What Is Tacking In Sailing

When I started out on my sailing journey, I wondered what tacking a sailboat meant. On the web, I couldn’t find an all-in-one resource that could teach me everything I needed to know about this important maneuver. So, I have decided to write a useful guide on this topic to help you. 

So, what is tacking in sailing? Tacking or Coming About is a key sailing maneuver in which a sailor changes the direction of the bow of the vessel from one side of the wind to the other, in order to progress in the desired direction, generally in an upwind direction.

To grasp the concept thoroughly with all its technical terms and how to employ it, we need to dive a bit deeper into this topic. 

Tacking A Sailboat

If you wish to sail upwind, the logic, experience, and physics tell us that the sailboats cannot sail directly into the wind as the sail will not work. You will only experience a lift or forward force if you remain outside of No Sail Zone which is typically 45 degrees away from the direction of the wind. 

Image courtesy of ausseasailingschool.com.au

The No Sail Zone is indicated in the image above. To travel into the wind, the point of sailing you want to establish is called close-hauled.

That is approximately 40-45 degrees away from the direction of the wind. Typically in a Close-Hauled zone, all sails are pulled in hard and they are not flapping in this sailing angle.

Now that we know our point of sail for upwind sailing direction, let us talk about tacking. Tacking allows the sailboats to reach their desired destination upwind.

For instance, In order to sail from point A to point B upwind, (see above image) sailboats have to use tacking maneuver, that is, changing direction by turning back and forth in a zigzag fashion until destination reached.

Tacking from close-hauled to a close-hauled is turning the nose of the boat about 90 degrees.

When To Employ A Tack?

Tacking can be employed at any time from any upwind course but it is most often employed to change direction from one close-hauled course to the other, typically with the intention to sail into the wind. 

But if we want to discuss how often (when) do you need to tack, then the answer really depends on where you are sailing to and what type of vessel you are sailing on. 

If you are racing, then you want to be precise when exactly you should tack. You will have more flexibility if you are sailing vessels other than racing boats. 

Typically, you want to zigzag as close to the direct path to your destination as possible. So, you may find yourself tacking pretty regularly to reach your desired destination.

One thing though, we need to mention here is when you tack too often, you will lose some speed temporarily, so it is a good idea not to tack too soon.

Some Terms To Know

In this article, we will be using a few new terms which are specific to sailing and tacking, and we want to discuss those before we discuss anything else. 

  • Jib Sheets: These are ropes and lines to trim or “sheet” the jib.
  • Working sheet: These are jib sheets that are actively trimming the jib. They are tight on to the clue and pulls out and trims the jib sail.
  • Lazy sheet: These are jib sheets ropes that are unused momentarily.
  • Main sheet: Rope that is attached to the boom, and is used to control the mainsail.
  • Port: Left side of the sailboat. 
  • Starboard: Right side of the sailboat. 
  • Port Tack: If the wind hits the left side of the boat. It is a red color.
  • Starboard Tack: If the wind hits the right side of the sailboat.  It is a green color. 

What Are Port Tack And Starboard Tack?

We always talk about where the wind is coming from when sailing, so when the wind is coming from the port side and pushes the sails out to the right then we say: we are on a Port Tack. 

When the wind hits our sails from the Starboard side and it pushes the sails out to the left then we say: We are on a Starboard Tack.

Phrases Used When Tacking

To Initiate a successful tack one should know the phrases used by sailors. They use a set of phrases which have a particular meaning when tacking. Most of you are already familiar with these terms, for those of us who are not familiar, here they are:

Ready About: The one who is behind the steer signals the crew to be ready for tacking by calling out “Ready About”. When the crew gets this signal they prepare the sheets to pull on when the time comes. When the crew has prepared the lines and are ready to carry out the tacking maneuver, they respond “Ready”. 

In some cases, when the lines are tangled the crew will call “Wait or Not ready yet”

Helm to lee: In short, this means I am turning the boat. When the helmsman hears the confirmation that the crew is indeed ready, he shouts “Helm To Lee” to indicate that he is about to initiate the tacking maneuver followed by turning the steering either to portside or starboard side. 

Lee Ho: After turning to the right or left, the helmsman shouts one more time “Lee Ho”. This phrase basically means: Pull on the lines. 

At this point the boat has shifted 90 degrees to the other side so, it is time for the helmsman and the crew to move to the other side of the vessel.

