Sailing against the wind: tips and tricks for beginners and advanced sailors

Sailing against the wind: tips and tricks for beginners and advanced sailors

Use the power of headwinds to your advantage.

When a yacht sets sail and encounters wind, it requires sailors to employ their full range of skills and knowledge. The wind, while often a source of propulsion, can also pose a significant challenge. Mastering the art of sailing upwind involves a blend of boat handling techniques, navigation skills, and an understanding of sea and weather conditions. Let's take a look at a few key aspects that play a critical role in sailing upwind, whether it's a light breeze or blowing so hard you might as well be flying.

Navigation and route planning

Effective upwind sailing starts with meticulous route planning. The skipper and navigator need to carefully consider the current and forecasted wind conditions, tidal patterns, and potential navigational hazards along their chosen path. Utilising advanced navigational tools aboard the yacht, such as GPS, Automatic Identification System (AIS), and radar, can greatly simplify this planning phase.

Optimum sail setting

Once you've established your route and assessed the current weather conditions, particularly the wind direction, optimising your sail setting is crucial. Experienced trimmers on board can manage this effortlessly. However, if you lack a seasoned trimmer, aim to adjust the sails to the optimal angle relative to the wind to maximise its force. In stronger winds, the objective shifts to reducing sail power to prevent excessive heeling. Sailing against the wind often involves slowing down to stabilise the yacht and ensure easier control. It's important to be patient and proceed at a reduced speed to minimise the risks of capsizing or loss of control

With varying wind conditions, frequent sail adjustments may be needed and sensitivity to these is essential. Proper sail operation on a boat is a basic principle that allows you to harness the power of the wind to move your vessel. Sails are a key element in marine navigation and their proper adjustment and control are essential for a successful voyage. Take a look at some practical tips that will allow you to guide your boat comfortably and efficiently when sailing upwind.

Basic principles of operation:

Sail operation adheres to Bernoulli's principle, a fundamental law of physics involving airflow around curved surfaces. As wind navigates around the sail, the air velocity increases at the back (leeward side), reducing pressure. Conversely, on the front side (windward), where the air movement is less intense, the pressure is higher. This difference in pressure generates a force that propels the sail forward.

Sail types:

There are several types of sails, each with its own specific use depending on the wind strength, sailing direction and the type of boat. The most common types include triangular sails, jib sails, and Bermuda sails.

Bermuda sails

Bermuda sails

Wind direction and sail angle:

Optimal harnessing of wind power requires the correct sail angle relative to the wind direction. The skipper and crew can adjust the direction of sail to either maximize sail performance or to reduce the impact of stronger winds. Ultimately, however, the goal remains to generate a force that drives the boat forward efficiently. Sail angles are modified using control lines (known as scotches) and other mechanisms..

Reefing and gathering the sails:

In conditions of stronger winds or when a reduction in speed is necessary, the technique of reefing is employed. This involves partially folding or gathering the sails to reduce their exposed area, thereby decreasing the force driving the boat and lessening the heeling to leeward. Although offshore yachts, with their robust keels, have a minimal risk of capsizing, reefing remains a valuable practice in certain situations to reduce sail area.

Sail handling and navigation:

Sail handling requires experience and a feel for the wind. Sailors use a variety of equipment, including winches, ropes, and pulleys, to effectively set and control the sails. In addition to the practical mechanics of sail handling, navigation is also important in using the wind effectively on the way to your destination. Find out more about the practical navigation aids on a yacht.

Having good navigation is key when sailing upwind. Use charts, navigational aids and keep an eye on the compass to ensure you maintain the right course. Pay attention to sea currents and expect to have to adjust to the current situation.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Practice, practice, practice — that's the only way to learn to trim sails. However, you can familiarise with sail trim in our three-part series, from the basics of trimming and more advanced techniques to sailing like a pro.


Rigging and pulleys on a yacht

The important art of boat handling lies in the ability of the captain, trimmer and crew to react correctly to changing conditions, to control the sails effectively and to use the power of the wind to move the boat. The combination of knowledge of winds, navigation and proper sail setting techniques allows sailors to enjoy a beautiful holiday or cover distances of hundreds of nautical miles across the vast expanse of the open seas.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Want to sail like a professional sailor? Take a skipper's course and sail to your heart's content.

Tacking and manoeuvring

Tacking, also known colloquially as zig-zag sailing, is a pivotal technique in upwind sailing, involving a response to alternating directional changes. This manoeuvring strategy enables the yacht to progress even when facing headwinds.Experienced sailors can tack gracefully, minimizing loss of speed and keeping the yacht stable. While open-sea winds generally maintain a stable direction, coastal sailing offers unique opportunities to leverage wind shifts influenced by the terrain.


Tacking is a critical sailing manoeuvre used to change direction while navigating into the wind. It involves the yacht alternating its course to effectively sail against the wind. Mastery of tacking is key - it should be executed smoothly and swiftly, with an emphasis on minimizing speed loss.

Of course, the boat cannot sail directly into the wind because the sails would not be able to pick up the wind. Navigating upwind at a 45° angle is typically recommended, enabling forward progression. During tacking, the sails are shifted from one side of the yacht to the other, helping to maintain both speed and direction.

For leisure sailing, maintaining this 45° angle is generally suitable. However, in racing scenarios, striving for a tighter 40° angle can offer a competitive edge. This often requires a keen understanding of the surrounding terrain and its influence on wind patterns.

Adapting to sea conditions

Sailing upwind also means being able to adapt quickly to changing sea conditions. Waves, tides and currents can significantly affect the stability, speed and direction of a yacht. Sailors should be able to react to these changes and keep the vessel under control.

Illustration of tacking and manoeuvring a boat when sailing upwind

Tacking and manoeuvres, source:

Safety first

Regardless of the wind direction, the safety of the crew and the vessel is a key priority. Before departure, it is important to check the condition of equipment, secure cargo, and ensure that every crew member possesses the seamanship skills suited to the voyage's difficulty level and has access to the necessary equipment. While there’s a quaint maritime adage that some boaters would rather sink than see harm come to their vessel, the reality, especially with a charter boat, is you don't want anything to happen to it or your crew.

Sailors often face challenges from the wind on the high seas. Sailing a yacht against the wind can be both challenging and an exciting adventure. But if you follow all the proper guidelines, you can master these challenges, ensuring a smooth and enjoyable experience even when the wind may not be in your favour.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Discover the 7 essentials to tell your crew before setting sail.

Weather, waves and currents

Always keep an eye on the current weather. Changes in wind and atmospheric conditions can affect your sailing. Be prepared to adapt your tactics and plans to the current conditions.

Pay attention to the waves, as sometimes the waves can be more of a problem than the wind itself. Keep the yacht perpendicular to the waves, ride them out to minimize bumps and increase the stability of the boat.

Sailing a yacht upwind can be a challenge, but it's also a great way to hone your seamanship. Follow safety guidelines, learn from more experienced sailors and remember to enjoy every moment on the open sea. Sailing upwind on a yacht is a challenging way to gain new perspectives on the beauty of sailing. Bon voyage!

YACHTING.COM TIP: We've written several articles about ocean currents. Learn about the currents in the Mediterraneanin the Atlantic and about sailing in tidal watersAlso, don't miss our comprehensive guide to sailing on the big waves and swell of the ocean. 

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