If you’ve been sailing for a few years or more, then you know where the wind is coming from. It becomes an instinct.

Try teaching someone who’s completely new to sailing. Ask them: ‘Where’s the wind coming from?’ It’s surprising to us sailors just how difficult it is for the non-sailor to work out the wind direction.


So if you were going out on the water with someone brand new to sailing, what advice would you offer on how to spot the wind direction?
– The waves and ripples on the water: what clues do they offer?
– The sails on your boat
– The burgee/ wind indicator at the top of the mast
– Flags flying on shore or from an anchored boat
– Smoke from a chimney stack.

I’m sure you can think of a few more besides those ones. Then, as we get more proficient at sailing, the wind direction becomes obvious through more subtle signs, eg:
– Tell-tails on mainsail and jib
– The changing heel of the boat, to windward or to leeward
– An increase or decrease in the pull of the mainsheet, jib sheet or spinnaker sheet
– The changing direction of other sailing boats around you.

The more these subtle signs become second nature to you, the better you’ll be able to respond to any changes in the wind.

EXERCISE: Here’s something that you can try next time you go sailing. Every 10 20 seconds, make a prediction. Is the wind going to lift* or head* the boat? You’ll get it wrong a lot to begin with. Maybe even worse than 50% of the time! But just trying to predict the changing breeze will make you more attuned to the changes. And over time, you will get better at predicting what the wind is doing.


Another thing about sailing wind that’s hard to work out for absolute beginners is the wind strength. It can be pretty confusing and not that easy to tell the wind strength even for us regular sailors. After all, we can’t even agree on what measure of wind strength to use! Do we talk in terms of knots, metres per second, or using the Beaufort Scale and talking about a nice Force 2 to 3 breeze?

Let’s say we’re talking in terms of knots. Broadly speaking:
– 1 to 7 knots is Light Wind (0 knots is NO wind by the way!)
– 8 to 14 knots is Moderate Wind
– 15 to 22 knots is Fresh Wind
– 23 knots upwards is Strong Wind

Over time we get better at just looking at the water and guessing the approximate wind strength. A few ripples on the water means it’s light wind. A small chop building up indicates a moderate wind strength. As the colour of the water darks and the waves get stronger we’re getting into fresh wind. And you’ll also see ‘white horses’ appearing. When the wind gets really strong the water gets darker but more white horses start rearing their heads out of the waves.

EXERCISE: Very similar exercise to the one described above, but with a different focus. Every 20 seconds, make a prediction. Is the wind going to increase or decrease in strength? This time, at least you’ve got the changing colour of the water to give you a clue. If you see a dark patch of water coming closer to the boat, a gust is probably about to hit. Call the time that you think it will take to arrive and make an impact on your sails. 5-4-3-2-1. Try doing the same for lulls, although spotting these is a bit harder. Don’t be shy though. Like the Wind Direction exercise, the more you practise your predictions of the changes in the wind strength, the more it will become second nature to you.


The more you sail in different wind strengths, the more you’ll understand the ever-changing horsepower being applied to your rig. It’s good to know which wind strength gets your boat up to full power. This will vary a lot from boat to boat, and also your crew weight along with the design of your sails and the stiffness of your mast. For an 80kg sailor hiking a Laser/ ILCA 7 singlehanded dinghy, Full Power is probably around 9 knots of wind speed.

It’s really important to understand when your boat is operating at Full Power. This is when the rig is set up to deliver maximum power from the sails, and you’re at full stretch with your hiking and/or trapezing off the side of the boat. If the wind is any stronger than this, you’ll be Overpowered. This is when you’re pulling on control lines like the cunningham, outhaul and vang to flatten the mainsail as much as possible, maybe easing the sheets and pulling up some centreboard.

Any less than Full Power, then you’ll be crouching in from your hiking or trapeze position to keep the boat flat or at its optimum angle of heel. The game of sailing changes a lot, depending on which mode you’re in: Underpowered, Full Power, or Overpowered.


When we’re talking about wind shifts and how they affect our boat, we talk in terms of ‘headers’ and ‘lifts’.

A header (or ‘knock’) is a wind shift that tends to head your boat more downwind (or away from the mark, when sailing into the wind to a mark).
A lift is a wind shift that tends to steer your boat more upwind (or toward the mark, if sailing upwind to a mark).

Generally, lifts are your friend, and you ride them like an elevator.
Generally, headers are seen as the enemy, although it’s not really as simple as that. In an oscillating breeze, ie when the wind is shifting side to side, as soon as you feel the boat is being headed, you tack on to the new tack, which should now be a lift. It’s more complicated than that, but let’s deal with that another time!


There’s a lot more to understanding the Sailing Wind. Not even the best sailors in the world fully understand it, even if they might look like wind wizards to you! The more you sail and the more you work on those exercises, the quicker and more accurately you’ll be able to read the changing conditions on the race course. It’s one of the most valuable sailing skills you can have.

Look out for a lot more ‘go faster’ content coming your way from Sailmon. We’re keen to share more content on various topics that all add up to helping you sail better. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram or subscribe to our newsletter. Whatever you do, don’t miss out on this valuable content! We’re here to make you even better than you are today!


Check out this webinar!
‘It’s all about upwind performance’ emphasizes the importance of boat speed, VMG, strategy and tactics during that crucial first leg. Olympic Gold Medallist and skipper and helmsman for the Japan SailGP Team Nathan Outteridge will share all his knowledge from his professional sailing career. Learn from the best, improve your sailing skills in the moments right after the gunshot and get ahead of the competition. 

Check out the preview below or subscribe here for the full recordings