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Sailboats and How they Work

Mukulika Mukherjee
Have you ever had the fun experience of riding a sailboat? If yes, then it might as well interest you to know how sailboats work. Keep reading.
Sailboats were the earliest modes of water transport invented by man, and were used long before ships and speedboats came into the picture. Based on the principle of flotation, and driven by nothing but the wind, they were a delightful invention that inspired many a famous poet.
Archaeologists have traced the history of the sailboat to the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, where remains of water vehicles similar to the modern sailboat have been unearthed. Since then, there have been numerous improvements and modifications in the design of the sailboat.
Today, not only do we have sailboats that run at much greater speeds than those of yore, but also come with several useful features. Here, we shall have a look at the major parts of a sailboat and how it works.

Parts of a Sailboat

The main parts of a sailboat are the sails, hull, rudder, keel, mast and tiller. The sails are of two types: the main sail and the small sail. The main sail can be moved in order to adjust its position with respect to the wind, while the small sail is fixed and is known as the jib. Now, let's learn a little about each part and how it functions.

The Hull

The hull is the body of the sailboat and the shape of the hull contributes to the ability of the boat to sail smoothly in high seas. Ideally, the hull of a sailboat is streamlined in shape to reduce drag caused by friction with the water surface.

The Rudder

The rudder is attached to the hull of the sailboat and determines the direction of sailing. The rudder can be controlled with a tiller rod, which acts as the steering for the rudder. In order to turn the boat to the left or right, all one needs to do is to turn the rudder in the desired direction.

The Keel

The keel is nothing but a plank of wood that extends downwards from the lower surface of the hull. The function of the keel is to offer support to the sailboat and prevent it from being overturned by the wind. The keel also helps the boat to move forward.

The Sails

The sails are the most integral part of a sailboat and they help the boat to move or sail in water. Both, the mainsail and the jib, help in propelling the boat by changing the direction of the boat with respect to the direction of the wind.
While the mainsail propels the boat in the direction of the wind, the function of the jib is to keep the direction of the boat away from the direction of the wind. This way, both the sails together bring about a balanced effect, and the boat continues to move in a relatively straight direction.

The Mast

The mast is the long vertical pole to which the main sail is attached. The function of the mast is to provide structure and support to the main sail.

How Does a Sailboat Work

Before we learn more about working principle of a sailboat, let's try to understand how it manages to stay afloat. After all, a sailboat is definitely not very light, isn't it?
The trick here lies in the principle of flotation, formulated by the famous Greek physicist Archimedes. According to the Archimedes' principle of flotation, a body that is partially or completely immersed in a fluid, experiences an upward force that is equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by it. This upward force is termed as the buoyant force.
A body floats only when the weight of the body is equal to the buoyant force experienced by it. In other words, a body is able to float on water if the weight of the body is equal to the weight of the liquid displaced by it. This is the basic principle behind the working of every mode of water transport, including ships, cruises, boats and even submarines.
Now, in order to displace greater volume and weight of water, the volume of the body should be greater. Also, more the surface area of the body, more are the chances that it will float in water. The shape of the sailboat ensures that both, the volume and the surface area of the boat, are large enough to keep it afloat.
Now, let's learn about the mechanism behind the sailing of a sailboat i.e. how it moves on water and changes direction. When the boat is sailing in the direction of the wind, then the mainsail is adjusted such that its direction is perpendicular to the wind direction. The force of the blowing wind on the sail propels the boat forward.
On the other hand, when the direction of the wind is opposite to that of the boat, the force of the wind would not let the boat move forward. To counter this problem, sailors use a different method while sailing upwind and this method is known as tacking.
Tacking is a method of sailing in which the boat sails in a zigzag path instead of sailing straight. If we look a little deeper into the mechanism of tacking, we find that it is not as simple as it sounds.
When the boat is sailing upwind, the mainsail is tilted at an angle close to 45 degrees, such that the wind hits it from an angle rather than hitting it straight. This force causes the boat to tilt to one side.
Once the boat gets tilted, the keel underneath displaces a substantial volume of water. The force exerted by the displaced water counters the force of the wind and prevents the boat from tipping to one side. The boat is tacked alternately to each side and covers some distance every time it is tacked.
This was a brief description about how sailboats work. While on board a sailboat, you must pay special attention to the direction of the wind. Once you have set the angle of your sail accordingly, it won't be much difficult to follow the directions and reach your destination!