Course directions: The “Points of Sailing”

Since the wind is the most important force that keeps sailboats going, the angle of a vessel’s boat with respect to the wind’s direction is crucial to predict the boats’ behavior. This angle also defines the so-called “points of sailing”. Knowing these points helps to control the boat and should be part of the every sailor’s basic vocabulary.

Think of a water surface as a circle, it spreads over a total of 360 degrees. If your boat sits in the center, you can now choose on which course you want to go. Imagine the circle as being a clock now with the wind coming from 12.00. The courses are described with respect to the wind and will help you to understand your boat’s behavior more efficiently.

The wind’s direction defines the “no-sail zone”, which consists of about 45 degrees off the wind direction on both sides – sort of 10.30 to 1.30. Here your boat will slow down and won’t be able to sail ahead. A course into the no-sail zone is called “head-to-wind” and can be used to stop a boat.

Boats that are sailing at 10.00 to 10.30 and 1.30 to 2.00 are on a course called “close-hauled”. This means that you are sailing as close to the wind as possible, fighting a strong heeling force. Moving another twenty degrees to around 9.00 to 10.00 and 2.00 to 3.00, you sail on “close reach”, where the heeling force is less powerful.

Sailing (almost) all around the "clock"

Sailing at ninety degrees to the wind – at 9.00 or 3.00 on our imaginary clock – is called “beam reach”. This is a favorable course and might allow you to sail at maximum speed. Sailing a few degrees further on between 3.00 to 5.00 and 7.00 to 9.00, you sail on a “broad reach” course, where things become gentler.

A boat sails in the smoothest way when it is on a course between 5.00 and 5.30 or 6.30 to 7.00, which is about five to ten degrees off the direction of the wind blowing in your back (or stern). This course is called “training run”. It is fairly easy to navigate on this course and the favored one among sailing schools, which is probably how it got it’s name.

Having the wind in your back between 5.30 and 6.30 finally covers our entire imaginary clock. This course, directly with the wind, is called “run”. There is very little heeling force on a “run”, but you might need a wide jib or a spinnaker to achieve high speeds.

Changing the courses into any other direction will require you to adjust some or all of the control forces described in another article. If you turn onto a course more towards the wind, your boat is “luffing”, when you turn onto a course further away from the wind, your boat is said to be "bearing away".

If you want to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary relating to the course, draw the clock on a piece of cardboard and quiz yourself like when you are learning vocabulary.

Further Reading

Wikipedia on Dinghy Sailing

Wikipedia on the Points of Sail

DMOZ on Sailing

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