How To Tack A Sailboat Properly in 10 Easy Steps

  1. The first step a helmsman must do is to check the surroundings is all clear.
  2. If it is clear, the helmsman shouts “Ready About”.
  3. The helmsman now waits for the crew to prepare for the sheets and lines for managing the sails.
  4. In the meantime he is estimating the lay line: This is a crucial step, not to be forgotten. Before turning the steering the helmsman looks and estimates where the boat is going be pointing after the tack, generally, if you sail upwind, it is 90 degrees to your left or right from where you are now. It is always helpful to use the landscape, other vessels, etc as a guide. 
  5. When the helmsman hears the confirmation “All clear” or “Ready” from the crew, he then shouts “Helm To Lee” or Hard Alee” to indicate that he is about to initiate the tacking maneuver followed by turning the steering either to portside or starboard side. 
  6. When the helmsman does the actual turn, it is always better to aim for turning slightly more than 90 degrees, rather than not enough turn where you will probably be facing the wind and will lose speed and momentum. You can always adjust back if you are far off from your lay line. 
  7. You can also use another method to estimate how far to turn and when to stop turning. It is when the wind starts blowing the jib to the lazy-sheet, that is the time to stop turning.
  8. At this point the wind will have switched sides, now it is blowing to the other side of the sails. This is the perfect time for the crew to move to the other side of the sailboat. This step is essential for the balance of the vessel. 
  9. As the sailboat is turning through the eye of the wind, there will be a moment when the bow of the sailboat will be facing the direct wind, the smaller sail (a.k.a the jib) and the mainsail both will be fluttering. Now is the perfect time to release the jib sheet in one go from the working sheet and start pulling in the line on the lazy sheet (now being working sheet) on the other side. The main sheet needs to be tightened in the center of the boat. 
  10. Once the sailboat has successfully performed a full tack, the vessel begins to pick up speed at approximately 90 degrees off from the original course. The helmsman keeps the tiller in the middle. The crew starts to trim and adjust the sail. 

Stalling In A Tack

If a tack is not performed properly as described above, sailboats will most likely encounter stalling. Stalling is mainly caused by sailboat’s lack of speed and momentum when turning and carrying out the tacking maneuver. 

Many factors can cause a sailboat to lose speed and momentum, here are a few: 

  • Sailboat didn’t have the speed, to begin with before initiating the tack. 
  • During tacking, turning the rudder too quick and sharply will act as a brake and causes the boat’s speed to reduce dramatically. 
  • Turning the vessel too slowly will also contribute to the lack of speed and momentum. 
  • If the working sheet is released slowly ahead of time that will cause the speed to drop down as well. See the 10 steps above how to do it properly. 
  • If the sails are not trimmed properly, the sailboat can lose its speed and momentum and its efficiency very fast.  

What Tacks Are Successful?

To employ the tacks successfully one must consider the following points:

  • The sailboat must have an adequate amount of momentum and speed to be able to carry itself through the whole tacking action. 
  • Avoid turning the vessel sharply as this will not only be dangerous but will also cause your boat to lose speed and land in stall position. 
  • Instead, ensure you turn the rudder about 33 degrees. This will not only give your boat with an easy and manageable turn but it will also allow the crew to control the jib sheet and mainsheet properly.  
  • Avoid overtightening the new windward sheet (the jib sheet) which used to be a leeward sheet, as this will make the sails flat and less efficient. 
  • It is better to have the wind fill the jib sail to create lift initially and once the boat has picked up speed and momentum after tacking then trim the jib sail properly.

Trimming The Sails During And After A Tack

A key component of a successful tack is no doubt trimming of the sails. Most of us spend a lot of efforts into pulling in the lines on the new side of the sail that we almost forget that it is very crucial to get this step right. 

As you are sailing into the wind (close-hauled), one of the most important maneuver to cruise efficiently and at the same time to keep your momentum and speed high would be proper trimming.

Trimming The Jib

It is crucial to trim the jib before the mainsail.  Because having a well-trimmed jib sail will have a tremendous effect on the main trim behind, so you want to get it trimmed properly at any cost first. 

As the primary control on a sailboat is the jib sheet, I would like to have marks on the jib sheet so that I have a valid basis to work with and return to when I either tack or when the wind shifts in speed. 

Adjusting The Jib Car

The other main control would be the jib car and on most vessels, you can shift it back and forth on the track. In light winds, it is advisable to have the car further forward while in stronger airs it is most efficient to have the car further back in order to spill the top of the sail.

You can use the taletails to judge where to have the car, it is best to have all three of them breaking at the same time. 

Adjusting The Halyard

Additionally, the halyard is the other control mechanism that needs your attention when sailing upwind. In order to control halyard properly you want to have it tighter in stronger winds and also the backstay needs to be tighter in stronger winds to flatten the sail. 

Trimming The Mainsail

When we want to trim our mainsheet and the traveler on the mainsheet we actually focus at the twist in the leech of the main. An accurate guide for that would be to look at the top of telltales on the leech of the main, and get that top telltale flying approximately 50% to 80% of the time.

In some instances it will not fly properly, then you want to ease the mainsheet slightly. 

One of the main tasks of the traveler is controlling the angle of the boom to the centerline. So, use the traveler to position the boom relative to the centerline. Use the mainsheet to control twist in the top of the sail. 

As the wind increases, it is best to ease the traveler to keep the sailboat balanced at the right angle of heel and with correct. You may also be tightening the mainsheet when the wind increases.


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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