Sailing for the Spatially Challenged
July 9, 2013 1:32 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to learn to sail, but have never been able to visualize angles or shapes in space, which seems to be a required sailing skill. Are there other ways to think about sailing that would help me?

This weekend I took the first two days of a 4-day "learn to sail" class for women.

We were introduced to the "points of sail" concept, had some classroom instruction, and then went out on keel boats with instructors.

As I understand it, getting the boat to actually sail is dependent on two basic things:

1) knowing where the wind is coming from, and
2) understanding the angle at which the wind is hitting the body of the boat (or is it the sails? this was never quite clear to me in the class, and I seemed to get different answers from the instructors. One said it was the angle of the wind to the boat that was the key idea, and the other said it was the angle of the wind to the sails that was important)

We went out sailing on a lake, and I was told to keep my eyes on the telltales on both the jib and the shroud to see the wind angle, but doing this did not help me in anyway visualize the angle of the wind in relation to the boat/sails. I just don't understand how I am supposed to conjure up the line of something invisible (the wind) and then try to imagine the angle formed with it and the other line formed by the boat/sail, which is in motion and shifting. I know this sounds like a simple, basic skill but I've never been able to do things like this, which is why geometry class was such a painful, emotional experience in high school.)

When I was at the tiller, the only way I could successfully sail was to stop trying to think about angles and only concentrate on filling the jib with wind so that it looked cupped.

I could tell the instructors were very frustrated by my inability to understand their multiple attempts to explain the concept of wind angles to me, or their various drawings of the points of sail. I was really the only one in the class who didn't "get" it.

The upshot: I have sucky spatial skills, which I already knew.

Is visualizing angles absolutely critical to sailing? Are there other ways to think about wind and the boat and the sails that could get me sailing successfully and safely, like maybe the way you would teach a kid? I know sailing is a lifelong skill, so it may just take me more time than most people to understand. My goal is to play with my father's Sunfish on the lake he lives near. But it may be the case that I'm just the kind of person who can crew, but not be at the tiller (this may also end up the case regardless because I'm still on the fence about the balance of fun/fright I feel when sailing).

Any suggestions for books or videos or learning approaches or visualization tools would be much appreciated.
posted by megancita to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My goal is to play with my father's Sunfish on the lake he lives near.

Can you swim? If you can swim, why not just put the Sunfish in the water and play with it until you feel like you have the hang of it? From your description it seems like you did better at learning by doing than at trying to visualize what they were teaching you, so maybe try just playing at sailing for a while in a low-stakes way with the Sunfish until you feel more confident at the tiller and then consider a sailing class to teach what you've missed?
posted by gauche at 1:40 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Technically it's the angle of the wind to the sail, but it's more practical to think in terms of the angle to the boat. To guage the angle of the wind you want to look at the burgee (think of it as a small windsock on top of the mast). The tell tales will only let you know if your sail is drawn in or out to the optimal amount.

Basic rules of thumb

1) Sailing directly into the wind (wind is hitting the front of your boat head on) - No can do, this is known as 'in irons' - basically stalled - and your boat is just not going to move that way

2) Sailing at about 45 degrees to the wind (ie wind is hitting one of the front sides of the boat - you want your sails drawn in nice and tight for the best speed. This is where you may need to know how to tack back and forth to make progress upwind.

3) Sailing at 90 degrees to the wind (ie wind is hitting you directly on either side) - This is known as a reach and you want your sails about halfway out.

4) Sailing downwind - The wind is almost directly behind you (try and avoid having it actually directly behind you) - Known as a run, here you can let the sail out and fill up.
posted by TwoWordReview at 1:45 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, I should add, I used to sail a bit as a kid on my friend's dad's boat, and always found it difficult to understand but easy to do with a bit of practice, if that makes sense, and I have good to very good spatial visualization skills. Sailing is kind of just hard and counter-intuitive, which is why I think getting some practice in first might be better.

