Spec Tech: Learning to Sail

In previous Spec Techs we have designed a sailing ship suitable for a fantasy novel and then considered the sort of crew necessary to sail  her.  In this post we will take the last important step; we will discuss how to sail her.

One of the most effective ways  as writer to turn off a nautically inclined reader is to demonstrate that you do not have the first clue about sailing.  This happens a lot more than you might think. For example,  the captain/hero/heroine stands facing forward on the bow of a ship on a broad reach, with the wind in his or her face. Many, probably most, readers, would not be a bit bothered by that image.  Nevertheless, the saltier readers would know that on a broad reach the wind would be on our hero or heroine’s back.   It is an easy way for a writer to lose all credibility, which is not a good thing when spinning tales of fantasy.

The good news is that you don’t really have to know much about sailing to keep nautically knowledgeable readers happy.

The compass has four cardinal points – North, South, East and West. Everything else is interpolation. Sailing is like that except that you need only worry about three cardinal points. These are a run or running – which is sailing directly downwind; a reach, which is the wind on your beam (the side of the ship or boat); and sailing to windward or close hauled.   Notice that the term is to “windward” and not into the wind.  Sailing vessels cannot sail directly into the wind. To windward is whenever the wind is forward of the beam.

OK, for the purposes of of this post, let us imagine that you are about to go on a trading voyage on a ship similar to the one we designed in our previous post. You will be a “supercargo,” which is to say a cargo superintendent, the representative of the merchant in trading the cargo in all foreign ports.

You are onboard the ship, at anchor in the roadstead. The only problem is that your luggage is sitting on the village dock ashore. The ship’s mates, bosun and crew are all busy securing the last cargo, stowing the stores and provisions below deck, setting up the rigging and tending to all the other myriad tasks which must be finished before sailing. No one is available to take you ashore to pick up your luggage.

The ship’s gig however is tied up alongside the ship and while it does not appear to have oars or oarlocks at present, the sail is rigged. How hard can sailing be, you ask yourself as you jump down into the gig and cast off the painter (the line tying the gig to the ship.) You pull the halyard, the line that raises the sail, and tie it off once the sail is up.

A sudden gust of wind catches the sail and knocks you down. You find yourself sitting on a bench with one hand on the tiller, the piece of wood attached to the rudder that lets you steer. Your other hand grabs a line that controls the sail, called the sheet,  just before it slips too far away to grasp.

And there you are, the tiller in one hand, the sheet in the other. The wind is behind you, pushing you along. Everything is under control. You are sailing.  Huzzah!

You recall that this point of sail is called a run. The only problem is that you going in the wrong direction. As lovely and delightful as it is to be on a run, with the wind behind you, you can see the dock and your luggage disappearing over your shoulder.

Very gingerly, you move the tiller. You discover something paradoxical.  If you push the rudder to your right, the gig turns left and vice-versa. It seems odd but you soon get the feel of it.

Very carefully you push the tiller away from the direction that you want to go, and the bow of the gig turns in the other direction. The only problem now is that the sail is flapping, making a terrible noise and the boat has stopping moving through the water.

Not knowing what else to do, you pull in the line until the flapping noise stops. The gig starts to move again. You let out the line, called the sheet, a little and the sails starts to flap (sailors call it luffing.) You pull it in and the luffing stops. You have now learned almost everything you need to know about adjusting, or as the sailors call it, trimming sails. Let the sail out until it starts luffing, then pull it back in until it stops.  That’s it.

You notice something that is actually quite amazing. The wind is now coming directly over the side of the boat, or in nautical terms, is on your beam. When you were on a run, the wind was pushing you, which is easy to understand. Now however, rather than being pushed sideways, you are sailing directly across the wind. The sail, which is now about 45 degrees to the centerline of the boat, is acting like a bird’s wing, developing lift from the wind. The hull of the gig is also developing lift which helps stop the boat from slipping sideways.

You are now on a reach. As you get the feel of the tiller, your course changes a little and you have to let out or take in the sail as well. When you pull the tiller in the direction that the wind is coming from, the bow (the front) of the boat points  in the other direction.  The wind is still coming over your beam but is now coming more from the stern (the back). You need to let the sail out a little.  This is called a broad reach.

If you push the tiller a little away from the wind, the bow turns a bit into the breeze and the wind shifts forward of the beam. The sail begins to luff. The flapping is annoying so you pull it in until it stops. The boat is now sailing just slightly in the direction of the wind. This point of sail is called a close reach.

So far, so good. The only problem is that you are still not heading where you want to go. Because you started out on a run, you are still downwind of the dock where your bags are sitting waiting for you. It is time to sail to windward.

You slowly push the tiller away from the wind, which causes the bow of the boat to point more closely into the wind. As you do, you pull in on the sheet, pulling the sail in. (You are getting pretty good at sail trimming. You would pat yourself on the back but both hands are occupied.)

