Monday, December 23, 2013

TACK TICS! Backing up your sailboat via wind power

Backing up a sailboat via the wind without a motor is an essential sailing skill that far too many sailors leave out of their sailing repertoire.

Once when I was motoring my 33’ catamaran out of a busy marina my son forgot to stow the bow line properly and it ended up trailing back to the rear of the boat and getting caught in my prop. I immediately turned the boat into the wind and sailed backward, once hear the dock I turned the rudders and swung the boat backwards into the dock. The day was saved and I installed a new cotter pin in my motor and in a few minutes was back in business.

Every boat reacts differently when backing up. Some round or flat bottom boats like a Laser, etc. can be difficult to back up and some boats like catamarans track superbly backwards. Some sailors can actually sail up wind backwards.

The following steps are a guide to backing up via the wind. There may be other steps for certain boats. You may also find other techniques not noted here.


In this step we are going to practice backup via pulling the boat into the wind and letting the wind push on the hull(s) and rigging without using the sails (using windage). It is best to practice backing up in about 10 knots of wind or less, flat water, and with steady winds. Backing up in choppy water, with current, and shifty winds requires more skill.

1.  Sail your boat “head to wind” (in irons). In other words the front of the boat (bow) must be pointed directly into the wind.

2. As soon as the boat is directly head to wind, release all the sheets. If you have a Jib/Genoa the sheets (lines that control the sails) must be totally free so the wind can not pull the bow(s) via the sails either way. If your bow(s) does get turned one way or the other you will have to start over and get the bow(s) into the wind again.

3. The same time the bow(s) goes into the wind, immediately straighten the rudder(s). Plus if you have daggerboard(s) or centerboards keep them down when backing up.

4. When the boat stops completely and is kept head to wind (into the wind) and the sails are free, then the boat will begin to back up via wind pushing the boats hull(s) and standing rigging.

5. Keep your weight centered in the boat so the boat is not heeling.

6. Steer backwards keeping the bow(s) pointed straight into the wind. Use small movements of the rudder because if you over steer you may lose it and will have to start over. There is a lot of pressure on the rudder when going backwards so keep a firm grip on the tiller otherwise the water pressure will pull the tiller out of your hand. You should point the aft part of the rudder blade in the direction you want to go, while making sure the bow(s) remain as close to “head to wind” as possible. Using the tiller extension may not give you good enough control due to high pressure on the rudder(s). Also you must think differently as you will have to steer the opposite direction as compared to when you are sailing forward. Sailing backwards reminds me of steering a tractor with the small front wheel.


In this session we are going to practice backing up like in session 1 but this time in addition to the steps in session 1 we will use the more advanced skill of pushing the sail(s) toward the bow(s) manually. We are not just going to drift/use windage this time but actually power up the boat via the sails. Remember utilizing more than one sail and shifting the weight around to backup may requires more people; one person on the mainsail, on person on the Jib/Genoa, one person on the tiller, etc. depending on the boat.

1. This time when bringing the boat “head to wind” push the mainsail hard to leeward. This will stop the boat quickly (another good skills to know). Keep it pushed out; the boat will start moving quickly backwards. If your boat has a mainsail and Jib/Genoa (sloop-rig) you can sail backwards via wing to wing (mainsail pushed out to one side and the Jib to the opposite side of the boat).

2. You may need to heel the boat somewhat one way or the other to compensate for the different forces that the different sized sails may exert.

3. Now move your weight forward on the boat to depress the bow(s), thus keeping the transom out of the water (lifted up as possible) from acting as a brake. With the bow(s) down in the water the wind will push on them less. Doing this on a Keelboat may not work due to the weight of the keel.

4. Again use small movements of your rudder(s) to control the direction of your boat and if utilizing more than yourself to back the boat up make sure to communicate your intentions to others on board. Like in session 1 you learned there can be a lot of pressure on the rudder(s) but when backing up via wind in the sails there will be even more pressure and so one must keep a firm grip on the tiller otherwise the water pressure will pull the tiller out of your hand, sometimes with great force.

I recommend going out to the middle of a body of water and practicing these skills before you try these skills close to shore. It can be frustrating when learning to master the skill of backing up via the wind but once master there is nothing more impressive then coming into a dock or beach backward via the wind only (showing off).

Curtisey of Miles Moore

No part of this text and info, etc. may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without prior written permission from SAIL Marine, It’s Tiller Time Sailing School, or Miles Moore.

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