  Many marinas will only allow sailboats that have an engine to use their marina. There are engine manufacturers that make small inboard engines specifically for sailboats. Most of these are diesel, but there are some gas powered engines available. The Atomic 4 gasoline engine that was produced before the mid 80's  is still popular.  But being a gasoline inboard, all the same safety features and precautions that apply to motorboats should be observed.

So you need to know the navigation rules for powerboats as well as those for sailboats. This includes knowing who is the give way vessel and stand on vessel, and also the rules for running lights when motoring at night.


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