The history of sailing
Throughout history sailing has been instrumental in the development of civilisation, affording humanity greater mobility than travel over land, whether for trade, transport or warfare, and the capacity for fishing.
The earliest representation of a ship under sail appears on a painted disc found in Kuwait dating between 5000 and 5500 BCE. Polynesian oceanfarers traveled vast distances of open ocean in outrigger canoes using navigation methods such as stick charts. Advances in sailing technology from the Middle Ages onward enabled Arab, Chinese, Indian and European explorers to make longer voyages into regions with extreme weather and climatic conditions.
There were improvements in sails, masts and rigging; improvements in marine navigation including the cross tree and charts, of both the sea and constellations, allowed more certainty in sea travel. From the 15th century onwards, European ships went further north, stayed longer on the Grand Banks and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and eventually began to explore the Pacific Northwest and the Western Arctic. Sailing has contributed to many great explorations in the world.
The Egyptians used a bi-pod mast to support a sail that allowed a reed craft to travel upriver with a following wind, as late as 3,500 BCE. Such sails evolved into the square-sail rig that persisted up to the 19th century. Such rigs generally could not sail much closer than 80° to the wind. Fore and aft rigs appear to have evolved in Southeast Asia (dates are uncertain) allowing for rigs that could sail as close as 60–75° off the wind.
The physics of sailing
The physics of sailing arises from a balance of forces between the wind powering the sailing craft as it passes over its sails and the resistance by the sailing craft against being blown off course, which is provided in the water by the keel, rudder, underwater foils and other elements of the underbody of a sailboat.
Forces on sails depend on wind speed and direction and the speed and direction of the craft. The direction that the craft is traveling with respect to the "true wind" (the wind direction and speed over the surface) is called the point of sail. The speed of the craft at a given point of sail contributes to the "apparent wind" — the wind speed and direction as measured on the moving craft. The apparent wind on the sail creates a total aerodynamic force, which may be resolved into drag — the force component in the direction of the apparent wind — and lift — the force component normal (90°) to the apparent wind.
Depending on the alignment of the sail with the apparent wind (angle of attack), lift or drag may be the predominant propulsive component. Depending on the angle of attack of a set of sails with respect to the apparent wind, each sail is providing motive force to the sailing craft either from lift - dominant attached flow or drag - dominant separated flow. Additionally, sails may interact with one another to create forces that are different from the sum of the individual contributions each sail, when used alone.
Apparent wind velocity
The term "velocity" refers both to speed and direction. As applied to wind, apparent wind velocity (VA) is the air velocity acting upon the leading edge of the most forward sail or as experienced by instrumentation or crew on a moving sailing craft. In nautical terminology, wind speeds are normally expressed in knots and wind angles in degrees. All sailing craft reach a constant forward velocity (VB) for a given true wind velocity (VT) and point of sail. The craft's point of sail affects its velocity for a given true wind velocity.
Conventional sailing craft cannot derive power from the wind in a "no-go" zone that is approximately 40° to 50° away from the true wind, depending on the craft. Likewise, the directly downwind speed of all conventional sailing craft is limited to the true wind speed. As a sailboat sails further from the wind, the apparent wind becomes smaller and the lateral component becomes less; boat speed is highest on the beam reach. In order to act like an airfoil, the sail on a sailboat is sheeted further out as the course is further off the wind.
Lift and drag on sails
Lift on a sail, acting as an airfoil, occurs in a direction perpendicular to the incident airstream (the apparent wind velocity for the head sail) and is a result of pressure differences between the windward and leeward surfaces and depends on angle of attack, sail shape, air density, and speed of the apparent wind. The lift force results from the average pressure on the windward surface of the sail being higher than the average pressure on the leeward side. These pressure differences arise in conjunction with the curved air flow. As air follows a curved path along the windward side of a sail, there is a pressure gradient perpendicular to the flow direction with higher pressure on the outside of the curve and lower pressure on the inside. To generate lift, a sail must present an "angle of attack" between the chord line of the sail and the apparent wind velocity. Angle of attack is a function of both the craft's point of sail and how the sail is adjusted with respect to the apparent wind.
