How To Sail Dinghies Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How To Sail Dinghies

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Dinghy sailing into the sun.

This Entry should tell you everything you need to know about how to sail a dinghy, or sailboat.

Getting Started

Now, it may be tempting to just rush out there and grab the closest boat to you and try and sail off into your own fantasy world. That's the only place you will be heading to if that's what you do though.

To start with you need to choose your boat, or dinghy, as they can be called. It should be well within your weight and power range (you don't want one so strong it goes where it wants, or one so light it rides a few centimetres above the waterline), and it should contain all the things you'll need, as follows:

Boat Parts


  • Hull (pretty vital really, this is where you and everything goes. Without it you have no boat)
  • Mast (holds the sail on)
  • Main Sail (the main driving force of your dinghy)
  • Boom (this connects to your mast, and holds the sail in place)
  • Rudder and Tiller (the rudder steers you where you want to go, or often where it wants to go, and the tiller lets you control the rudder)
  • Dagger board (makes the boat travel in a straight line, no matter what way the wind goes)
  • Rigging Ropes (includes the mainsheet, which is the sail positioner, the painter to tie your boat up and other ropes that are needed for specialist parts of the boat)

Optional Extras (boat dependant)

  • Jib (a mini sail for extra oomph)
  • Trapeze (lets you dangle off the edge of the boat, and makes it easier to balance out at higher speeds)
  • Spinnaker (the beast of a sail, for downwind rushes)

What You Need

There are several things you need to have before you hit the open water:

  • 'Wet' clothes1 (could be old clothes, or a wetsuit)
  • Shoes (you don't want the fibreglass or wood of your boat splintering and getting into your feet)
  • Gloves (good for gripping ropes, wet sails, and on to dear life)
  • Buoyancy aid or life-jacket (you MUST ALWAYS have this before you get anywhere near the water in your dinghy, it could save your life. It is also a legal requirement in many places)

What You Need To Know About Sailing

There are several things to know before you get near the water.

First is how to sit in the boat; you need to always sit on the edge of the boat on the opposite side of the sail, this will allow you to keep the boat balanced more easily.

Then it's how to 'tack'; tacking is an essential skill for sailing. It is how you change the direction of your dinghy, across the direction of the wind. To tack, you first put your back foot on the other side of the boat, then push the tiller away from you. As the boat turns, you pivot on your back foot to turn onto your other side. At this point it's personal preference how you do this. You can either change which hand your tiller is in as you turn, or wait until you are at the other side, then switch by tucking the tiller under your arm and passing it to your opposite hand, as the tiller should always be in the hand closest to the back of the boat. As you move over to the other side of the boat, you will need to duck your head and shoulders because the boom will flip over. This also means you need to hold onto the mainsheet to stop the sail from getting away.

The next thing to know is 'gybing'; this is like a tack, but fast and the other way. To gybe, all you need to do is the same as the tack but instead of pushing the tiller away from you, pull it in towards you. This means instead of turning your dinghy into the wind, you turn away from it.

Be Warned
– this makes the boom come over faster, so it might be best to stick to tacking until you feel confident enough to perform a gybe.

All of these are best practiced on land, with your boat on a trailer or grass.

Launching and Returning

So you've learnt what to do, now how do you get out there and do it?

Launching from a Beach

When you launch from a beach, you should start with the rudder a little bit in the water and dagger board resting on, but not hitting the floor. You need to push the dinghy off the beach and into the water, then hop in. If there are two of you, one should sit in the boat ready to get everything ready, as you push off jump in get your sail ready and sail off, when you're deeper put the rudder in all the way and push the dagger board down too.

Returning to a Beach

This is best to attempt once you've got some experience. Take it slow, – real slow  – you need to come in slow and, if possible, diagonal to the beach. As you come in, lift the dagger board up and raise the rudder so it is just in the water. Then, as you get in the shallows, hop out, grab the side and stop.

Launching from a Pontoon

Launching from a pontoon is pretty easy. You simply push off – making sure you've untied any ropes attached to the pontoon – and then turn the dinghy away using the tiller, adjusting your sail to suit the wind direction.

Returning to a Pontoon

This gets a little harder. To start with, you need to know the direction of the wind. As you approach the pontoon you need to slow, so this means either letting the sail out if heading upwind, or pulling it in if going downwind. Then, as you approach the pontoon, turn into it and face into the wind. Let the sail flap, this will slow you down and you can land safely on the pontoon.