Still better if you know an experienced sailor who might be willing to give you pointers / help you get out of a jam but mostly let you try different things.
posted by gauche at 1:46 PM on July 9, 2013

Hmm, this is a tough one. I think that in reality, yes, understanding the angle of the wind to the boat is a critical part of learning to be a helmsman. It sounds like the boat you're learning on doesn't have a windex (which is a little arrow mounted on top of the mast that always points in the direction the wind is coming from) or wind instruments (which is literally a little guage with a picture of a boat that shows what angle the wind is coming from). These are handy "cheater" devices and may help you visualize where the wind is coming from when you can't see the actual wind.

And the angle of the wind to the boat and to the sails are all relevent, as you have to orient all three of those things in the correct arrangement to make the boat go where you want it.

Do you not undestand the idea of "points of sail" at all, or do you just have trouble figuring out what point of sail you're on? If you know that the wind blowing from 45 degrees off the bow makes you close hauled and the wind coming from stright over the stern means you're running, then you're halfway there, even if you can't tell which way the wind is coming from when you're out on the water. If that's the case, maybe try practicing on a boat with a masthead windex, so you can see where the wind is coming from more easily.

ANd I think a lot of people, even when they know where the wind is coming from and where they *want* the boat to be pointing relative to it, have trouble turning the right way to get there, especially on tiller boats, since a variety of things seem to happen backwards to how they expect (the tiller turns the boat the opposite direction they expect, turning the boat to the left moves the apparent wind to the right, etc).That just takes practice.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 1:47 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

When in doubt, put the body of the boat at the angle you want to the wind. Then adjust the sails as far out as you can without letting the front edge flap. That is the simplest way to do it.

If you have the sails pulled all the way in and they are still flapping, then you are pointed too close into the wind and need to fall away a little.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:47 PM on July 9, 2013

PSA - whether or not you can swim, you shouldn't go out on a Sunfish alone without a lifejacket/PFD.

On to your main question - for the type of recreational sailing you're talking about, you don't need a really precise idea of where the wind is coming from, but it's important to be able to tell basically which quadrant it's coming from - sort of equivalent to which way is up. The rest can be adjusted by sail shape and telltales.

For a lot of people, this visualization is made easier by thinking of where on shore the wind is coming from.
posted by mercredi at 1:47 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

PSA - whether or not you can swim, you shouldn't go out on a Sunfish alone without a lifejacket/PFD.

Right, I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. Definitely do follow all safety precautions.
posted by gauche at 1:50 PM on July 9, 2013

If your goal is to be able to mess around with your dad's sunfish on a lake, I recommend you dial back your intensity level. Forget the angles, etc. Just think about several things. One, when steering, you want to avoid obstacles including other boats and people as well as rocks and shoreline. Two, you want to sit on the side of the sunfish with the wind to your back. Then, when you start going, try moving the tiller so that you head a little into the wind and away from it to get a feel for how the wind affects the boat. Learn how to stand on the center board to upright a tipped boat. Enjoy.

I was sent out on a lake at about the age of 8 with essentially these instructions. I am not a technically proficient sailor by any means, but I can enjoy myself on most small sail boats on a lake. You will be able too soon enough.

Think of it this way, do you know how the engine on your car works? Probably not, but you are proficient enough to drive the thing. Who cares how the angle of the wind works, just make it go and enjoy.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:56 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you not undestand the idea of "points of sail" at all, or do you just have trouble figuring out what point of sail you're on?

I understand, intellectually, the points of sail. I can look at the circle drawing of it and see what it means. But when I was on the water both days, I just couldn't figure out how to make it all compute in my head. Like, my brain is slow when it comes to anything that requires spatial visualization (like mentally rotating an object), so it would take me literally a minute to figure out where the wind was coming from, how that related to the boat and sails, and what that meant in terms of adjusting the tiller; by that time, the wind would have shifted.

Even if I got it right for a bit, then we would have to tack or gybe and I'd have to start all over again (not to mention that wrapping my brain around what it meant to tack or gybe added a whole other layer of brain fog, since I had to not only think about the angles of the wind but now also how the tack or gybe had changed our position to the wind).

