How Do Sailboats Work Without Wind?

You’ve been watching the weather forecast all week. When you woke this morning and looked outside, the day is as gorgeous as the weather predictors had promised. It looks like a perfect day to be on the water! But what do you do when the air isn’t moving – and there seems to be no wind to fill your sails?

How do sailboats work without wind? If there isn’t enough wind to move your boat in the direction you want to sail, here are six ways you can get yourself sailing:

  1. Use your motor.
  2. Pump your rudder.
  3. Use a fan.
  4. Row your boat
  5. Use the physics of weight distribution. 
  6. Be patient, relax, and enjoy the moment.

People love to debate this topic. Some even begin with, “There’s no such thing as ‘no wind.’” Be that as it may, there will be time when you need to know how to keep your sailboat sailing when there is little to no wind to cruise by.

Six Tips For Sailing Without Wind

  1. Use your motor: The first tactic is one of the easiest and most obvious. Granted, you wanted to go sailing today, not boating, but you’ll need to use your motor some to get to a place on the water where you can either:
  • Find some wind, or
  • Use the wind you manufacture with the motion created by the motor to fill your light-weight cruising sail.

2. Pump your rudder: If you move your rudder back and forth, you will create movement which will, once again, manufacture wind your cruising sail can capture.

3. Use a fan: Some feel that using a fan similar to those used on swamp boats can be helpful. The key to this approach, however, is to point the fan away from the sails.

It seems counterintuitive but blowing the fan into the sails will actually create a circular wind motion that will blow the wind back out of the sails again.

4. Row your boat: This option will only work if you have a smaller sailboat. It’s also exhausting. But… using your oars is an option.

5. Use the physics of weight distribution: If you move everyone to the front of the boat to nudge the bow down and raise the stern some, the water’s current may generate enough wind to make your cruising sail more effective.

6. Be patient, relax, and enjoy the moment: If your overall goal was to be on the water, pop open a beverage, make a snack, and enjoy the time.

You may choose to leave your cruising sail up to catch that elusive breeze when it decides to grace you with its presence. You may also choose to lower your sail and drop anchor. Either way, you have a chance to enjoy the beauty around you.

Now that you’re picturing yourself being the captain of your own destiny on the pristine waters of the world let’s look a little more closely at some sailing terms relating to wind and how they correlate to these options.

Wind by Any Other Name…

Just as you would never refer to a cruise ship as a boat, it’s important to know the correct nautical terms for how the wind blows. Since this article is focused on having no wind, we’ll start there.

1. Becalmed

When you’re on the water, and suddenly your sails deflate, you are becalmed. defines becalmed as “to keep motionless by lack of wind.”

In the sailing race industry, this is a strategy that some opponents use to render the other competitor momentarily ineffective. If one boat passes very closely to another, it may render the original sailboat’s sails useless.

The saying, “To take the wind out of someone’s sails,” comes from the use of this strategy.

More often than not, becalmed is used to describe a vessel’s predicament on open water outside of racing circles when there isn’t enough wind to fill the sails and move the sailboat.

2. Easterly and Westerly

It may seem obvious, but these terms are often confused for each other. A wind is an easterly when it is from the east. It follows, then, that a westerly wind is from the west.

3. Offshore and Onshore

These winds follow the same rule as easterly and westerly. If the wind is blowing off of the shore out to sea, it is offshore wind. The shore off which these winds blow are called windward shores.

Conversely, if the wind is blowing from the sea toward the shore, it is onshore wind. The shore onto which the onshore wind is blowing is called the lee shore.

Caution is key when sailing toward a lee shore in an onshore wind as unexpected changes can cause you to run aground. Because of this, it is preferable to sail to a windward shore to allow you better sail management.

4. True Wind and Apparent Wind

When you are standing still on the shore, and you feel an easterly wind blowing, you are experiencing true wind.