The 'On The Water' Theory

When sailing, there are many things you need to be aware of, but first and foremost is where you are, and where the wind is. Which way the wind is coming from relative to you decides where your sail should be for maximum efficiency. You CANNOT, repeat CANNOT sail more than 45 degrees into the wind. The sail and boom will just flap about, and you will be hit in the head by them. It hurts. Instead, you remember to sail at no point beyond 45 degrees east of the direction of the wind (as long as you take the wind direction to be north), and between there and 45 degrees west of the wind direction.

It is also important to know how your boat should sit in the water. It may be incredible fun for it to start to tip over, but you only ever go top speed if your boat is flat. Lean out (using the trapeze if you have one) of the dinghy to balance it and keep it flat, but make sure your feet are under the foot straps or you will just fall out.

You also need to know the highway code of the waters. The only rule you really need to know is who has right of way when facing another boat heading in the same direction. The order of giving way is as follows (the boats that generally never have to give way at top):

  • Tankers, cruise liners, battleships, aircraft carriers, lighthouses, etc.
  • Smaller boats, luxury yachts, personal boats (although if more manoeuvrable than a dinghy, they must move)
  • Dinghies
  • Powerboats, jet skis, etc. (they move easier than dinghies, have no wind restrictions, and can reverse quicker)

Giving Way Between Dinghies

When two dinghies approach each other, there is a code you must stick to. The boat that when tacks, turns to starboard (the right hand-side) has the right of way at all times. For this to be known, both sailors must shout what tack they are on – if on a starboard tack shout STARBOARD!, and vice–versa – so the boat on the port (left hand-side) tack must take evasive action, as the boat on starboard tack always has right of way.

Rigging Your Boat

Rigging is all about putting the ropes of your boat in the right place. There's not much to say here, other than you should follow the instructions in the book that came with your dinghy, or ask an experienced person to give you a hand. When rigging, make sure loose items are tied down. One good tip though; the dagger board could do with a relatively long rope to allow it to be easily retrieved if it falls out.

Now You're On The Water

Okay, you're sitting on the opposite side of the boat than the sail, with your feet under the toe straps and one hand on the tiller. You push off from the jetty, or from the beach, and you're away – sailing.

So what do you do now?

You're out on the water. You've read the theory, but can you sail? Well, maybe, but there's a high chance you're like anybody else and will capsize within 20 seconds of hitting the water. So you need to know what to do while on the water.

The sail may be flapping. This means you will not go anywhere, so pull in the mainsheet (the rope) until it stops flapping. Not really far in, the most power comes from the point just before the sail starts to flap, but is still flat. Now, try to change direction with the tiller, then practice a few of those 'tacks'. When you're confident enough, maybe try a gybe or two.

But most of all, have a good time!


Splash! The boat is on its side and you're in the water. What do you do? First, Don't Panic! Second, make sure you're not caught up in a rope or anything else, like the sail, seaweed, or a shark/octopus. Third, grab a part of the boat (a rope is a one good thing to go for), then make your way round to the underside of the boat to the dagger board – always holding on to at least one part of the boat. When at the dagger board, hold onto it and pull down. This should put the boat upright, but don't lie on it! Some boats come over fast, and you don't want to be trapped underneath. If that doesn't work, wait for some help from other sailors2, or try again in a bit. When the boat is back upright, you just need to grab the toe strap and pull yourself in. Sort yourself out, and you're soon ready to sail off again, just a bit wetter!

The Dreaded 'Turtle'

This can be your worst nightmare, the capsize extreme, when the boat capsizes then keeps going and is upside-down, looking like a turtle in the water. To right yourself, all you need to do is follow the same steps as the capsize, or it could get worse. Often a turtle can lead to your dagger board ending up falling out, and you need this as you climb onto the hull and pull. If you lose the dagger board wait for someone to provide help. Another good idea is to have a flotation device on the mast. Some boats come with them pre–attached to the top, or there are ones you can tie on. These will keep the dinghy on its side for an easier capsize recovery.

The Dry Capsize

Some will call this 'the capsize for wimps', but that's really because they can't do it. The theory is, when the boat is going over you clamber over the high edge and lean on the dagger board from above. As the boat flips back over, you hop back over the top and stay dry. Well, that's the theory – in practice...

Good Luck Out There!

1Not clothes that are already wet, but clothes that you can get wet in.2While it may be an idea to head out with a power boat nearby, you can easily sail with a couple of others in your dinghy, as long as it will hold them. There is safety in numbers, and if you're all in the same boat, you can get some good sailing going on.

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