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How Sailboats Work

If you're completely new to sailing, it may come as a surprise to you that sailboats can sail upwind, or towards the direction the wind is coming from. 

Sailboats, and more importantly, their sails, work in two different manners: 
              • like an airplane wing (lifting foil for all you geeks) when going upwind, 
              • and like a big bag that 'catches' the wind when going downwind.

Upwind, or into the wind

When yo
u're sailing upwind, or towards the direction the wind is coming from, the sail(s) is acting like an airplane wing in combination with the daggerboard or centerboard to drive the boat forward. 

You don't need to understand the underlying physics, but remember: If air is not flowing smoothly from the front edge of the sail to the back edge of the sail, your boat will not move forward going upwind.

Downwind, or with the wind

When you're sailing downwind, or away from the direction the wind is coming from, the sail(s) is simply being pushed by the wind, which in turn pushes the boat downwind. There are some high-performance boats for which this is not true, but that's a topic for another time

Heading 90 degrees (perpendicular) to the wind

How are the sails working when you're sailing across, or at a 90 degree angle to the true wind direction? Across the wind, they act like an airplane wing, just like when you're going upwind (even though you're not!).