A Powerboater’s Guide to Understanding Sailboats

There are numerous exceptions in the USGC “Navigation Rules”, which you should read. But generally speaking…sailboats underway have the right-of-way over powerboats underway. Power vessels under 20 meters are obligated to keep clear, unless the sailboat is under power. So if you find if frustrating to stay clear of sailboats, it would be helpful to understand some basic sailing theory, and why sailboats do what they do. With some basic understanding, you may be able to anticipate traffic conflicts before they happen, and have a more pleasant boating experience. Let’s start with some of the differences.

Modern sailboats are very maneuverable, but there are no brakes, no throttle, and they cannot be steered unless they are moving through the water. Every move must be planned with constant adjustment and compensation for the wind. Sailing requires far greater skill than driving a powerboat. It is an art that requires patience and a long time to master. The biggest limiting factor is that a boat cannot sail directly into the wind. Much of the time, sailboats cannot sail directly where they want to go, in order to avoid you.

A sailboat pointed dead into the wind is said to be “in irons”, and will come to a complete stop, if not stopped already. Once stopped, the rudder is no longer effective, and the boat is essentially out of control. So, if you see a boat stopped with sails flogging, stay well clear! (Some of these sailors leave their fenders out, as a warning to other boaters to stay away!)

The closest sailing angle is 45 degrees off the wind, to the left or right. That means, if you face the wind, you can sail 45 degrees to the right, or 45 to the left. There is a full 90-degree “dead area” that you cannot sail in to! If your destination is directly “upwind”, you must “tack” up the bay in a zig-zag pattern. You sail at the 45-degree angle for as long as you can, then “tack” or “come about”, turning through the 90-degree “dead zone”, and set sail again on a perpendicular course.

So, the reason that pesky sailboat is zig-zagging across the channel is not because he is an idiot, it is because the wind is blowing straight down the channel, and he is forced to sail at the 45-degree angle! When he runs out of sea-room close to shore, he will have to make a 90-degree turn, through the eye of the wind, onto the 45-degree angle on the other side. The jib is released from one side and pulled in on the other, in a coordinated effort by skipper and crew. Tacking is a routine maneuver, but is a fair amount of work; so sailors never do it unless they have to.

So, the next time you see a sailboat ahead of you that is sailing diagonally from the traffic pattern, it is likely that he is tacking upwind. If you see that he is about to run out of sea-room, you can anticipate that the sailboat is going to “tack” very soon…so don’t be surprised and be forced to make drastic moves. Slow down or alter course early to minimize any course conflicts. Or at the least, be on your guard. That sailboat that is going diagonally toward the rocks is going to make a 90 degree turn sooner or later…which may be right across your intended path.

As a sailor, be considerate and give powerboats plenty of time to stay clear. Try to avoid suddenly tacking in front of an unsuspecting powerboat and expect them to dodge out of your way. If time permits, waving or hailing the other boat in advance may help in some cases. Often potential conflicts can be resolved by simply tacking a little earlier or later than you would prefer, or sailing a little above or below your proper course, allowing the other boat to pass. Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. Even though you may have the right-of-way, do what you can to be courteous. And don’t forget a friendly “thank you” wave to skippers that yield to you. Remember that we all have the same right to share the waterways. Courtesy and goodwill can go a long way toward making everyone have a great day on the water.