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Understanding Your Sailboat

By: Thomas Muller - Updated: 17 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Understanding Your Sailboat

Although they may initially sound like a foreign language, understanding the terms used to refer to the various parts of a sailboat form an integral part of sailing.

Effective Communication On Board

The exotic names that refer to various aspects of a sailing vessel are not for show but serve an important and practical purpose. To the casual observer it may seem like sailboats are simply comprised of a mast, sails, lines and the vessel itself, but every individual line, every sail corner, all have their own unique purpose, and so need their own name.

If there is a gale force wind blowing across the deck and crew need to act fast and decisively then it is useless and self-defeating shouting out confusing instructions trying to describe which line to operate. Communication between crew members needs to be quick and clear and free of any ambiguity. Therefore for efficient crew cooperation everybody must use and understand the standard special sailing terms.

The world of racing is one aspect of sailing where success is heavily dependent on crew members being able to effectively communicate very specific commands. Nevertheless, however you choose to use your new sailboat, whether it’s racing or idling in the summer holidays, it is sensible practice to understand your sailboat by getting a good grounding in sailing terminology.

Understanding Sails

In playing such a crucial role in the action of a sailboat, it is no surprise that its sails have a large variety of identifiable aspects.

To begin with there are two main types of sail; the mainsail and the jib. The mainsail is the largest sail and generates the majority of the sailboat’s power. It is located on the back side of the main mast, whilst the jib is the one attached to its front side.

The sail itself can be broken down into the more specific areas of the head, luff, leech, foot, clew and tack. These names refer to various edges and corners of the sail canvas:

  • Head – The top corner of the sail.
  • Luff – The front edge.
  • Leech – The back edge.
  • Foot – The bottom edge.
  • Clew – The bottom rear corner.
  • Tack – The bottom front corner.

Confusingly some of these names can refer to other aspects of sailing and the sailboat. For instance the head is also the marine toilet and to ‘tack’ is a sailing term meaning to work back and forth into the wind.

Terms of Support

The main support for the sailboat’s sails and rigging is provided by the vertically mounted pole known as the mast. Attached to this and running horizontally along the foot of the mainsail is the boom.

Support and control over the sails is provided by the various rigging lines. These include the main sheet, jib sheet, halyards, backstay, forestay and the boom vang:

  • Main sheet – The main line used to control the angle of the mainsail using the boom.
  • Jib sheet – This line controls the angle of the jib. Sailboats typically have two jib sheets, with their individual use depending on which side the wind is coming from.
  • Backstay – this tensioned support wire runs from the stern of the sailboat up to the top of the mast.
  • Forestay – This tensioned support wire runs from the bow of the sailboat up to either the top of the mast or a point near to.
  • Halyards – These lines are used to hoist the sails up the stay wires.
  • Boom vang – This line controls how much the boom is able to pivot upward.

In addition to the rigging, the sails are also supported by battens, which are stiffeners that are inserted into special pockets in the sail’s leech in order to improve its shape and lifting facility.

On the Sailboat Itself

The main feature on the sailboat itself is the keel or centreboard. This refers to the fin that is fitted on the bottom of the craft and which keeps the sailboat from slipping sideways.

A keel is an underwater foil that generates lift. It is typically weighted or ballasted in order to prevent capsizing, thereby allowing sailboats to move much closer into the wind.

A centreboard on the other hand is an unballasted and moveable keel that is more commonly found on smaller sailboats. It is a long fin that can be adjusted according to the angle to the wind the craft is sailing.

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