Finding the Wind's Direction - dummies

By J. J. Isler, Peter Isler

The world of sailing revolves around the wind. Your boat can’t go anywhere without wind (unless you fire up the engine, which, at this point, would be cheating).

But before you head out to sea, you need to keep safety in mind. Whether you’re an old salt or a beginning sailor, being safe on your boat is integral to enjoying the sport. Remember that no sailor should go out in conditions that exceed his or her ability. A beginner’s first sail should be in light to moderate wind conditions in protected waters. Furthermore, the best and safest way to start sailing is to take instruction from an experienced and qualified individual. As you grow in experience, you can expand your limits.

Assessing the wind’s direction is of utmost importance to a sailor. The wind’s direction is a sailor’s North Star, the center of his sailboat’s universe. Where he goes, how he trims his sails, whether the ride is wet or dry, fast or slow — all these depend on the wind and its direction.

The wind changes all the time, and your ability to accurately sense changes in the wind speed and direction is the single most valuable skill you bring aboard a sailboat. Increasing your sensitivity and awareness of the wind is the first step in becoming a sailor.

Feeling the wind

The best way to track the wind is simply to feel it. Your body, especially your face, can feel the exact direction of the wind if you just let it. Here’s how:

Close your eyes and turn your face until you think that the wind is blowing straight at you. Rotate your head back and forth slightly until you sense that the wind is blowing equally hard across each side of your face, and the “sound” of the wind is the same in each ear.

Practice “feeling” the wind whenever you can. The wind can keep shifting direction and strength. A key to sailing is staying aware of the wind’s changes.

Using other clues to find the wind

Besides feeling the wind, you can look around and see clues to the wind’s direction. A flag or wind vane on top of a mast can show the wind direction, and so can a flapping sail, which waves in the wind like a flag. On your own boat, short pieces of yarn or cassette tape tied to the shrouds, the wire rigging supporting the mast, can provide crucial information about the wind’s direction. Also look for sailboats under way or anchored boats that point at the wind (except in strong currents). Another way to see the wind direction is to look at the ripples on the water. Watch the movement of a darker patch of water caused by a puff of wind. Seagulls stand facing into the wind, and cows point their behinds into the wind — but unless you’re sailing next to a farm, this bit of trivia is probably useless.

After you gain more experience, you’re also able to assess the wind speed by looking at the water. For example, whitecaps generally begin to form on waves at 12 knots of wind speed. Being able to gauge the wind strength is important for safety, because beginning sailors should head for shore if the wind is above 12 knots (unless you have an instructor on board).

If you find yourself getting overwhelmed by which rope to pull and what to call a piece of equipment, relax and just feel the wind on your face. A sailor’s world revolves around the wind, and you’re becoming a sailor.