What Is Sailing “Close-Hauled?” (Explained For Beginners)

Sailing is filled with colorful and evocative terminology.

Some of it is self-explanatory, but other terms might leave a non-sailor scratching their head if not explained to them.

One of those terms is “close-hauled.”

Here’s What Close-Hauled Means:

Close-hauled is part of sailing to windward, a point of sail. It is the most upwind angle that your boat will point under sail, with your sails trimmed in as far as they will go and flattened. The sails act as a wing, with pressure difference on both sides of the sails and lifting the boat.

What Do People Mean by “Sailing Close-Hauled”?

When you are sailing close-hauled, you are as close to the wind as you can get.

While if you are beating to windward, you do not necessarily have to get close-hauled, but it is something that racers must do to make the best gains on their competition.

As with many nautical terms, the origins are a bit in dispute, with several competing stories about how the term came about, but most sailors and nautical historians agree that it has its origins in being as close to the wind as possible, with your sails hauled in as far as they can be.

Some confusion exists because of its similarity to another term, keel-hauled, a severe punishment that may kill a sailor, but there is no connection between the two terms.

The point of being close-hauled differs for each particular sailboat. Narrower boats will point closer to the wind than wider boats.

Some rigs, like lateen-rigged boats, will not allow the boat to get as close to the wind and perform poorly when close-hauled.

Larger, more powerful catamarans, like recent America’s Cup boats, can go so fast that they feel that they are traveling close-hauled most of the time.

In some conditions, they sail faster than the wind itself and can point virtually directly into the direction of the breeze.

When is this Method Recommended?

For racers, it is a must to sail close-hauled in virtually every single race.

The simple fact is that if you are competing, you must point as high as your boat possibly can. Otherwise, you are losing ground to your competition.

Before the 1990s, racing around the buoys was the most common form of racing, whether casual or serious. As most of these marks were existing navigation marks for keelboat racing, the course could not be precisely set according to the wind direction, and so not every windward leg necessarily involved close-hauled sailing, particularly in distance races.

But with the advent of windward-leeward racing, where the course consists of two buoys directly upwind and downwind from each other, that all changed, and close-hauled sailing became an integral part of every single race.

As most windward-leeward courses involve rounding each mark multiple times, there are often a half-dozen or more legs where the racers must sail close-hauled.

This brought a renewed focus on tactics in big boat racing, that dinghy racing with their movable marks had never lost. The keelboats were back to quickly tacking on wind shifts as they sought to gain or preserve leads on their competition, fighting for every foot of the course’s length.

Most cruisers will avoid sailing close-hauled, as it is not a particularly comfortable point of sail. This is particularly true if there are higher winds and waves, where the boat must pound over them to make headway.

The exception to this is when a cruiser must clear a point of land or a channel marker; in that case, sailing close-hauled is unavoidable, as they point as high as they can or even tack a few times to reach their destination.

Even then, many cruisers will avoid the situation by cranking up the “iron genoa” – the engine.

How Difficult is it to Learn to Sail Close-Hauled?

Being an integral point of sailing, it is a necessary skill to learn how to sail close-hauled.

In truth, it is no more difficult to learn how to sail close-hauled than it is sailing to any other angle relative to the wind.

Every point of sail has its own particular nuances that must be grasped. Each one requires an awareness of the setting of the sails and feel of the helm and what the wind and waves are doing.

The primary difficulty in learning to sail close-hauled is in developing a feel for the helm. Inexperienced sailors may find themselves riding a lift in the breeze too high and suddenly find themselves back-winded, or worse, tacking unexpectedly.

So reading lifts and knocks are essential to sailing close-hauled.

A lift is where the wind shifts slightly (or sometimes dramatically) further above your angle of sail, allowing you to point higher; this is generally favorable. A knock is an unfavorable shift in the wind on the nose, forcing you to come down from your course.

Lifts and knocks can be temporary or more permanent, in which case it heralds a major wind shift.

A helmsperson can generally read these shifts by their tell-tales on the lower forward part of the genoa, assuming the sails are trimmed correctly. If the leeward tell-tale gets squirrelly, that means that the airflow to that side of the sail has changed, and there is a lift.

If the windward tell-tale stops streaming, then that side of the sail has disrupted airflow, indicating the boat is on a knock.

Trimming the sails for sailing close-hauled is a little less nuanced; you bring them in as far as you can. The genoa trimmer has to make sure there is no contact between that sail and the spreader, as that can tear the sail.

If there is contact, the trimmer might need to ease the sheet a little or move the genoa car back a notch or two, which will ease pressure on the upper part of the genoa.

As with all aspects of sailing, it takes practice to become proficient in helming a boat and trimming the sails for being close-hauled, but it is not particularly more difficult to learn than other points of sailing.

But mastering racing while close-hauled takes a lot more time, demanding a good touch on the helm to respond quickly but smoothly to lifts and knocks to maximize your gains on your competitors.

Is it Dangerous to Sail Close-Hauled?

The answer to this question is usually no.

The fact is, you can get into trouble at any point of sail if you do not respond to wind shifts or other sea changes quickly enough.

Usually, the worst that can happen in a keelboat is you become back-winded on a knock or if you point too high, or you lose your groove if you do not respond to a lift or point too low, and you slow down.

These effects can be more dramatic in high winds, and it is possible to take a windward knockdown. These are uncommon, though, and it is more likely to happen on other points of sail.

In a dinghy, where capsizing is more common, you may, in fact, flip if you do not read a knock or lift quickly enough; but again, that can happen at any point of sail.

Sailing close-hauled can certainly feel dangerous, with the boat heeling and the breeze screaming over the deck and water splashing over the leeward gunwale. Still, as long as the skipper is even a mildly experienced helmsman, it is not dangerous.

Final Thoughts

Every sailor must point upwind at some point.

It is possible to sail upwind without becoming close-hauled, but your angle will not be favorable if you are sailing for a destination.

Sailing close-hauled is not particularly comfortable, but it is not inherently more dangerous than any other point of sail. It is a skill every sailor, particularly those who wish to race must learn.

Sources

Point of Sail – Wikipedia

Close-hauled Sailing Tips

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