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The Points of Sail



Anytime there is air moving over a boat, it is on a point of sail. You may have heard of some of these:

Head to Wind

Close Hauled

Close Reach

Beam Reach

Broad Reach

Dead Down Wind

Why are these important? Most importantly, the direction the wind is blowing relative to your boat tells you a lot about how the boat will be affected by the wind, which is another way of saying how you can use the wind.

Ok, fine, you might say, but why do we use these archaic terms instead of saying “the wind is blowing onto the port bow?” Well, you have a point. You could say that and be accurate, but there is important information that is missing from that phrasing.

For instance, to say the wind is blowing onto the port bow tells me that we are on a port tack and that we are sailing upwind, fantastic. But what are our maneuvering options? Can I still head up some, or is our angle to the wind such that I would need to bear away to get the sails to start working (i.e., are we in the “no sail zone”)?

Using the above terms conveys the angle of the wind and the options for maneuvering the boat. Saying “we are close hauled” tells me everything I need to know about my options for maneuvering the boat. I now know that I can either tack or bear away and that making headway will be trickier than on any other point of sail. It even tells me almost precisely how to trim all of my sails! So much value per word!

If you and your crew know their four maneuvers, points of sail, and the corresponding sail trim, letting your crew know you are “bearing away to a beam reach” tells them everything they need to know about which direction the boat will be turning and how the angles of the sails need to change.

The Points of Sail defined:


Head to Wind The bow is pointed directly into the airflow. Sails will become flags at this angle; you’ll need some other form of propulsion if you expect to move forward.


Close Hauled Bearing away from in irons, this is the first angle where you’d be able to get your sails to work. Typically somewhere around 45 degrees off the wind to either side


Close Reach Bearing away from close-hauled, even just a little, brings you to the close-reaching zone. This zone continues from close-hauled (about 45 degrees) down to about beam reach (about 90 degrees off the wind)


Beam Reach A single angle where the air is flowing perpendicular to the vessel. Heading up at all from here brings you up into the close reach zone. Bearing away at all from here takes you down into the broad reach zone.


Broad Reach Another zone, broad reach covers everything from the beam reach point down to the dead down wind (DDW) point. Here the air is arriving at the boat anywhere from aft of the beam to the stern.


Dead Down Wind (DDW) The opposite of in irons, this is a single point where the air is flowing directly onto the stern of the boat. Heading up in either direction from here takes you into the broad reach zone.


Each point of sail comes with its own benefits and costs. Knowing which point of sail you are on, even at the dock or at anchor, informs your maneuverability options.

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