As the lift generated by a sail increases, so does lift-induced drag, which together with parasitic drag constitute total drag, which acts in a direction parallel to the incident airstream. This occurs as the angle of attack increases with sail trim or change of course and causes the lift coefficient to increase up to the point of aerodynamic stall along with the lift-induced drag coefficient. At the onset of stall, lift is abruptly decreased, as is lift-induced drag. Sails with the apparent wind behind them (especially going downwind) operate in a stalled condition.
Lift and drag are components of the total aerodynamic force on sail, which are resisted by forces in the water. Sails act in two basic modes; under the lift-predominant mode, the sail behaves in a manner analogous to a wing with airflow attached to both surfaces; under the drag-predominant mode, the sail acts in a manner analogous to a parachute with airflow in detached flow, eddying around the sail.
Lift predominance (wing mode)
Sails allow progress of a sailing craft to windward, thanks to their ability to generate lift (and the craft's ability to resist the lateral forces that result). Each sail configuration has a characteristic coefficient of lift and attendant coefficient of drag, which can be determined experimentally and calculated theoretically. Sailing craft orient their sails with a favorable angle of attack between the entry point of the sail and the apparent wind even as their course changes. The ability to generate lift is limited by sailing too close to the wind when no effective angle of attack is available to generate lift (causing luffing) and sailing sufficiently off the wind that the sail cannot be oriented at a favorable angle of attack to prevent the sail from stalling with flow separation.
Drag predominance (parachute mode)
When sailing craft are on a course where the angle between the sail and the apparent wind (the angle of attack) exceeds the point of maximum lift, separation of flow occurs. Drag increases and lift decreases with increasing angle of attack as the separation becomes progressively pronounced until the sail is perpendicular to the apparent wind, when lift becomes negligible and drag predominates. In addition to the sails used upwind, spinnakers provide area and curvature appropriate for sailing with separated flow on downwind points of sail, analogous to parachutes, which provide both lift and drag.
Wind variation with height and time
Wind speed increases with height above the surface; at the same time, wind speed may vary over short periods of time as gusts.
Wind shear affects sailing craft in motion by presenting a different wind speed and direction at different heights along the mast. Wind shear occurs because of friction above a water surface slowing the flow of air. The ratio of wind at the surface to wind at a height above the surface varies by a power law with an exponent of 0.11-0.13 over the ocean. This means that a 5-m/s (≈10-knot) wind at 3 m above the water would be approximately 6 m/s (≈12 knots) at 15 m above the water.
In hurricane-force winds with 40-m/s (≈78 knots) at the surface the speed at 15 m would be 49 m/s (≈95 knots). This suggests that sails that reach higher above the surface can be subject to stronger wind forces that move the centre of effort on them higher above the surface and increase the heeling moment. Additionally, apparent wind direction moves aft with height above water, which may necessitate a corresponding twist in the shape of the sail to achieve attached flow with height.
Gusts may be predicted by the same value that serves as an exponent for wind shear, serving as a gust factor. So, one can expect gusts to be about 1.5 times stronger than the prevailing wind speed (a 10-knot wind might gust up to 15 knots). This, combined with changes in wind direction suggest the degree to which a sailing craft must adjust sail angle to wind gusts on a given course.
Point of sail
A sailing craft's ability to derive power from the wind depends on the point of sail it is on—the direction of travel under sail in relation to the true wind direction over the surface. The principal points of sail roughly correspond to 45° segments of a circle, starting with 0° directly into the wind. For many sailing craft 45° on either side of the wind is a "no-go" zone, where a sail is unable to mobilize power from the wind. Sailing on a course as close to the wind as possible—approximately 45°—is termed "close-hauled". At 90° off the wind, a craft is on a "beam reach". At 135° off the wind, a craft is on a "broad reach". At 180° off the wind (sailing in the same direction as the wind), a craft is "running downwind".
In points of sail that range from close-hauled to a broad reach, sails act substantially like a wing, with lift predominantly propelling the craft. In points of sail from a broad reach to down wind, sails act substantially like a parachute, with drag predominantly propelling the craft.
