How To Sail – Beginners Guide!

If you are here to learn how to sail, congrats! You have made a great decision. I have been sailing for years and I love it! There is nothing quite like it.

To sail a boat you will need to understand multiple things. You need to know the different directions the boat can sail, the main controls of the sails, safety gear, parts of the boat, and how to tie different knots. This will help you begin your sailing journey.

This article will give you a ton of tips and instructions on how to sail a boat. I will focus on the basics and what you need to know before you get out on the water. I don’t guarantee anything, but this article will teach you a lot.

I hope it gives you a head start in your sailing career.

Let’s start with the basics.

Directions You Can Sail

The direction or point of sail you are on has different terms compared to driving a car. The diagram below shows the different points of sail based on a wind coming from 12 o’clock. I like to use a clock as an example, it seems to make it easier for people to understand.

Main controls

When it comes to controlling your sailboat there are a few main parts you will need to know. First, you have the main sheet. The main sheet controls your main sail. You will let the mainsheet out if you are heading more downwind and the more you head upwind, the more you will pull the main sheet in.

The same goes for the jib or foresail. You will have a jib sheet, that you will also pull in or let out. There will be two sides to the jib sheet. If you tack or jibe (crossing the wind line) you will release one side of the jib sheet and pull in the other side. That’s how you control the two sails.

When it comes to steering the boat, you will either have a tiller (long wooden handle) or a wheel. The wheel is probably easier but I still recommend learning with a tiller. I did and it really makes you feel like a sailor. If you don’t have options just use what you have. The tiller you will move in the opposite direction of the way you want to go. If you want to move to the port side, move the tiller to the starboard side of the boat and vice versa.

A wheel works just like a car. The only thing to think about with the wheel is when navigating the docks, it turns more from the center point of the boat. A car turns by the front wheels. The boat will spin more from the middle. You’ll get used to it pretty quickly though.

That is it for the main controls. There are a lot more things we could talk about but this covers the basics in my opinion.

Safety & parts of the boat

Safety should always be your number one priority when on the water. I don’t care what you’re thinking right now unless it’s, Yes you agree with me. If you are going to be owning your own boat someday, you are the Captain and the captain is responsible for everyone’s lives on board.

That sounds dramatic but it is true. When we use to rent pontoon boats in Destin, I was always the driver and monitored the waters and people. I never drank or partied hard while driving. It is a bummer to pay attention the whole time while everyone else is having fun, but I enjoy being captain.

For safety, here are a few guidelines I always follow.

Lifejackets- always have enough life jackets for everyone. If you have children make sure their life jacket fits correctly.

VHF Radio- A VHF radio is a must if you plan on sailing out in the open ocean. You never know when you will get into trouble. I recommend a few good ones in my other article here.

First Aid Kit- I recommend one of these because you just never know what might happen. Most people I take out on the boat aren’t boat people and don’t know what to watch out for. Just have one just in case.

See my other article all about sailing gear!

Head Up- Always keep your head up when around other boats. I can’t tell you how many times someone has bumped into my boat. Mostly tourists that never drive a boat but even some experience sailors get into trouble and might bump into you. Just be aware of what’s going on around you and you will be fine. We all get distracted at some point.

Those are 4 important things to remember when heading out into the water. Always keep them in mind.

Sailing Terms & Boat Parts

There are a million sailing terms in the world and you probably won’t remember them all. Some people use the same ones as you and others will use completely different ones. There are some basic ones that everyone uses I think and those are listed below.

-Bow- front of the boat

-Stern- back of the boat

-Port- left side of the boat (remember- you left the port)

-Starboard- right side of the boat

-Rudder- steers the boat (the wheel doesn’t steer the rudder does)

-Keel- long heavy fin on the bottom of the boat to help keep it balanced (find out more here)

-Main Halyard- raises the mainsail

-Jib Halyard- raises the jib or foresail

-Tiller/wheel- controls the rudder

-Winch- tightens the sails

-Cleat- a place to tie off or secure a line

-Mast- a giant pole that the main sail is raised on.

-Override- when the line gets tangled around your winch

Ready about- prepare to tack or jibe (depends on the captain but this term may change boat to boat)

Hard to lee- tack or jibe now

These are a lot of common terms I hear when I board other people’s boats. Familiarize yourself with these and they will help you when you start sailing.


Knots, we know there are a ton of knots in this world. We could go on and on about knots, but let’s try and focus on a few. These knots are the most common knots you will see in the sailing world and are used almost every time you go out sailing.

I recommend getting a good couple of feet of rope and practicing these in your spare time. I literally have a rope on my desk at work just to practice. I use it all the time when Im on calls.

Bowline Knot- The bowline knot is the most well-known knot in the sailing world. If you don’t know how to tie this one, you won’t get much respect. One of its main uses is to secure your jib sheet to the clew (bottom corner) of the jib sail. This knot will not come undone. It is the most secure knot out there. Use it for anything you need to secure to the boat.

Figure Eight Knot- Figure eight is probably the second most common knot I see on boats. It is usually used at the end of a rope that runs through a pulley or block. This knot will keep the line from being pulled out completely. I see it used on the very end of a jib sheet.

Fender knot- This knot is used to attach fenders to the side of your sailboat. It is very easy to adjust but still keeps your fenders in position. When you are approaching the dock you may need to raise or lower your fenders and this knot allows you to do that quickly without stress.

Final thoughts

This was a crash course on how to sail. Does this mean you can sail the world now…no! I just gave you a head start before your first day on the water. I highly recommend you go with someone who knows how to sail. Maybe you can take some sailing classes first (click here to find out more about sailing classes). Sailing can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Please do not buy a 40ft sailboat and think you can just learn as you go. There is a lot that can go wrong and more importantly, you need to know how to navigate other boats out there.

I do hope this article helps you get started on your sailing journey. It will be the best decision you ever make. Cheers!


Boatlifehq owner and author/editor of this article.

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