Boathandling: Making the Turn

These tacking tips will help make the maneuver easier on the crew.
Sailing boats from bird view crossing open sea
Mastering proper tacking technique enables precise maneuvering, more efficient wind utilization, and effective navigation strategies. Pavel/

Tacking a sailboat through the wind is one of the great joys of sailing. For a few seconds, everyone aboard the boat is engaged, whether steering, trimming or moving across the deck. A racing crew will practice the routine of crisp tacking to avoid losing ground to the competition. The cruising sailor can make the most of this maneuver by tacking with preparation and care.   

The world’s top helmsmen turn the boat slowly to keep momentum. The faster you turn a boat, the more it will slow down. Crews don’t like being surprised by a boat that is suddenly turning without any warning—especially those working below, say, with a pot tumbling off a stove. 

A cadence should be followed leading up to, during and after any tack. The skipper should let the crew know well in advance that a tack is being contemplated. Everyone on board should prepare to perform a specific job. 

The sail trimmer needs to check that the jib sheet is ready to run. The new sheet should have two turns on the winch and be ready for trimming. The mainsail trimmer needs to make sure the traveler is cleated in its proper position so that it doesn’t go careening across the track. I recommend easing the jib sheet early. Backing a headsail slows a boat and makes it hard to trim in on the new tack. Let out the jib just before the sail starts to back. The turning boat will help move the sail across to the new side of the boat. As the jib starts to fill, add turns of the sheet onto the winch. 

There are three things to concentrate on when tacking: steering, sail trim and crew weight position. 

When you turn the rudder, a force is created that slows the boat before it starts turning. A slow action will reduce the forces slowing the boat. Prioritize trimming the sails for the new tack, which will help you accelerate. Ask your crew to stay low while moving across the boat. Crews should change sides during most tacks when the boat is directly upright. In light winds, the crew should delay crossing over to help the boat heel on the new tack. Dinghy sailors call this a “roll tack.” Heeling gives a boat a longer waterline and more speed, and helps the sails set better. The combination of coordinating smooth steering, efficient sail trim, and proper crew weight position will help the boat to accelerate. 

An announcement about an upcoming tack should be conversational. No yelling. One person should note what the new course will be after the tack and advise the helmsperson. Selecting a point on land or a compass course gives the helmsperson a helpful reference. The helmsperson should alert the crew by saying, “Tacking in three boat lengths.” Just before turning the wheel, the person steering should count down the time to the turn: “Three, two, one, tacking now.” Again, turn the wheel or tiller slowly. Let the boat coast into the wind.  

When the boat is heading directly into the wind, increase the turn rate to get the boat on the new course and get the sails to fill. You should sail a few degrees low, of course, and keep the sails eased to help the boat accelerate. When the boat attains full speed, head up to a closehauled course and trim the sail all the way in. Everyone on the boat will quickly settle in and appreciate a quiet sense of accomplishment. 

Be strategic when tacking. Look for a patch of water with smooth waves. Tacking into steep chop makes it difficult to regain full speed. Sometimes, I will wait 15 seconds or longer to find an easy set of waves to tack through. 

Sailboats are most efficient when maneuvering by sailing at full speed before making a turn. I like to tack in a good puff of wind, which also helps with acceleration. On a breezy day, tacking slowly gives the sail trimmer time to trim the sail in. If the boat turns too quickly, the jib will take a long time to be trimmed properly. The helmsperson should keep an eye on the jib and turn only as quickly as the trimmer can pull in the headsail. 

If the wind is particularly strong, the mainsail trimmer can reduce the pressure on the helm by easing the sail out as the tack is completed. If a boat is heeled over too far, it will be uncomfortable for the crew and make considerable leeway.  

In very light winds, avoid tacking frequently. It takes a long time to recover from a maneuver to regain full speed. Study the wind puffs on the water. Try to locate areas with more wind. Once you locate stronger wind, head in that direction to sail in it. 

Making good tacks gives a crew a sense of accomplishment and brings everyone together as a team. With a few practices, the crew will make the tack a thing of beauty.

 6 Tips for Better Tacking

  1. Verbally prepare the crew for a tack.
  2. Find an area of smooth water to tack in.
  3. Start the tack when your boat is sailing at full speed.
  4. Tack in a strong puff of wind.
  5. Avoid turning too fast.
  6. Coordinate steering, sail trim and crew weight position.

Hall of Fame sailor Gary Jobson is a CW editor-at-large.