Wind direction for points of sail always refers to the true wind—the wind felt by a stationary observer. The apparent wind—the wind felt by an observer on a moving sailing craft—determines the motive power for sailing craft.
Effect on apparent wind
True wind velocity (VT) combines with the sailing craft's velocity (VB) to be the apparent wind velocity (VA), the air velocity experienced by instrumentation or crew on a moving sailing craft. Apparent wind velocity provides the motive power for the sails on any given point of sail. It varies from being the true wind velocity of a stopped craft in irons in the no-go zone to being faster than the true wind speed as the sailing craft's velocity adds to the true windspeed on a reach, to diminishing towards zero, as a sailing craft sails dead downwind.
The speed of sailboats through the water is limited by the resistance that results from hull drag in the water. Ice boats typically have the least resistance to forward motion of any sailing craft. Consequently, a sailboat experiences a wider range of apparent wind angles than does an ice boat, whose speed is typically great enough to have the apparent wind coming from a few degrees to one side of its course, necessitating sailing with the sail sheeted in for most points of sail. On conventional sail boats, the sails are set to create lift for those points of sail where it's possible to align the leading edge of the sail with the apparent wind.
For a sailboat, point of sail affects lateral force significantly. The higher the boat points to the wind under sail, the stronger the lateral force, which requires resistance from a keel or other underwater foils, including daggerboard, centerboard, skeg and rudder. Lateral force also induces heeling in a sailboat, which requires resistance by weight of ballast from the crew or the boat itself and by the shape of the boat, especially with a catamaran. As the boat points off the wind, lateral force and the forces required to resist it become less important.
Course under sail
Wind and currents are important factors to plan on for both offshore and inshore sailing. Predicting the availability, strength and direction of the wind is key to using its power along the desired course. Ocean currents, tides and river currents deflect a sailing vessel from its desired course.
If the desired course is within the no-go zone, then the sailing craft must follow a zig-zag route into the wind to reach its waypoint or destination. Downwind, certain high-performance sailing craft can reach the destination more quickly by following a zig-zag route on a series of broad reaches.
Negotiating obstructions or a channel may also require a change direction of with respect to the wind, necessitating changing of tack with the wind on the opposite side of the craft, from before.
Changing tack is called tacking when the wind crosses over the bow of the craft as it turns and jibing (or gybing) if the wind passes over the stern.
Wind and currents
Winds and oceanic currents are both the result of the sun powering their respective fluid media. Wind powers the sailing craft and the ocean bears the craft on its course, as currents may alter the course of a sailing vessel on the ocean or a river.
- Wind – On a global scale, vessels making long voyages must take atmospheric circulation into account, which causes zones of westerlies, easterlies, trade winds and high-pressure zones with light winds, sometimes called horse latitudes, in between. Sailors predict wind direction and strength with knowledge of high and low pressure areas, and the weather fronts that accompany them. Along coastal areas, sailors contend with diurnal changes in wind direction flowing off the shore at night and onto the shore during the day. Local temporary wind shifts are called lifts, when they improve the sailing craft's ability travel along its rhumb line in the direction of the next waypoint. Unfavorable wind shifts are called headers.
- Currents – On a global scale, vessels making long voyages must take major ocean current circulation into account. Major oceanic currents, like the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean and the Kuroshio Current in the Pacific Ocean require planning for the effect that they will have on a transiting vessel's track. Likewise, tides affect a vessel's track, especially in areas with large tidal ranges, like the Bay of Fundy or along Southeast Alaska, or where the tide flows through straits, like Deception Pass in Puget Sound. Mariners use tide and current tables to inform their navigation. Before the advent of motors, it was advantageous for sailing vessels to enter or leave port or to pass through a strait with the tide.
A sailing craft can sail on a course anywhere outside of its no-go zone. If the next waypoint or destination is within the arc defined by the no-go zone from the craft's current position, then it must perform a series of tacking maneuvers to get there on a dog-legged route, called beating to windward. The progress along that route is called the course made good; the speed between the starting and ending points of the route is called the speed made good and is calculated by the distance between the two points, divided by the travel time. The limiting line to the waypoint that allows the sailing vessel to leave it to leeward is called the layline. Whereas some Bermuda-rigged sailing yachts can sail as close as 30° to the wind, most 20th-Century square riggers are limited to 60° off the wind. Fore-and-aft rigs are designed to operate with the wind on either side, whereas square rigs and kites are designed to have the wind come from one side only.