And I know, down the road, that sailing will require even more spatial skills, to understand things like how to avoid collisions, get from point A to point B, and not get lost on a big lake.

It probably didn't help that I was on a boat the first day with instructors who are experienced racers and who were yelling all kinds of terminology and generally not explaining anything. The second day I had an instructor who teaches children, and that was a bit better.

I was told several times that I was overthinking, which knowing myself, is a very valid criticism. But somehow, hearing it from Metafilter, makes me feel better. Thanks for the advice! I will try to have more fun and worry less about getting it right immediately.
posted by megancita at 2:08 PM on July 9, 2013 it would take me literally a minute to figure out where the wind was coming from...

It sounds like you're getting it, you're just getting it slowly. That's ok, you'll get better with practice.

I had a guy out on my boat the other day who had never sailed and I asked him to release the clutch holding the spinnaker halyard. It's just a lever that you can flip toward the front of the boat or back toward the rear of the boat. He released it halfway and I told him to move it "forward" and he moved it back, even after I repeated "forward" a couple times. I had to explicitly say "other way" to get him to open it all the way. It's not because he's an idiot or anything. He's just never done this before.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 2:21 PM on July 9, 2013

You'll definitely get better with experience. Understanding where the wind is coming from, how to trim your sails, and what course to set to get from A to B all become much more intuitive over time.
posted by Aizkolari at 3:03 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, I think this will get a lot more intuitive with practice. To me, sailing a little boat like the kind you're talking about is about 90% muscle memory, like riding a bike. Very hard to explain, hard to compute if you have to think about it, but with practice a lot of it will become automatic. There's a lot to learn in sailing, and you've only had one day!

Also, being in shifty winds is tricky for anyone. So don't beat yourself up over that.

To just fart around in a little boat, in relatively light wind, with a pfd, on a lake where someone is watching you (so if you got into trouble, they could come out and get you), you don't need to worry about knowing all the points of sail. You need to know:

-You can't sail directly TOWARD the wind.
This is "being in irons", sails will flap helplessly -- don't worry, you'll end up going backward slowly and can then back out of it by putting the tiller about halfway to one side.

-Sailing directly AWAY from the wind is a little chancy.
Tour sails will be all the way out on one side, and they may want to switch from side to side (jibe/gybe)... and that's a long way to go, with a lot of force, so if they switch suddenly it can catch you unawares/make the boat unstable.

-So you want to spend most of the time in-between those states.

Trimming your sails appropriately (making it so they're just full of air, but not too tight and not too loose) will tell you where the wind is coming from. Or, if you know where the wind is coming from, you can use that to figure out how to trim your sails. You don't need to be able to name these states, though, unless you're talking to someone else. And you don't need to be able to put a number to them.

Don't worry about using the bird's-eye-view diagram visualizations if those don't work for you. Think about what you will see from a seat in the boat.

General description of the points of sail -

Imagine you're sitting in the boat, on the port (left) side, and the sail is on the starboard (right) side. Your sail is on the starboard/right... so the wind is coming from the port/left side. It comes across the side you're sitting on, and fills the sail, pushing the sail to the opposite side of the boat from the direction it came from. (You will obviously move around while sitting, but just for the sake of description, imagine your face is pointing exactly forward, along the same line as the pointed front of the bow.)

Wind coming from somewhere IN FRONT OF YOU (in front and to the left, in this case): your sails should be trimmed in closeish.
(This is sailing "close to the wind" or as far "up" wind as you can get - this will usually be your fastest point of sail. From this position it's easy to tack, turning your nose across the wind, by pushing the tiller toward the sail [Tiller, Toward, Tack]. Or you can "fall off," moving to the next point of sale, by pulling the tiller away from the sail. "Close hauled", "close reach" - in practice, unless you're racing, don't worry about the difference)

Wind coming from your SIDE (your left side in this case): your sails will be in an intermediate position.
(Slowish but little risk of accidental tack or gybe! "Beam reach", wind is coming from side=across the beam/midpoint of the boat's side.)

