Sailing Your Canoe Up Wind. Part 1


Canoes can be made to sail up wind as quickly as a small dinghy. In order to do this it is necessary to have a well cut sail of a decent size (30 sq ft to 50 sq ft) and to have the leeboard correctly lined up with the centre of effort of the sail. Sailing up wind will be a lot easier if you steer with a rudder, and to this end the techniques described in this article are most suited to those sailing with a rudder, although those who steer with a paddle might also find something of interest in the article.

First get the boat moving

Steering a sailing canoe is much like steering a car – the steering controls will only work if the canoe is moving. The first step is to get the boat moving forward while side on to the wind. The triangle in the first illustration (Fig.1) shows the wind direction, which in this case is blowing on to the side of the canoe. The sail is flapping, and the canoe is not moving forward.

If the sailor pulls in the sail just enough to stop the sail flapping, the resulting sail position will be ideal for moving the canoe forward (Fig. 2). Do not pull the sail in too far, because if you do the sail’s drive will be wasted on trying to tip the canoe over, rather than being used to drive the canoe forward.

Now the canoe is sailing forward, you can turn the canoe a little towards the wind direction (Fig 3.) Notice that as you do this there is a change in the sail’s position relative to the wind, and that consequently the sail begins to flap again.

To rectify this, pull the sail in a bit, but again – only just enough to stop it flapping (Fig 4)


Repeat the process of turning up a little towards the wind (Fig 5), steer in small steps, noticing that after each small change of course the sail flaps slightly. Try to adjust the sail position immediately after each steering movement, only the tiniest ‘flap’ should be apparent before you adjust the sail for the new course.

As you steer the canoe more and more up wind, you will need to adjust your own position in the canoe to keep the hull as close to level as possible. If it is windy and you want to sit on the gunwale then do so, but many canoe sailors prefer to kneel in the canoe, leaning their upper body over the upwind gunwale to keep the hull level.

After making several small steers towards the wind, and making the associated corrections to the sail’s position, you will find that the sail position which stops the sail flapping also places the boom close to the centreline of the canoe (Fig 6).

Congratulations, you are now truly sailing up wind.This sequence of corrections with the rudder and sheet may only take a few seconds. The trick is to keep the canoe moving and as soon as the sail starts to flap, sheet in.


If you steer even closer to the wind, the sail will again start to flap (Fig 7). Sailors call this ‘sailing into the no go zone’, as it is no longer possible to pull the sail in further to maintain drive, so instead you will have to stop the sail flapping by turning out of the no go zone.Learning to recognise the edge of the no go zone is important, as sailing fast up wind requires constantly tracing the edge of the no go zone, noting the slight sail flap (sometimes called a bubble) that appears at the leading edge of the sail as you enter the no go zone, and turning away from the wind to keep the sails driving each time the bubble appears. Constantly repeating this steering process (while keeping the boom close to the canoe’s centreline) will ensure that you are pointing as far upwind as is possible. I will write more about this technique in part 2.