Because the lateral wind forces are highest on a sailing vessel, close-hauled and beating to windward, the resisting water forces around the vessel's keel, centerboard, rudder and other foils is also highest to mitigate leeway—the vessel sliding to leeward of its course. Ice boats and land yachts minimise lateral motion with sidewise resistance from their blades or wheels.
Changing tack by tacking
Tacking or coming about is a maneuver by which a sailing craft turns its bow into and through the wind (called the "eye of the wind") so that the apparent wind changes from one side to the other, allowing progress on the opposite tack. The type of sailing rig dictates the procedures and constraints on achieving a tacking maneuver. Fore-and-aft rigs allow their sails to hang limp as they tack; square rigs must present the full frontal area of the sail to the wind, when changing from side to side; and windsurfers have flexibly pivoting and fully rotating masts that get flipped from side to side.
- Fore-and-aft rig – A fore-and-aft rig permits the wind to flow past the sail, as the craft head through the eye of the wind. Modern rigs pivot around a stay or the mast, while this occurs. For a jib, the old leeward sheet is released as the craft heads through the wind and the old windward sheet is tightened as the new leeward sheet to allow the sail to draw wind. Mainsails are often self-tending and slide on a traveler to the opposite side. On certain rigs, such as lateens and luggers, the sail may be partially lowered to bring it to the opposite side.
- Square rig – Unlike with a fore-and-aft rig, a square-rigged vessel's sails must be presented squarely to the wind and thus impede forward motion as they are swung around via the yardarms through the wind as controlled by the vessel's running rigging, using braces—adjusting the fore and aft angle of each yardarm around the mast—and sheets attached to the clews (bottom corners) of each sail to control the sail's angle to the wind. The procedure is to turn the vessel into the wind with the hind-most fore-and-aft sail (the spanker), pulled to windward to help turn the ship through the eye of the wind. Once the ship has come about, all the sails are adjusted to align properly with the new tack. Because square-rigger masts are more strongly braced from behind than from ahead, tacking is a dangerous procedure in strong winds. The ship may lose forward momentum (become caught in stays) and the rigging may fail from the wind coming from ahead. Under these conditions, the choice may be to wear ship—to turn the away from the wind and around 240° onto the next tack (60° off the wind).
- Windsurfer rig – Sailors of windsurfers tack by walking forward of the mast and letting the sail swing into the wind as the board moves through the eye of the wind; once on the opposite tack, the sailor realigns the sail on the new tack. In strong winds on a small board, an option is the fast tack, whereby the board is turned into the wind at planing speed as the sailor crosses in front of the flexibly mounted mast and reaches for the boom on the opposite side and continues planing on the new tack.
- Kitesurfer rig – When changing tack, a kitesurfer rotates the kite end-for-end to align with the new apparent wind direction. Kite boards are designed to be used exclusively while planing; many are double-ended to allow an immediate change of course in the opposite direction.
A sailing craft can travel directly downwind only at a speed that is less than the wind speed. However, a variety of sailing craft can achieve a higher downwind speed made good by traveling on a series of broad reaches, punctuated by jibes in between. This is true of ice boats and sand yachts. On the water it was explored by sailing vessels, starting in 1975, and now extends to high-performance skiffs, catamarans and foiling sailboats.
Navigating a channel or a downwind course among obstructions may necessitate changes in direction that require a change of tack, accomplished with a jibe.
Changing tack by jibing
Jibing or gybing is a sailing maneuver by which a sailing craft turns its stern past the eye of the wind so that the apparent wind changes from one side to the other, allowing progress on the opposite tack. As with tacking, the type of sailing rig dictates the procedures and constraints for jibing. Fore-and-aft sails with booms, gaffs or sprits are unstable when they point into the eye of the wind and must be controlled to avoid a violent change to the other side; square rigs as they present the full area of the sail to the wind from the rear experience little change of operation from one tack to the other; and windsurfers again have flexibly pivoting and fully rotating masts that get flipped from side to side.
