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The Physics of Sailing

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Sailing is a skill and an art which requires much time, practice and understanding to master. One may not understand the physics behind driving a car, however one can understand the basic principals behind using a car: press on the accelerator and the car will go faster; press on the breaks and the car will stop; turn the steering wheel left and the car will turn left. The same mentality applies in sailing, although in order to understand the physics behind sailing one must have a general knowledge of sailing terminology and how a sailboat is made.

Let’s Speak “Sailing”!

        Let us start by learning the different parts of the boat. The shell of the boat is called the hull; the large, vertical pole is known as the mast. The mast is held in place with two shrouds and a forestay (jib stay). Most boats, with a few exceptions, have one, two or three sails. Every sailboat has a main sail; this is the larger sail which is always directly attached behind the mast - it is controlled by the main sheet. The jib sail is the small sail in front of the mast; it can be adjusted with the jib Sheets. The third sail is called a spin sail (not shown on the picture below) and is used by advanced sailors to increase the boat’s speed in specific instances.image32.png

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        When a boat moves closer to the wind – an example being when it goes from a beam reach to a beat – it is called heading up. Consequentially, bearing off is when the boat moves further away from the wind. Hopefully, you now have a general understanding of how to sail a boat. It might not all be clear, however just like one can’t learn how to swim on land, one can’t learn to sail without being in a boat!

One Wind, Three Vectors

Wind is a force. In sailing, there are three different kinds of winds: true wind, boat wind (velocity) and apparent wind. As a matter of fact, all three of these winds are vectors. True wind is the wind that would be felt if you were to sit on an anchored sailboat. It is the wind that is blowing over the water – the wind produced from the “giant fan”. Boat wind is the wind created when the boat is moving.  It’s similar, but not as strong as the wind felt if you were to put your hand out of a car window while the car is moving.  In adding both of these vectors together, the resulting vector would equal the apparent wind. The apparent wind is what would be felt when you are sailing, and more importantly is the wind that must be considered when you are trimming (a term used in sailing that means adjusting) the sails on your boat.


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See You On the Water!

        There are many other factors that affect the way a boat moves. These factors can include mast rake, sail trim, rudder resistance, sail shape, CE (center of effort) and CLR (center of lateral resistance), weight, hull shape, etc... We do hope that you now understand the basic physics behind sailing a boat. More importantly, we hope we have sparked your curiosity about sailing. We look forward to seeing you on the water!



BLASZAK,S.,GOLDSALL, Aaron., SUAREZ, George. (1996) The Hangar. Retrieved April 8, 2010 from the World Wide Web: http://library.thinkquest.org/2819/Hangar.htm

DONALDSON, Sven (2003). Basic Sailing Skills. Canadian Yachting Association. 121pages. Kingston Ontario, Canada.

DONALDSON, Sven (2003). Advanced Sailing Skills. Canadian Yachting Association. 134pages. Kingston Ontario.

KIMBALL, John (2009) Physics of Sailing. CRC Press. United States of America.270 pages.

PALMER, Josh (2002). Physics of Sailing. Retrieved April 8, 2010 from the World Wide Web:


WOLFE, Joe (2002). The Physics of Sailing. University of New South Wales. Sydney, Australia. Retrieved April 8, 2010 from the World Wide Web:


Sailing Cruise (2010). Sailing Physics. Retrieved April 8. 2010 from the World Wide Web: http://www.sailing-cruise.net/sailing-physics/

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