Upwind vs. Downwind – Sailing Each Way

I have sailed on a bunch of different boats and they all went at different speeds. There are a lot of factors to consider when sailing upwind or downwind. Just remember every boat and every captain is different.

There are a lot of factors that could affect boat speed and going downwind could be faster sometimes. This article will talk about the advantages and disadvantages of sailing both ways.

What is Upwind vs. Downwind

Upwind is when you are sailing less than 90 degrees to the wind. Imagine an 89-degree angle, anything inside this angle would be upwind. There is a point where you can go too upwind and get caught in the irons (straight upwind) and your boat will stop and the sails will flutter.

Downwind is when you are sailing at an angle greater than 90 degrees. It has a much bigger area where you can sail because you won’t get caught in the irons. See my drawing below:

Wind Types And How They Affect Boat Speed

There are multiple types of wind when it comes to sailing. You have true wind (the speed of the wind when not moving). This is what the weatherman tells you on channel 5.

Then there is apparent wind (the wind experienced while in motion). Imagine you are running into 10 mph of wind straight on, if you stop the wind doesn’t feel as strong does it?

This is what really affects your boat when sailing upwind. The apparent wind hitting your sails and boat will create a force that moves your boat forward. This will create more speed when sailing upwind. I love sailing upwind because it feels more intense. The wind is in your face, the boat is heeling over, and it just feels fast.

If you ever turn downwind after sailing upwind for a while, it is kind of disappointing. The big breeze in your face goes away, the heel of your boat will decrease, and it just won’t feel fast. The truth is your speed may still be good, but it’s harder to tell when traveling with the wind.

But what about the crosswind sailing or a beam reach (sailing at a 90-degree angle to the wind).

The Beam Reach For Speed

We talked about how sailing upwind is going to be better speed than downwind, but what about a beam reach?

Beam reach sailing is probably going to be your fastest point of sail. The boat is receiving the most force from the wind and water at this point, forcing your boat forward at optimal speeds.

When you are in a beam reach you can expect a good heel of the boat. The wind is lifting and filling your sails while the water is pushing against your keel and rudder.

These two forces working against/ together will create the best speed for the boat. See the Beam Reach area in the image below:

If you were going straight downwind, your sails would be full but it would be more of a pulling motion from your sails. You will not have that lift and help from the water against the keel and rudder. Think of it like this;

When you are in a beam reach the sails will fill up with wind and slightly lift the boat creating less drag. Now when you go downwind the sails fill up and just pull your boat along with more drag, not lifting the boat.

Sailing Downwind With More Speed

Sailing downwind doesn’t always have to be slow. There are ways to make your sailboat faster.

The best way to get speed downwind is a spinnaker. A spinnaker is a large sail used for sailing when you are in broad reach or running straight downwind. They are colorful and look like huge parachutes on the front of boats. Spinnakers are used to catch as much of the wind as possible when sailing downwind.

Spinnaker is another skill you must master when learning to sail. They can be tricky at times and get you into trouble so be careful when using one.

Which Way Do I Prefer Sailing

When it comes to personal preference I always prefer sailing upwind.

I like the feel of heeling over and the wind on my face. I have been able to heel over enough and put the rails in the water, which is an awesome feeling, It can make me nervous sometimes, but overall it’s a cool thing to do.

Sailing downwind for me is less thrilling. It’s more peaceful so some people like it better. You can still have good speed and get where you are going quicker but the excitement is just not there. I sail for the excitement and skill of going fast.

I won’t say I never like going downwind but if I had the choice to only go upwind or downwind for the rest of my life, I would always choose UPWIND!

Final Thoughts

I have been sailing for a few years now and love it. Upwind is always my first choice for sailing because it feels more intense compared to sailing downwind. If you ever get out there and have a different opinion about sailing upwind or downwind, please let us know by emailing us at [email protected].


Boatlifehq owner and author/editor of this article.

Recent Posts