- Fore-and-aft rig – A fore-and-aft sail is set for the wind on one side for a given tack. As the wind changes across the stern and reaches the other side of the sail, the sail may be blown to the other side suddenly unless it is shielded by other sails to windward. If the sail is supported with a boom, gaff or sprit the change may be violent—unless the sheets are tight as the sail is blown to the other side. For a jib, the old leeward sheet is loosened as the stern turns through the wind and the old windward sheet is tightened as the new leeward sheet to allow the sail to draw wind. A jib is usually shielded by the mainsail in this process. The mainsail sheet is tightened to limit the sudden movement from one side to the other and then eased out, once the boat is safely on the opposite tack. On smaller craft, the boom may be controlled by hand.
- Spinnaker – Some sailboats use a symmetrical spinnaker, a three-sided, parachute-like sail—off the wind. The windward side of a spinnaker is attached to a horizontal pole at the lower corner of the sail and the other end to the mast. The pole is controlled by a line, called a guy, and the other lower corner is controlled by a sheet. When jibing, the pole is disconnected from the mast and attached to the opposite lower corner. Upon establishment on the new tack, the end of the pole that was on the sail is connected to the mast and the former guy becomes the new sheet and vice versa for the former sheet. For high-performance craft with an asymmetrical spinnaker attached to a bow sprit, the sail is jibed in a manner similar to a jib.
- Square rig – As with any downwind change of course, the sails on a square rigger are adjusted with the vessel's running rigging, using braces sheets. Only the jibs, staysails and the spanker need to be jibed, as on a fore-and-aft rig.
- Windsurfer rig – When sailors of windsurfers jibe, they use one of two techniques, the carve jibe and the duck jibe. The carve jibe allows the sail to pivot away from the as the board is turned with the wind passing over the stern. A duck jibe is initiated on a beam reach and the sailor presses the sail towards the wind and passes the back end of the boom over to the other side, "ducking" under it.
- Kitesurfer rig – When changing tack while on a broad reach, a kitesurfer again rotates the kite to align with the new apparent wind as the board changes course with the stern through the eye of the wind while planing.
The most basic control of the sail consists of setting its angle relative to the wind. The control line that accomplishes this is called a "sheet." If the sheet is too loose the sail will flap in the wind, an occurrence that is called "luffing." Optimum sail angle can be approximated by pulling the sheet in just so far as to make the luffing stop, or by using of tell-tales – small ribbons or yarn attached each side of the sail that both stream horizontally to indicate a properly trimmed sail. Finer controls adjust the overall shape of the sail.
Two or more sails are frequently combined to maximize the smooth flow of air. The sails are adjusted to create a smooth laminar flow over the sail surfaces. This is called the "slot effect". The combined sails fit into an imaginary aerofoil outline, so that the most forward sails are more in line with the wind, whereas the more aft sails are more in line with the course followed. The combined efficiency of this sail plan is greater than the sum of each sail used in isolation.
More detailed aspects include specific control of the sail's shape, e.g.:
- reefing, or reducing the sail area in stronger wind
- altering sail shape to make it flatter in high winds
- raking the mast when going upwind (to tilt the sail towards the rear, this being more stable)
- providing sail twist to account for wind speed differential and to spill excess wind in gusty conditions
- gibbing or lowering a sail
Reducing sail (reefing)
An important safety aspect of sailing is to adjust the amount of sail to suit the wind conditions. As the wind speed increases the crew should progressively reduce the amount of sail. On a small boat with only jib and mainsail this is done by furling the jib and by partially lowering the mainsail, a process called 'reefing the main'.
Reefing means reducing the area of a sail without actually changing it for a smaller sail. Ideally, reefing does not only result in a reduced sail area but also in a lower centre of effort from the sails, reducing the heeling moment and keeping the boat more upright.
There are three common methods of reefing the mainsail:
- Slab reefing, which involves lowering the sail by about one-quarter to one-third of its full length and tightening the lower part of the sail using an outhaul or a pre-loaded reef line through a cringle at the new clew, and hook through a cringle at the new tack.
