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Learning the Basics of Sailing
Learning the basics of sailing is easy, but becoming truly expert can take years. There’s always something more to learn, and once you catch the sailing bug you’ll want to learn it all.
For example, when you learn to sail the instructor will teach you how to use the “sheet” to trim (adjust) the sail; the sheet is the rope that pulls the sail in closer to the boat, or lets it out. The sheet that controls the mainsail is the mainsheet, the one tied to the jib, the jibsheet, etc. Adjusting the sheet correctly is 90% of sail trim, and you can spend your whole sailing life just tightening and easing the sheet.
But there’s really a lot more to sail trim than just the sheet—there’s halyard tension (the halyard is the rope, or sometimes wire, that hoists the sail), outhaul tension (the outhaul tightens the mainsail along its “foot,” or bottom, where it’s attached to the boom), traveler adjustment (the traveler is a track across the boat with a moveable slide on it that holds one end of the mainsheet), boom vang tension (the boom vang pulls the boom down to flatten the sail), and so on. Many boats have provisions for bending the mast while sailing to adjust the mainsail even further.
Each of these adjustments changes the shape of the sail, not its in-or-out position. On some points of sail—when beating (i.e. when the boat is sailing as much into the wind as it can), for example—it’s better to have the sail very flat, with little “draft,” or curvature; tightening the halyard, outhaul and vang will do this. Sometimes it’s better if the top of the sail twists relative to the bottom, to spill wind (or allow wind to escape from the sail) on a blustery day; do this by pulling the traveler in and easing the sheet to let the boom lift in hard puffs of wind. But on a calm day the sail should have little twist, which means increasing sheet tension and adjusting in-or-out position with the traveler.
And that’s just the mainsail! We haven’t started on the jib yet, nor set the spinnaker for downwind-sailing excitement. Who says sailing is easy? It’s hard, but in the best possible way. Even if you sail for 20, 30, 40 years or more, you’ll always keep learning, always keep improving, and never get bored. It’s a sport for a lifetime.