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Tacking is the sailing manoeuvre used to change a boat’s direction through an oncoming wind. Tacking a sailing boat calls for the crew to work as a co-ordinated team and is one of the first sailing skills to learn.

When a sailing boat is heading in the direction that the wind is coming from, it has to sail a zig-zag course in order for the sails to work. This is known as beating to windward and the point of sail is referred to as close-hauled, where the boat is sailing as near as possible towards the wind.

Beating to windward

Beating to windward involves making a series of manoeuvres called tacks, where the boat changes course by turning through the wind, resulting in the sails moving from one side of the boat to the other. The aim is to tack the boat through the wind onto the new course while losing as little speed as possible, resulting in the boat making a zig-zag course towards its destination. This requires co-ordination by the crew, with the helm steering through the tack and other crew members operating the sheets (control lines).

Tacking manoeuvre

The procedure of tacking can involve two or three crew members and goes as follows:

  • The skipper or helm decides it is time to tack and alerts the crew.
  • One or two crew members are put in control of each jib sheet winch, depending on the size of the boat and number of crew available.
  • The skipper ensures that the new course is clear and everyone is ready.
  • The helm calls “ready about”. A crew member then puts two turns of the slack or “lazy” jib sheet around the winch (A) on its side of the cockpit and pulls in the slack. Another crew member uncleats the “working” jib sheet, keeping it tight on the winch (B).
  • The helm calls “lee-oh” and turns the boat towards the wind. As the headsail starts to flap the crew on the working sheet eases and releases the sheet from winch (B).
  • The boat continues to turn through wind and the jib blows across to the new side, flapping a little as it goes.
  • The crew on winch (A) then pulls in the new working sheet. The winch handle is inserted into the top of the winch, the crew winches in the sheet and the sail is trimmed for the new course.

Port and starboard tacks

If the wind blows over the left hand side of a sailing boat it is said to be on a port tack. This might appear a little confusing at first as a boat on port tack will be heading towards the right hand side of the desired course. In the same way, a boat on starboard tack will have the wind blowing over its right hand side and it will be heading towards the left hand side of its zig- zag course (see diagram above). 

Tip:

  • The terms “ready about” and “lee-oh” may sound strange commands to those not used to sailing, but in reality these instructions do help the crew to get co-ordinated and acting in unison. 
  • Sailing cockpits can feel very crowded places when a yacht is beating to windward and lots of instructions are being given. As the boat goes through each tack, the boom will swing across  and then the boat will heel over as the wind fills the sails and now blows from a different direction.

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