- In-mast (or on-mast) roller-reefing. This method rolls the sail up around a vertical foil either inside a slot in the mast, or affixed to the outside of the mast. It requires a mainsail with either no battens, or newly developed vertical battens.
- In-boom roller-reefing, with a horizontal foil inside the boom. This method allows for standard- or full-length horizontal battens.
Mainsail furling systems have become increasingly popular on cruising yachts, as they can be operated shorthanded and from the cockpit, in most cases. However, the sail can become jammed in the mast or boom slot if not operated correctly. Mainsail furling is almost never used while racing because it results in a less efficient sail profile. The classical slab-reefing method is the most widely used. Mainsail furling has an additional disadvantage in that its complicated gear may somewhat increase weight aloft. However, as the size of the boat increases, the benefits of mainsail roller furling increase dramatically.
An old saying goes, “Once you’ve realised it’s time to reef, it’s too late.” A similar one says, "The time to reef is when you first think about it."
Hull trim is the adjustment of a boat's loading so as to change its fore-and-aft attitude in the water. In small boats, it is done by positioning the crew. In larger boats, the weight of a person has less effect on the hull trim, but it can be adjusted by shifting gear, fuel, water, or supplies. Different hull trim efforts are required for different kinds of boats and different conditions. Here are just a few examples: In a lightweight racing dinghy like a Thistle, the hull should be kept level, on its designed water line for best performance in all conditions. In many small boats, weight too far aft can cause drag by submerging the transom, especially in light to moderate winds. Weight too far forward can cause the bow to dig into the waves. In heavy winds, a boat with its bow too low may capsise by pitching forward over its bow (pitch-pole) or dive under the waves (submarine). On a run in heavy winds, the forces on the sails tend to drive a boat's bow down, so the crew weight is moved far aft.
When a ship or boat leans over to one side, from the action of waves or from the centrifugal force of a turn or under wind pressure or from the amount of exposed topsides, it is said to 'heel'. A sailing boat that is over-canvassed and therefore heeling excessively, may sail less efficiently. This is caused by factors such as wind gusts, crew ability, the point of sail, or hull size & design.
When a vessel is subject to a heeling force (such as wind pressure), vessel buoyancy & beam of the hull will counteract the heeling force. A weighted keel provides additional means to right the boat. In some high-performance racing yachts, water ballast or the angle of a canting keel can be changed to provide additional righting force to counteract heeling. The crew may move their personal weight to the high (upwind) side of the boat, this is called hiking, which also changes the centre of gravity & produces a righting lever to reduce the degree of heeling. Incidental benefits include faster vessel speed caused by more efficient action of the hull & sails. Other options to reduce heeling include reducing exposed sail area & efficiency of the sail setting & a variant of hiking called "trapezing". This can only be done if the vessel is designed for this, as in dinghy sailing. A sailor can (usually involuntarily) try turning upwind in gusts (it is known as rounding up). This can lead to difficulties in controlling the vessel if over-canvassed. Wind can be spilled from the sails by 'sheeting out', or loosening them. The number of sails, their size and shape can be altered. Raising the dinghy centreboard can reduce heeling by allowing more leeway.
The increasingly asymmetric underwater shape of the hull matching the increasing angle of heel may generate an increasing directional turning force into the wind. The sails' centre of effort will also increase this turning effect or force on the vessel's motion due to increasing lever effect with increased heeling which shows itself as increased human effort required to steer a straight course. Increased heeling reduces exposed sail area relative to the wind direction, so leading to an equilibrium state. As more heeling force causes more heel, weather helm may be experienced. This condition has a braking effect on the vessel but has the safety effect in that an excessively hard pressed boat will try and turn into the wind, therefore, reducing the forces on the sail. Small amounts (≤5 degrees) of weather helm are generally considered desirable because of the consequent aerofoil lift effect from the rudder. This aerofoil lift produces helpful motion to windward & the corollary of the reason why lee helm is dangerous. Lee helm, the opposite of weather helm, is generally considered to be dangerous because the vessel turns away from the wind when the helm is released, thus increasing forces on the sail at a time when the helmsperson is not in control.