You keep sailing closer and closer to the wind. The boat heels (leans over) a little and the speed of the wind seems to increase. Everything is going great, until suddenly, it isn’t. You try to sail too close into the wind and the sail begins to flap no matter how hard you pull it in. You have gone too far. The wind is now almost directly ahead of you. You have stopped dead in the water and the sail is flapping like a flag. Sailors call this “being in irons.” On a big ship, it can be a big problem. Fortunately you are in the ship’s gig and in a minute the bow is blown away from the direction of the wind and you can begin sailing again.

You find that you can sail at about 45 degrees to the wind, which is pretty good. You notice that the boat is slipping sideways in the water a little. This is called leeway and you don’t let it worry you.

What does worry you is that you are still not quite going where you want to. If you continue on your present course you will make it to shore quite a ways downwind of the dock.

You will need to tack. Tacking is a maneuver where you steer the boat so that the bow crosses the wind so that you can sail close-hauled on the other side, if you will. Tacking a boat like the gig is pretty easy. On the trading ship,  it is a bit harder and they often use another maneuver called “wearing” where the stern rather than the bow crosses the wind, but that is a lesson for another day.

To tack the gig, all you have to do is to push the tiller very quickly away from the wind. Because you are sailing along nicely the boat’s momentum pushes the bow all the way across the wind and onto the other side, or the other “tack” as sailors call it.  The sail fills again and off you go.   Instead of sailing to port (the left,) you are now sailing to starboard (the right.) Most important, you are heading generally toward the dock and your baggage. After sailing along for a few minutes you decide to tack again. You find it kind of fun and you keep it up until you bump unceremoniously into the village dock.  Fortunately no one noticed.

You grab your bags and sail an easy reach back to the trading ship. The bosun looks over the gunnel at you and says “Oh, that’s where you went. Didn’t know you could sail.” You just smile back at him, tie off the painter and throw your bags up on the deck.

But is being able to sail a ship’s gig anything like sailing an ocean going trading ship? Actually it is. The cardinal points of sailing – a run, a reach and going to windward are the same. The one big difference is that the trading ship has square sails on two of the three masts, whereas the gig has only one fore and aft sail. Nevertheless, trimming the sails is about the same. The difference in controlling the sails is that the yards (the spars holding the sails out) are turned using lines called braces. Otherwise the principle is exactly the same. Ease the sail out till it luffs (flaps) and then pull it back just a little. The other difference that you will notice, to your chagrin, is that the trading ship does not sail into the wind as well as the gig. While the gig can sail at 45 degrees, the bigger ship will sail at maybe 60 to 70 degrees off the wind depending on the conditions. If you are lucky you will be on a reach most of the time.

So pat yourself on the back. You are now a sailor. A novice perhaps, but you know the basics. All you need to worry about now is seasickness and scurvy, but there you are own your own.


4 thoughts on “Spec Tech: Learning to Sail

  1. A remarkably clear explanation of the different points of sailing the two main Western types of rigging. Well done!
    If anyone knows, I’d also be interested in knowing how sailing a lateen rig differs from the square and fore-and-aft rigs. I expect the basic principals of using the wind would be the same, but there must be some differences in how the sail is handled, how close she sails to the wind, and how you tack, with the sail attached in such a different way.

  2. It always amazes me how much information you manage to pack into so few words and yet still keep it entertaining. Thanks so much!

  3. Thank you both for the kind words.

    The lateen rig is intriguing. It is the most exotic and also most commonplace of rigs. Arab dhows still use lateen rigs as do the Sunfish and other board boats that we all sailed as kids.

    No one is entirely sure where it came from, though most best the origin is originally Arabian. The rig showed up in the Med sometime before the 9th century and was the dominant rig for almost a thousand years. It appears to a be a quite weatherly rig, depending of course on the hull you put under it. Once people ventured out into the trade winds, square sails were more efficient but lateen sails remained on the mizzen as a steering sail to help balance the rig.

    How they are tacked is an interesting question. For the dhows that sail across the Arabian sea to Africa on the monsoon winds, they don’t often tack. Both legs of the voyage are one long reach.

    On Sunfish and similar boats there was always one “good” and one “bad” tack. On the good tack the sail is to leeward and holds its shape whereas on the “bad” tack the sail is pressed against the mast and doesn’t present the same smooth shape as the “good” tack.

    On larger lateen vessels, sailing with the sail pressed against the mast would be inefficient and cause lots of problems with chafing on the rig and the sail. Apparently what was done was that the parrel holding the lateen spar to the mast would be loosened and a tackle would haul the tack of the spar back to the mast, forcing it vertical. It would them be hauled around the mast and the sail reset on the other side of the mast. I think the maneuver was to haul the spar vertical just as the vessel passes through the eye of the wind, then as the vessel falls off the wind, allow the sail to blow forward then reset the spar on the new tack and harden back up on the wind.

    Or something like that.

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