Wind coming from BEHIND YOU (behind and to the left): your sails will be way out.
(This is as far "down" as you can get. The boom may be sticking straight out to one side, and you'll want to be careful not to accidentally gybe/turn your backside across the wind. "Broad reach", "broad run")
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:03 PM on July 9, 2013

I won't dispute your self-assessment of your spatial reasoning skills but I do want to note that I think it is entirely normal to not be able to quickly process all the geometry involved in steering a sailboat as a beginning sailor. The concepts may be simple in isolation but when you put them together, you're considering the angle of the sails to the wind (and usually you've got two sails to worry about), the angle of the wind to the boat, the angle of the rudder to the boat, the boat's tacking angle, and how all of these angles relate to your intended destination, I think hardly anyone can intuitively understand all of these things and how they relate right away. It's normal to have to slowly and carefully think it through when you are starting out and the only way it becomes intuitive is through practice.
posted by enn at 3:09 PM on July 9, 2013

You really just need to figure out which way the wind is blowing, then work from there. There are several ways to do that even before you get on the boat, first and foremost just by feeling the wind -- is it blowing straight in your face? Directly on your side? Exactly against your back? You can also look at any wind socks / flags / other fabric-y things that get blown around in the wind. Once you've got that, you'll be able to identify which direction is upwind (in to the wind) or downwind (away from the wind). The points in between there are your points of sail. As you turn upwind (in to the wind, so it hits you head-on), you pull in your sheets. As you turn downwind (away from the wind, so it hits you from behind), you ease your sheets and let the sails out. It can be way more complicated as far as how you trim your sails for each point, but getting it exactly right is really only a concern for long distance cruising and serious racing. Having your sails trimmed generally correct should be the goal.
posted by undercoverhuwaaah at 3:13 PM on July 9, 2013

It sounds like you've got enough of the concepts to have fun. I've taught lots of people to sail from 6 to 66 years old (former sailing instructor) and one of the things I used to be tempted to do with adults is overload them with information and physics and try to get them to have the optimal everything. So here's my 3 bits of advice for absolute beginners who just want to get started and move the boat around.

1. To set your sails, let them out till they luff (flap) and then pull them in so that they're just filled and make one curve like a pregnant lady's belly (not an s - shape). If they keep flapping after pulling them all the way in, you're probably sailing into the wind. If you change directions, tack or gybe, just repeat. Eventually you'll get a handle on how to set your sails without this.

2. Try to keep a handle on where the wind is coming from relative to the front of your boat.
This is mostly because:
- You can't sail directly into the wind.
- You want to know if you're about to tack or gybe so you can duck and not get smacked in the head.

3. You can't steer very well if you're not moving, try to get moving then turn to where you want to go.

Have fun! Congrats on trying a new thing.
posted by captaincrouton at 3:14 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Former sailing teacher to children here. You can definitely learn to sail without already understanding the geometry of it - that will come. The only thing that matters about the wind is how it fills the sail. Once you're moving, even the real direction it's coming from doesn't matter - the boat's motion changes the effective or "apparent" wind direction anyway. So just let the sail out until it starts to flap, the pull it in until it stops - and if it's all the way in and still flapping, pull the tiller away from it a little until it fills. After a couple of days of this on a Sunfish, you'll find you just know where the wind is.
posted by nicwolff at 3:45 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to sail a sunfish. What a fun boat! I think you're over-thinking sailing. With a boat that small, it's really quite simple:

To go, let the sail all the way out and then pull to fill it with wind. WHEEEEEEEEEE!!! Away you go. It really is that simple. Catch the wind. Away you go.

To return, you have to use your rudder to zig-zag into the wind with your sail pulled tight against the boat so the wind whips along it, thus pushing you along.

To go, picture a "T" with the horizontal part of the T being the sail and the vertical part being the line of your boat.

