What Is Upwind & Downwind Sailing? (Explained For Beginners)

When first discovering the sport of sailing, some of the most important concepts you will come across are sailing upwind and sailing downwind.

What do these phrases mean?

Here’s What Upwind and Downwind Sailing Are:

Sailing upwind means that your boat is pointing in the general direction the wind is coming from, but not the exact direction because you cannot sail directly into the wind. Sailing downwind means you are pointed away from the direction wind is coming from; it is blowing behind you.

What is Meant by Sailing Downwind and Upwind?

There are several points of sail that a sailboat may be on.

Upwind and downwind are broad terms that encompass a couple of these points each:

Sailing Upwind:

Sailing upwind means that you are sailing towards the general wind direction. You cannot sail directly into the wind; this causes your sails to flutter and all progress in stopping.

This is called being in irons, but when you trim in your sails as close as possible, you can point pretty close to the wind’s direction. This is called being close-hauled.

Exactly how close to the wind you can get depends on your boat’s design and the sails you have, but most boats can get within 30-40 degrees of the wind’s direction.

Some boats can get much closer than this; in fact, some designs, like recent America’s Cup boats, actually generate their own wind when moving fast and can get close to 10 degrees of the wind.

Sailing Downwind:

Sailing downwind means that you are pointed away from the wind.

Again, you will generally want to avoid going 180 degrees or dead downwind.

You can do it, but you are susceptible to sudden gybes, and it is slower than if you are taking an angle off of the wind.

Many boats sailing downwind will deploy a spinnaker, as it has a lot more sail area and moves the boat along much faster.

The third directional option is called a beam reach. This is when the wind is directly off the side of the boat, and you are sailing 90 degrees to the wind.

It is right between upwind and downwind sailing, and for most sailboats, it is the fastest point of sail.

Is it Easier to Sail Downwind than Upwind?

In general, it is a little easier to sail downwind than it is upwind.

When you are sailing upwind, your boat will heel more. Also, shifts in the wind will impact the boat more than if you are sailing downwind.

So, sailing off the wind (another term for sailing downwind) is usually a little more relaxing.

This is not always the case, though. On very light air days, you may favor sailing upwind, as it moves the air over your boat a little more, which could be welcome if you are drifting in hot conditions.

On heavier air days, there will be larger waves. While you may find yourself uncomfortably pounding into them if you are sailing upwind, inexperienced sailors may have more trouble controlling the helm going downwind in these conditions.

This is because of the waves trying to raise the stern of the boat and turn the hull back toward the wind.

This is often referred to as surfing, and it can be a lot of fun, but beginners will probably find it difficult to maintain their course in these conditions and may be susceptible to knock-downs.

Is it Better to be Upwind or Downwind?

The truth here is that it doesn’t really matter.

Unless you have a preference for sailing upwind or downwind, or your boat performs better under either circumstance, you will most likely be doing both during a day on the water.

Neither is inherently better than the other.

The other way to look at this question is positional: is it better to be upwind or downwind of your destination? This applies whether you are in a race and trying to make your mark or simply heading back to port after a day on the water.

In this case, it is almost always better to be upwind of your destination. You have more options to reach it than if you were downwind of it.

If you are downwind of your destination, you will have to tack back and forth to get there.

If you are upwind of it, you can bear off until you reach the desired direction. You will be in better shape for any significant wind shifts, as well.

Is it Faster to Sail Upwind or Downwind?

For most sailboats, downwind is a faster point of sail.

This is because you can deploy your spinnaker, adding a lot more sail area, which moves the boat along better.

Even without a spinnaker, most boats will be faster heading downwind than they will when heading into it.

This is not true for all boats, though. Catamarans perform better when heading upwind, as one hull raises out of the water, thus reducing the amount of wetted surface and drag on the boat.

Also, some larger boats like America’s Cup boats move so fast that they artificially bend the wind direction. They are almost always sailing upwind!

Note that for most boats, however, the beam reach is the fastest point of sail.

Many boats can carry their spinnakers at this point of sail – though these big sails are strapped in tightly when beam reaching – making them go even faster.

Can you Sail in any Wind Direction?

The answer here is a resounding no.

You cannot sail directly into the wind. This nullifies the lift that your sails are generating, causing the sails to flutter and your boat’s forward motion to stop.

Most modern keelboats can get within 30 degrees of the wind. You are sailing too close to the wind if you get above this, and your boat will be in irons.

Some boats can get closer than this, and older, wider boats will probably not be able to get this close, but this is a good rule of thumb for how close you can sail to the wind.

Your boat will let you know how close you can truly get!

Also, keep in mind that while you can sail dead downwind, it is a slow point of sail, and most sailors avoid it. Even heading above your destination and having to gybe a couple of times is preferable to sailing 180 degrees off the wind.

Many sailors who must do this, such as if they are in a race and trying to reach a mark, will take their genoas (if they are not using a spinnaker) to the opposite side of the boat mainsail is on; this is called wing-and-wing.

It is a little faster, but you are prone to sudden gybes doing this.

What Do you Do if the Wind Direction Changes while Sailing?

For most sailors, in most situations, this is not a big deal. You adjust your sails to the new wind angle and continue on your route.

If the wind shift is more dramatic, you may find that you have to tack or gybe to get back to the course you were heading on.

Or you may find that you have to do this several times to reach your destination if your original course is impossible because it is now directly into the wind.

The main way this would truly affect you is if you are trying to clear a dangerous area – like avoiding a sand bar or maintaining an exact course in a narrow channel.

In this case, you may find that the best answer is to crank up the “iron genoa,” also known as your engine. The crew on a smaller boat like a dinghy may drop the sails and begin paddling if there is a little breeze and few waves.

In more extreme cases, you might actually toss out the anchor until wind conditions change.

Final Thoughts

Upwind and downwind sailing are essential parts of the daily sailing experience.

While many sailors might prefer one over the other, most enjoy both.

The main things for a sailor in a new boat to learn about these points of sail are how close to the wind they can take their boat and how comfortable and controllable their boat is when heading dead downwind.


Points of Sail

Sailing Upwind

Sailing Downwind

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