Sailboat Heeling Explained In Simple Terms (For Beginners)

If you are new to sailing, then there are many sailing-related terminologies that you will need to learn.

One of those terms is ‘heeling.’ In this article, we will explain what sailboat heeling is and how to control your sailboat when it heels over.

Here is What “Heeling” in Sailing Means:

Heeling is the term used for when a sailboat leans over to either side (port or starboard) in the water by the excess force of the wind. Heeling is normal and counterbalanced by the sailboat’s keel or the crew’s weight distribution on a dinghy.

What Exactly Makes A Sailboat Heel?

All sailboats are designed to heel, but a sailboat heels over when there is too much wind in the sails, forcing the boat to lean over and lose the harnessed wind power to move it forward.

As a boat heels, the wind pressure on the sails decreases because the sails present a smaller area and less resistance to the wind. The further the boat heels (or leans over), the less pressure.

In addition, boats with a keel have lots of ballast, or weight, to keep them upright in all but the strongest of wind or hurricane conditions. All sailboats will heel or lean over in strong winds, sometimes so far that the rail will dip into the water, and waves will wash onto the deck.

Heeling is simply a part of sailing, and many sailors enjoy it, especially when racing.

How Do I Keep My Sailboat From Heeling?

While all sailboats are designed to heel, sailors can use various techniques to reduce the amount of the angle of the heeling.

These techniques include the following:

Feathering Upwind – 

One of the quickest and easiest techniques a skipper can do in a strong gust of wind is to steer the boat a bit more into the direction of where the wind is coming.

This is called feathering upwind. Doing this releases or spills the wind out of the sails and decreases the wind’s pressure on the sails. This will cause the sails to flap and make a lot of noise (called luffing).

Luffing the sails too much can cause damage to the sails, so this technique is a temporary quick fix and not a long-term solution.

Easing the Mainsheet or the Traveler – 

Another quick technique is to change the angle of the mainsail so that it releases more wind and eases the pressure on the sail.

You can do this by letting out the main sheet (easing the mainsheet) or releasing or easing the traveler control sheet. Both methods will change the angle of the mainsail, releasing the wind pressure and causing your boat to sail more upright.

After a strong gust of wind has passed, you will be able to pull in the mainsail again quickly, to carry on sailing on course.

Reefing the Sails – 

Reefing the sails is a technique used to see or feel that the wind is building or getting stronger. Reefing entails making your sail area smaller, which will work differently on different boats depending on the boat’s set-up.

Reefing the headsail or jib will depend on whether the sailboat has a roller furler or hank on sails. If the boat has hank on sails, you will need to change the headsail to a smaller sail or even a storm jib. Today, most sailboats are equipped with a roller furling headsail, making the headsail sail area smaller.

You can ease the headsail sheet and pull on the roller furler out hauler to roll in the sail a couple of times. This is the equivalent of changing to a smaller sail.

Reefing the mainsail is a little more complicated. Mainsails generally have 2 – 3 reefing points which are stitched in when the sails are made.

The mainsail will need to be partially dropped to access these reefing points, but first, you will need to turn the boat to face the oncoming wind to take the pressure off the sail.

Once you have partially dropped the mainsail, you will need to hook in the reefing point at the mast, haul in the corresponding reefing line, and then retain the main halyard, which is the rope that holds up the mainsail.

How Much Should A Sailboat Heel?

Every sailboat is different, so the exact heel angle for each sailboat will differ.

However, the answer is probably somewhere between 15 and 25 degrees for a comfortable ride in real terms. Thirty degrees is considered the maximum heel for a keel sailboat, depending on the boat’s specific build, design, and characteristics.

Multihulls or catamarans need to be sailed at minimal heel angles; otherwise, they risk capsizing.

But practically, there is a much simpler way to know when your boat is heeling over too far. If you have to fight the steering, otherwise known as the helm, you are heeling too far, and you will need to adjust your sails or course concerning the wind.

How Much Heel Is Too Much?

Similarly, how much heel is too much will also depend on the type of sailing you do. Long-distance cruising, where your boat is your home, will typically involve less heeling than a racing monohull rounding the cans.

However, the amount a sailboat should heel is not opinion. All sailboats are designed to sail at a specified angle of heel. Each sailboat design is for a specific purpose, whether racing, cruising, or somewhere in between, and at their optimum heel angle, there is a minimum wet surface on the boat.

The sails are at a maximum exposure to the wind. When you are sailing and are not at the desired angle, the sailboat is not performing at its full potential.

In addition, if your boat is heeling too much, the boat will become difficult to steer and will slow down. So it’s better to make the necessary adjustments to make yourself and your crew more comfortable and go that little bit faster!

How Far Can A Sailboat Heel Before Capsizing?

For the sake of this article, when we refer to sailboats, we are referring to sailboats with keels and heeling.

Unlike small sailing dinghies, sailboats are designed to heel over without capsizing.

A sailboat is designed to comfortably heel at a certain angle, usually between 15 – 25 degrees. Heeling over more than this is uncomfortable and slows the boat down.

Generally, sailboats with keels can not tip over or capsize under normal sailing conditions. This is because of the weight in the keel. The weight of the keel has been designed to counterbalance the force of the wind in the sails. Plus, the more a boat heels over, the less pressure there is in the sails, and the keel will bring the boat to face into the wind where there is less pressure on the boat overall.

However, this does not mean a sailboat cannot capsize. There are stories of sailboats being knocked down in big waves and strong winds, but this is often temporary as the sailboat will often self-right or come upright by itself.

Extreme conditions such as gale-force winds combined with big seas, too much sail out, and waves crashing over the boat and flooding the cockpit may all combine to capsize a sailboat.


Learning to Sail: Heeling Over

How To Reef A Sail – A Beginners Guide

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