Points of Sail and Sail Trim

A young woman laughs on a sailboat in Waikiki, Hawaii.
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Points of Sail by Wind Direction

Points of Sail
© Tom Lochhaas.

“Point of sail” refers to the angle of the sailboat to the direction from which the wind is blowing. Different terms are used for the different points of sail, and the sails must be trimmed into different positions for different points of sail.

Consider this diagram, which shows the basic points of sail for different boat directions relative to the wind. Here, the wind is blowing from the top of the diagram (think of it as North). A sailboat sailing close to the wind on either side (toward the northwest or northeast) is close hauled. Sailing directly across the wind (due west or due east) is called a beam reach. Off the wind (to the southwest or southeast) is called a broad reach. Directly downwind (due south) is called running.

Next, we’ll look at each of these points of sail and how the sails are trimmed for each.

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Close Hauled

Close Hauled
Photo © Tom Lochhaas.

Here the sailboat is sailing close hauled, or as close to the wind direction it can. Most boats can sail within about 45 to 50 degrees of the wind direction. (No boat can sail directly into the wind.) Close hauled is also called beating.

Notice that both sails are pulled in tight, and the boom is centered down the centerline of the boat. The curve of the sails is in the shape of an airplane’s wing, generating lift—a force that, in combination with the effect of the keel, results in the boat being pulled forward.

Note that the boat is also heeling (leaning) to starboard (the right side). Sailing close hauled produces more healing than other points of sail.

When close hauled, the jib is trimmed in tight for equal airflow on both sides. See how to trim the jib using telltales.

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Beam Reach

Beam Reach
Photo © Tom Lochhaas.

In a beam reach, the boat is sailing at a perpendicular angle to the wind. The wind is coming directly across the beam of the boat.

Notice that the sails are let out farther in a beam reach than when close hauled. The flow of the wind over the curve of the sail is, again, like the air around an airplane’s wing, generating lift to move the boat forward.

Note too that the boat heels less than when close hauled.

All other factors being equal, beam reach is often the fastest point of sail for most sailboats.

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Broad Reach

Broad Reach
Photo © Tom Lochhaas.

In a broad reach, the boat is sailing far off the wind (but not quite directly downwind). Note that in a broad reach the sails are let much farther out. The boom is far out to the side, and the jib loops forward of the forestay.

The shape of the sails is still generating some lift, but as the boat heads farther and farther off the wind, it is increasingly being pushed forward by the wind from behind rather than being pulled forward by lift.

Note also that the mainsail out to the side is almost directly behind the jib, in relation to the wind coming from behind. If this boat were sailing directly downwind, the mainsail would block the wind and keep so much wind from the jib that it would not fill. Most sailors, therefore, prefer to sail off the wind on a broad reach rather than directly downwind. A broad reach is faster, and there is less risk of an accidental gybe. A gybe occurs when headed downwind and a wind shift or gust throws the mainsail across to the other side, stressing the rigging and risking the boom striking someone as it crosses the boat.

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Running Wing on Wing

Running Wing on Wing
Photo © Tom Lochhaas.

As mentioned on the previous page, it is inefficient to sail directly downwind with both sails on the same side, because the mainsail will block the wind from the jib.

One way to prevent this problem is to run downwind with the sails on opposite sides of the boat to capture the wind on both sides. This is called sailing wing on wing and is shown in this photo. Here, the main is far out to starboard (the right side) and the jib is far out to port.

Because it is still often difficult to keep both sails full and drawing downwind, especially if the boat is rolling side to side on waves, the jib can be held out to the side with a whisker pole or spinnaker pole. As you can see in this photo, the jib’s outer corner (the clew) is poled to port with a pole mounted to the mast. In a light wind, the weight of the jib may still make it droop or flutter, even when poled out. As you can see in this photo, the leading edge of the jib (the luff) is not being blown fully forward in this light air.

Running downwind is generally considered the slowest point of sail.

Remember that the sails are trimmed differently for each point of sail. See also how to trim the jib using telltales and how to read the wind.

Here are two apps for Apple devices that can help you learn or teach about points of sail.