The six points of sail are the most common points of sail. They’re easy to remember, and you’ll use them all the time, whether you’re sailing single-handed or as part of a crew. We’ll cover each one in detail here so you can practice these maneuvers before your next trip out on the water.
When a sail is as close to the wind as possible, it’s called being close-hauled. When a sail is on the same side of the boat as the mainmast (in other words, when it’s on port or starboard tack), it’s easy to see which direction that would be. But what if you’re sailing on leeward or weather? In that case, look at your clew: if it’s behind you and to port, then you’re close-hauled! This can also be determined by looking at your mainsail from above; if part of its leading edge is pointing in front of your boat—i.e., toward where your bow points—then you’re also sailing close-hauled.
The beam reach is a point of sail where the wind is coming from 90 degrees to the bow. This means that as you tack or jibe, there will be no change in direction and your boat will continue sailing with an arc of about 270 degrees. You can use this angle for close-hauled sailing, reaching and running, or downwind sailing.
It’s important to note that in order for your boat to sail at its best angle (usually referred to as its optimum angle), it needs enough wind strength and direction for all sails on board to be filled properly.
The broad reach is a point of sail where the wind is coming from ahead and at an angle between 90 and 135 degrees. The sails are set at an angle of approximately 45 degrees to the wind so that there’s enough power to drive the boat through the water. This can be accomplished by moving your boom back, adjusting your jib sheet or letting out more mainsail sheet. A good way to tell that you’re in this position is if you have no sense of heel or tackiness.
Close reach is the point of sail that will allow you to travel the farthest. You don’t have to be as close to the wind as you would when tacking, but you want to keep your boat moving fairly quickly. The sails are trimmed so that they are slightly luffing (drifting) from their normal position in relation to each other. This should feel like a comfortable speed for long distance sailing; not too fast or slow, but still quick enough for good progress over water.
The main difference between close reach and beam reach is how much of your canvas is used versus how much stays folded up inside its respective sailbag on deck. In close reach, more canvas is exposed than in beam reach because there’s less chance of getting overpowered by the wind and capsizing due to excess speed (which can happen with excessive fullness).
Running is a point of sail where the wind is behind the boat, at 90 degrees to your bow. The wind is blowing from the stern of the boat and you have set your sails at an angle that allows you to move downwind.
Here’s what it looks like:
When you are sailing downwind, the boat is moving with the wind. The sails are set to catch the wind and in a position that allows the boat to move straight ahead without turning or moving from side to side. Also, there is usually no jib sheet being pulled on because it would cause a jibe (a turn). The rudder is used to steer the boat.
These are the six basic points of sail.
These are the six basic points of sail. The windward direction is the direction from which the wind is blowing.
- Close-hauled: When your boat sails close to a line perpendicular to the wind, or on a course that’s nearly so (at an angle between 90 degrees and 180 degrees). This is good for sailing in tight quarters when you need to tack often; it also makes it easier for your crew to manage boom and jib sheets. It also lets you sail closer to shore where there may be rocks or other hazards, like large ships at sea!
- Beam Reach: A point of sail where your boat is facing between 45 and 135 degrees from downwind; more precisely, if it’s heading 40–70 degrees away from downwind, then this point would apply — though sailors usually refer only generally as “beam reach” when they mean any angle between 45° and 135° off dead ahead (or “broad reach”).
So there you have it: the six points of sail. Hopefully, this was an informative journey into the world of sailing!