Sailing is not a science that can be practiced with precision. It is an art, or at the least a craft, with its own medium. As an artist uses and understands light, you must understand the wind. It is the sailor’s medium. In the beginning you need only know from where and how strong the wind is blowing. Without this you’ll go nowhere. Literally. But the essence of sailing lies not just in reacting to wind; if you would be a sailor you must learn to read the wind and foretell what it will bring. It is a rare ability in the 21st century, but our marine forebears acquired a deep knowledge of the winds, and for good reason. Their lives depended on it. You will find some of this lore in this blog post. To acquire a wind sense learn these few facts, and then start using your own natural abilities. There is an old Irish saying that man’s best friends and worse enemies are fire, rain, and wind. We can’t deny that wind possesses its share of riddles, but the better you understand the laws that govern it, the less a mystery the wind will be when you are on the water.
By convention, winds are named for the quarter from which they blow. A wind blowing from the north toward the south is a north wind. But the wind’s direction is never steady, and as you sail you’ll need to keep track of what it is doing. Clues to the winds are always around you. Waves are sculpted and pushed along by the wind, but only the ripples on the surface will show the wind’s direction. Larger waves and swells may have been generated hours or days ago by distant forces. Cat’s-paws— delicate, rapidly moving ripples that crest at right angles to the wind and chase it along the surface– reveal the direction of an approaching gust.
Look for leaves, sand, or anything that can be blown. Boats at anchor or on moorings can give clues, for they will swing to point into the wind unless otherwise influenced by currents. Light shallow boats are the best indicators. Curiously, the sky is the last place to look, the movement of high clouds having little to do with the wind down here at the bottom of the atmosphere. Make your own indicators on the boat. Install a flag or specially made windvane (better for light winds) at the top of the mast. Tie telltales (made from yarn) to the shrouds as high up as possible.
You are your own best indicator. Face the wind’s general direction and turn your head slowly from side to side, noting the changing sensations on your skin and hair. There will be a difference in pressure, and temperature from evaporation, on each cheek until you are facing squarely into the breeze. Use your ears too. Even the slightest draft creates turbulence. Keep turning until the sound is the same in both. If you practice sensing the wind on land as well as on the water, it will become second nature in a very short time.
Words of the Wind
- Up/Down: A sailor’s world is divided into two halves: everything toward the wind and everything away from it. You face upwind by looking into the wind, and downwind by turning your back to it. Sailors shortened this to up or down. If you were told to “bring her up,” you would turn toward the wind; “take her down” means to turn away.
- Windward/Leeward: This is another way of saying up or down. Anything upwind of you is to windward, anything downwind is to leeward, which is often pronounced “loo’ard” by some tradition-minded sailors.
- Weather/Lee: Anything upwind of you is prefaced by the word weather. A weather shore gives protection from the wind, but the weather side of a boat is exposed to it. Anything downwind of you is prefaced by the word lee. A gale can blow you onto a lee shore, and you can get out of the wind by anchoring in the lee of a bold shore.
- On/Off: Sailing on the wind means your course is in a windward direction, and you are either close-hauled or on a close reach. Sailing off the wind means you are headed in a leeward direction, and you are on a beam reach, broad reach, or running with the wind.
Source: Seidman, D. (1995). The complete sailor: Learning the art of sailing. Camden, Me.: International Marine.