As soon as you start moving, however, you are experiencing apparent wind. Apparent Wind is the result of True Wind plus the wind created by motion. When you are on your sailboat, you will only experience apparent wind because if there is true wind, it will cause your boat to move thereby creating apparent wind.

5. Knots

Nautical wind speed. When we’re onshore, we talk about wind in miles per hour. On the water (and in aviation), though, wind is discussed in terms of knots (abbreviated as kn).

One knot is generally the equivalent measure of one statue mile per hour times 1.15.

Knots are used because they correlate directly to the latitude measurement system. To travel one knot, a ship moves one minute of latitude. Navigational directions are given in latitude and longitude, and the knot system ties back to that process.

How Much True Wind Is Needed for My Sailboat to Move?

Some experienced sailors suggest that as little true wind as .02 knots will move your boat forward and that six knots make for near-perfect conditions.

Below is a general rule of thumb of wind-speed breakdowns for various conditions from experienced sailors.

Minimum Knot Speed Maximum Knot Speed Result
3 5 A slow stroll along the surface of the water – this speed may even test your patience.
5 8 Gives you a leisurely float along the water
8 12 Enjoyable stress-free sailing
12 18 Dancing with the waves
18 24 Moving along at a fast pace
Requires advanced skills and increases the possibility of damage and equipment failure. Bottom line… high winds are dangerous sailing weather for recreational sailors.

11 Differences of Sailing on a Lake vs. an Ocean

Sailing is sailing – right? Wrong.

Sailing on a lake is very different than sailing on the open ocean. Let’s discuss some of those basic differences.

Note: Lake references exclude The Great Lakes – they are more like ocean sailing than general lake sailing.

1. Navigation Planning

It may seem obvious, but a trip on the lake, or even along the shore, doesn’t usually require an advanced trip plan outside of making sure you have enough gas for your motor, should you have to use it, and having some freshwater and snacks.

Ocean travel, however, means that you need to plan your general route, review wind, weather, and tide forecasts several days out, and stock up.

Most things are digital these days, but there is still value in having up-to-date paper maps displaying general ocean topography and depths.

2. Traffic

Even on very large lakes and close to coastlines, the number of boats is significantly more than you would experience on the open ocean. This usually translates to having to be more aware of the boats on the water and making sure you know and adhere to the rules of the water.

3. Wind Gusts

Gusts are a result of wind disruption created by various topography changes on land. That means that wind gusts are more likely to happen on lakes than on the ocean.

4. Waves Sizes

Ocean waves will be much larger than lake waves. This is because the ocean experiences full tides, and there isn’t anything in the open water to keep the wind from creating the waves, whereas the lake is somewhat protected.

5. Wave Frequency

You will probably experience larger waves on the open ocean but will experience more frequent waves in lakes or near the shoreline. The surface wind will create more frequent waves on shallower water than the larger waves created when at sea.

6. Boat Roll

It may seem counterintuitive, but you will experience more boat roll on the ocean than you will on the lake or when shore sailing.

Waves on lakes, and during shore sailing, tend to create a choppy experience. However, there are constant swells deep-sea sailing, which allows for that wonderful lulling experience and sensation.

7. Knowing Your Boat

When you’re sailing on a lake or even shore sailing, you need to understand your boat, but chances are pretty strong that if something goes wrong, someone else will be around to help you or to tow you back to the marina.

When you’re in the middle of the ocean, you need to be prepared to conduct any necessary repairs yourself. In addition to having a thorough understanding of the mechanics of your sailboat, you also need to be prepared with various spare parts recognizing you have limited storage space.

8. On-Boat Amenities

You wouldn’t necessarily have a lake sailboat that would be the same size as the one you’re going to take to the open ocean waters.

Sure, the basics will all be there, but a weekend lake boat may not have a full galley or even a head (restroom). These are necessities, not nice-to-haves for longer ocean trips.

9. Available Edible Marine Life

When you’re sailing on a lake, you may be able to catch fresh trout, bass, crappie, and catfish.