To return, picture an = sign, with one line being your boat and the other being your sail pulled tight nearly in line with your boat as you sail diagonally into the wind, then you turn and sail diagonally into the wind in the other direction. Back & forth, back & forth, to get back to where you started.
posted by 2oh1 at 3:47 PM on July 9, 2013

I don't know specifically about sailing, but I do know a bit about spatial visualization skills. Research on the subject seems to indicate that while there's a partially innate (and gendered) component to spatial visualization skills, a lot of it is really just experience, and that even people who are initially less adept can get up to speed after some practice. It sounds like you're quite new to sailing, and if you haven't done anything else that requires a high amount of spatial visualization skills (drawing, drafting, organic chemistry, etc.) it can seem intimidating the first time you're really called on to use them. It'll get easier with time.
posted by kagredon at 4:10 PM on July 9, 2013

Heh I might have mentioned that I'm commenting from a sailboat tacking around New York Harbor. ツ
posted by nicwolff at 4:15 PM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I spent about a zillion hours on sunfish/lasers on lakes as a kid, and never really got the hang of it until I sailed a bigger boat with a jib (a 420) in an area with very consistent wind. Having the wind direction held relatively constant and sailing a boat that quickly responded to my input made it very simple to connect cause and effect. Even if you plan on sailing sunfish/lasers on a lake going forward, it is worth it to seek out a place with reliable conditions and a more responsive boat to learn.
posted by apparently at 4:38 PM on July 9, 2013

Do you hike? if you do, think of the wind as being the top of a's almost impossible to climb straight up, so you switchback back and forth (tacking) up the slope at an angle to make progress. The wind is always coming at you from uphill. if your left side is facing uphill you are on a port tack, if your right side is facing uphill you are on a starboard tack. going straight downhill is running before the wind, not the fastest because you brake yourself to slow down and stay in control.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:45 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

running before the wind, not the fastest because you brake yourself to slow down and stay in control.

Hah, you don't sail like I do.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 5:05 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get in your boat and sail away. After half an hour or so go back to where you came from.
You'll soon work it out.
Don't get swamped by other people theorizing using terms you don't really understand.
As soon as you get the gist of getting from A - B and back, one will probably be harder than the other, again you will begin to make sense of the terminololgy.
If there is a small island on the lake try sailing around it. First on way and then the other.
posted by adamvasco at 5:16 PM on July 9, 2013

Thanks, this is all very helpful. I particularly like the physical descriptions of what the sail should look like; for now, those sorts of clues are more tangible and understandable to me than thinking about the points of sail.

One of the other things I had trouble with was figuring out which way to turn the bow when the jib began to luft; in other words, understanding which way I needed to turn to fill the sail again. So, it sounds like pulling the tiller away from the boom will help fill the sails (if I am heading upwind). I can remember a concept like that, if I've got it right!

The lake I have access to is known for shifting winds, so I'll keep that in mind and not beat myself up so much when things don't go like I think they should.

I also think I need to think more about what tacking and gybing mean -- I think I have the misconception that these each result in 180 degree turns, but the hiking analogy that OHenryPacey gave made me think about tacking in a different way.

So, analogies and other visual cues are good for the spatially impaired! Thanks for the information and reassurance.
posted by megancita at 5:21 PM on July 9, 2013

Tacking and Gybing
posted by adamvasco at 5:25 PM on July 9, 2013

I also think I need to think more about what tacking and gybing mean -- I think I have the misconception that these each result in 180 degree turns, but the hiking analogy that OHenryPacey gave made me think about tacking in a different way.

Tacking and gybing are the name of maneuvers that you do to move the wind from one side of the boat to the other. On a racy boat that can sail very close to straight upwind, a tack can be a turn as little as 60 degrees, if you imagine the wind was coming from just a little bit off of the bow to one side, and you turn so that now it's coming from just a little bit off the other side. Generally, when sailing upwind, you want your tacks to be as small of a turn as possible, so you are sailing as close to the wind as you can all the time.

