Points of Sail

Points of a compass

When discussing sailing tactics and naval warfare in the age of sail, the topic of points of sail frequently comes up. Points of sail merely refers to where the ship is pointed in relation to the direction of the wind. The “points” specifically mean how a compass rose is divided into 32 points or 11 degrees 15 minutes.

Generally speaking, the points of sail are the same for both fore-and-aft rigged and square-rigged vessels, however, there are some differences and variations depending on the orientation of the vessel and on what points each type can realistically sail.

General Points of Sail & Fore-and-Aft Rigged Vessels

Vessel is only depicted on a port tack. Points of sail for #2 – 4 would be identical for the left side, but would have the sail on the opposite side of the ship since they’d be on a starboard tack.
  1. Into the Wind/In the Eye of the Wind: The vessel is directly facing the wind (in the “eye of the wind”) and in the no go zone. The sail is luffed and providing no propulsive power. In this event, the ship is said to be “in irons” and risks losing its forward momentum, coming to a stop, and eventually being taken back by the wind (making sternway).
  2. Close-Hauled/Beating: Vessels sailing as close as is feasibly possible to the wind without entering either side of the no go zone are said to be sailing “close-hauled.” For most fore-and-aft rigged vessels, this would be roughly 45 degrees into the wind. A vessel would also sail at this point prior to tacking (turning the bow through the wind). Being able to sail close-hauled and arrive at a certain point without having to tack is known as fetching.
  3. Reaching: Sailing with the wind on the side of the vessel. A “beam reach” would be with the vessel’s hull perpendicular to the direction of the wind, as is depicted. A “close reach” would have the head of the vessel slightly into the wind, between close-hauled and beam reach.
  4. Broad Reach: The wind is on either quarter of the vessel, but not directly astern.
  5. Running Downwind/Before the Wind: The wind is coming from directly astern of the vessel.

Square-rigged Vessels

Note in the above illustration how the points of sail for a square-rigged vessel only correspond to 21 points of the compass. Also note how points 1 – 10 are duplicated on each side. (O’Neill, 2003, p. 55)

In comparison to fore-and-aft rigged vessels, square-rigged vessels have a much larger no go zone into which the sails can’t draw any wind. The shape, size, and ability to brace their sails prevents them from sailing close to the wind.

The above points of sail are as follows:

  1. Close-hauled
  2. One point large
  3. Two points large (wind on the beam)
  4. Three points large
  5. Four points large
  6. Five points large
  7. Six points large (wind on the quarter)
  8. Three points on the quarter
  9. Two points on the quarter
  10. One point on the quarter
  11. Before the wind

(O’Neill, 2003, p. 55).

The above illustration and list further shows how the points of sail can be further divided up based on the divisions of a compass.

(Ireland, 2000, p. 54)

Bernard Ireland (2000) has some more notes regarding points of sail for a square-rigged ship.

  1. The ship is in the “eye of the wind” with any fore-and-aft sails not drawing. The square sails lie “flat aback” against the masts and the vessel makes sternway.
  2. The ship is “all in the wind.” The yards aren’t braced and the sails are shivering. The vessel drifts to leeward.
  3. The ship is “on the wind” with the yards braced and all sails drawing. The vessel is close-hauled on a starboard tack (in this illustration).
  4. The ship is “off the wind” with the sheets eased. The vessel is sailing with a quartering sea.
  5. The ship is further off the wind. She is “Sailing large” with the full quartering breeze. Depending on the wind strength, studding sails may be set or the weather clew of the main course lifted.
  6. Running before the wind, the forestaysail is taken in because it’s not drawing. The main course is brailed up to reduce strain on the mainmast. The spanker is also brailed up to reduce the risk of the vessel broaching-to (i.e. slewing suddenly and uncontrollably due to the wind).

(p. 54).

Further Notes

In terms of how closely a vessel can sail to the wind, a Bermuda racing rig can sail extremely close to the wind at around 3 and 1/2 points (39 degrees). A Bermuda cruising rig can sail around 4 points (45 degrees). A gaff-rigged vessel around 4 and 3/4 points (50 – 55 degrees), and a square-rigged vessel around 6 points (70 degrees) (Kemp, 1988, p. 655 – 656).

References

Ireland, B. (2000). Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail. W.W. Norton & Company.

Kemp, P. (Eds.). (1988). The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea. Oxford University Press.

O’Neill, R. (Eds.). (2003). Patrick O’Brian’s Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World. Salamander Books.

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