Deep-sea fishing may yield opportunities for some wonderful tuna, mahi-mahi, mackerel, and even shellfish.

10. Tying Up at the Dock

Lake levels don’t tend to rise and fall, so it is common to tie closer and tighter to the dock.

Because of the fluctuation of water levels with the tides, experienced sailors leave slack in their lines recognizing that water levels will change up and down.

11. Safety Precautions

Regardless of where you’re sailing, life jackets should be available for all people on the boat.

On the surface, it may seem that it would be an unnecessary “inconvenience” when you’re on your local lake, but even on the lake, storms can come up quickly – even unexpectedly.

The additional safety item that is an absolute must for ocean sailing is a jackline. The jackline is a line that runs from the bow to the stern of the boat to which the crewmember attaches himself via a clip attached to his safety harness to keep him from falling overboard in harsh conditions.

Learning to Read the Wind

It’s impossible to be an effective sailor if you don’t understand how to interpret wind changes – particularly in direction and speed. These two dynamics affect how you use your sails, and which sails you use.

To be able to accurately read the wind, there are expensive electronic devices available that are or can be incorporated into your boat’s navigation system.

If you are lake sailing in a smaller boat, you may not want to invest in an expensive navigation and weather system. You might want to consider the following options:

  • Flying a small flag. Some say you can even use strands of yarn on the shrouds to help you determine wind direction – make sure that you make your wind direction readings from the windward side, so the sail doesn’t affect the way the flag acts in the wind.
  • Watch how the wind is impacting the water. Are there ripples (cat’s paws) on the water that used to be really smooth? Does the water all of a sudden seem darker than it used to? If it does, it’s because the wind is changing the water’s texture, but it’s farther off than you can see any ripple effects.
  • Use a small hand-held wind meter. A reasonable option is the Kestrel 1000. Reliable hand-held wind meters can range anywhere from about $100 to about $600. How much you’re going to spend all depends on how techie and gadget addicted you want to be.

Basic Terms You Should Know About Your Sailboat

You’re getting more and more excited about getting out on the water. While you’re looking for a local school so you can get certified and are able to legally sail your boat, here are some general terms you’ll want to know:

  • Lines – Your sailboat doesn’t have ropes – it has lines. As you learn more about your boat, you will learn that there are different lines for various purposes.

  • Knots – In addition to referring to speed, there are also several maritime knots you need to be able to tie effectively. Among the basic sailing knots are the:
  • Bowline Knot – used when controlling the side-to-side motion of the boat while approaching the dock.
  • Cleat Hitch Knot – used when tying to the dock.
  • Weaver’s Knot – used when extending anchor lines and repairing sails.
  • Square Knot – many of us learned this knot as a child. In sailing, it is used to secure ropes together – often when putting a sail cover over a sail.
  • Trucker’s Knot – used to make sure that items on deck are secure.
  • Figure Eight Knot – used to connect two lines together to prevent one from slipping out of sight.
  • Port, Starboard, Bow, and Stern – These are the different areas of your boat. The bow is the front; the stern is the back. Port is the left side when you are facing toward the bow. Starboard is on the right side while you’re facing the bow. The easiest way to keep port and starboard straight is that port has four letters – so does left.
  • Tack and Jibe – Like knot, tack is also used in two different ways. The first means to change direction by turning the bow through the wind. The second usage is the course you’re on in relation to the wind. Jibing, on the other hand, is when you turn the stern of the boat through the wind.

  • Mainsail and Jib – Both are sails. The mainsail is the largest and most important sail attached to the mast and the boom. The jib is forward of the mainsail and doesn’t have a boom.

In Conclusion

As you are learning more about the process of sailing, you will undoubtedly become more and more excited with each step you take toward overall certification.

One of the best pieces of wisdom offered by seasoned sailors is that sailing is a cumulative experience of proficiency and patience. 


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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