A gybe on the other hand, doesn't actually require the boat to turn at all. Imagine you're sailing straight downwind with the wind coming directly over the stern. You gybe by moving the sails from one side of the boat to the other, but since you can sail straight downwind with the sails on either side of the boat, you don't actually need to turn at all for this, though normally you sail at least a little bit off of straight downwind. A gybe through only 30 degrees isn't uncommon at all though.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 5:50 PM on July 9, 2013

The easy way to figure which way to turn when you're luffing is: you're luffing because the wind is hitting the back of the sail! So, just turn the boat to hide the back of the sail from the wind.

That will mean pulling the tiller away from the sail, whether you're sailing upwind or downwind – although generally if you're sailing downwind you'll just pull the sail in a little bit, which has the same effect of hiding the back of the sail from the wind.

If you always sit across the from the sail, as the skipper normally does, then you can just think "sails are luffing = head away from the wind = pull on the tiller". And then tacking is always just pushing the tiller away from you so the boat heads toward and through the wind.

This is the sort of thinking I was talking about, not worrying about where the wind is coming from, just about how it's hitting and filling the sail.
posted by nicwolff at 7:29 PM on July 9, 2013

As for tacking and gybing, just imagine sailing around in a circle. You start with the wind coming over one side, and push the tiller toward the sail, so the boat turns toward and across the wind – you've tacked. The sail has moved across the boat, but you don't move the tiller, which is now away from the sail, so you're turning down, away from the wind – and eventually the wind passes behind you and you've gybed. You never let out the sail, so it just switches sides again – and now you're rounding back up towards your original course. You could do this all day!

Run through that in your head for a while, then try imagining trimming the sail in as you head up and tack, and letting it out as you head down and gybe, so that except when it's crossing the boat the sail always stays just barely full of wind. Again, don't worry about the direction of the wind except relative to the sail itself; the boat is just turning in a circle, and the tiller is always in the same place.
posted by nicwolff at 7:53 PM on July 9, 2013

Once that starts to feel natural, you can start thinking in terms of the wind's real direction and points of sail, so your instructors are happier next weekend. Are your instructors using boat models during the on-shore lessons? Get a little toy boat with a movable sail, and turn and tack it around on the living room carpet, before some steady imaginary wind. Start to name the points of sail as the boat turns: close hauled, close reach, beam reach, broad reach, run. You'll get it.
posted by nicwolff at 8:10 PM on July 9, 2013

If you have an iPhone, download a free interactive point of sail map and see if that makes more sense than non-interactive graphics.
posted by slateyness at 8:12 PM on July 9, 2013

I am you. I have been through a bunch of sailing classes, now consider myself a reasonably competent recreational sailor, and I still find that my intellectual understanding does not easily translate to smart, controlled reactions on the water. The answer, though, is practice.

Most sailing classes are really designed for thorough, patient instruction. They're often taught by inexperienced teachers - kids from the club's sailing team, coaches for whom this is second nature, etc. They are revenue generators for sailing clubs. They aren't always serious about teaching.

You need time on the water to get it. You need to experiment and make gentle mistakes. Going out on the Sunfish on light-wind (not no wind, you won't learn anything) days is a good idea. But crewing for people who are racing, as a volunteer, can be a very good idea. Going out with friends, or paying for the half-day private lesson, or just taking several sets of classes in a row, are going to help. It's like skiing, riding a bike, or anything - it's a physical, spinal-memory thing, and you can't really learn it all in the classroom, no matter how many diagrams, models, or helpful analogies people use. Eventually you have to do it, to learn it as a physical sensory skill.
posted by Miko at 8:18 PM on July 9, 2013

1. To set your sails, let them out till they luff (flap) and then pull them in so that they're just filled and make one curve like a pregnant lady's belly (not an s - shape). If they keep flapping after pulling them all the way in, you're probably sailing into the wind. If you change directions, tack or gybe, just repeat. Eventually you'll get a handle on how to set your sails without this.

QFT. I, like captaincrouton, am a former sailing instructor and this and the rest of his/her comment is right on.
posted by Aizkolari at 6:48 AM on July 10, 2013

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