Book Review: Plain Sailing: Learning to See Like a Sailor

What is the most powerful tool aboard your sailboat? What is the one thing that can make it go faster in any conditions? Without it, the boat wouldn’t move—your brain. The most important asset on your sailboat isn’t a piece of gear, it’s your knowledge of how best to set and trim your sails. A good sailor can make a derelict sailboat go faster than an ignorant skipper can sail a fully-equipped and tuned racing yacht.

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The first thing that most new sailboat owners do is figure out where all the gear goes and how it works. The second thing they do is learn how to make the boat go where they want it to. Some take lessons, some learn by trial and error, and still others turn to books and videos. If you’re the kind that likes to catapult up the learning curve with the help of a good book, then Plain Sailing: Learning to See Like a Sailor by Dallas Murphy is a good choice.

Plain Sailing isn’t an encyclopedia of sailing that tries to teach you everything there is to know about sailing. It’s not 400 pages of minutia, it’s 192 pages of fast-reading, practical instruction that you can put to immediate use on the water. The purpose of Plain Sailing is to give you just the basics of sail trim by teaching you how to look at the sails, the wind, the water, and the land and to understand how they relate to sail trim and sailboat motion.

Although the method of Plain Sailing is simple, it doesn’t dumb down sailing by skipping the nautical theories that you need to know. It introduces each one on a need-to-know basis but leaves the theory behind as soon it can be put into practice.

Chapter Survey

Chapter 1: “Getting Started in Sailing” encourages you to just do it. Start sailing your own boat, a chartered boat, with friends, or just by volunteering to crew on boats in your local marina or yacht club. Take lessons if you can afford them and consider helping out onboard a race boat, even if it’s just as “rail meat.” The experience you’ll gain is worth the price of admission.

Chapter 2: “Language” takes you on an imaginary walk around a typical sailboat, introduces its fundamental parts, and explains how they contribute to making a sailboat move through the water with the power of the wind.

Chapter 3: “Wind” defines what it is, introduces you to the critical concept of relative wind angle, and begins to stress the importance of always being aware of the current wind conditions. Murphy returns time and again throughout the book to remind you to ask yourself, “Where is the wind?” Other basic concepts such as the points of sail, right of way, tacking vs. jibing, leeway, apparent wind, upwind vs. downwind, weather, and how to look for the effects of the wind are also discussed.

Chapter 4: “Sails” teaches you to think of them in terms of three-dimensional shapes and how they affect air flow. Without deep diving into aerodynamic theory, the book encourages you to experiment with the sail control lines to get the feel of how each affects the ways that the sailboat responds.

Chapter 5: “Straight-Line Sailing” coaches you through practicing sailing the boat in a straight line toward a destination. From dropping the mooring, through each of the points of sail to windward, and turning downwind, Murphy walks you through each trimming procedure step-by-step.

Chapter 6: “The Maneuvers” breaks down tacking and jibing (and waring) into all their practical and strategic nuances to bring you back to your imaginary mooring. Even though this book isn’t about racing, the scenarios presented are a good primer on piloting around a race course.

Chapter 7: “Rising Wind” walks you through what to do when the wind picks up to uncomfortable levels. You’ll learn how to spill the wind and reef both the headsail and mainsail to keep the boat manageable and the crew calm.

Chapter 8: “Tides and Current Sailing” discuss how to maintain your course and headway through tides and currents.

Chapter 9: “Safety” makes the case for vigilant attention to conditions, preventing injuries, and responding to man overboard situations safely.

The final chapter, “In Conclusion” provides a concise summary of all the critical points of the entire book, good as a quick refresher when you return to this book again and again. The opening words epitomize the tone of the book:

Relax. Sailing isn’t all that difficult or mysterious.

My Impressions

Throughout the book, Murphy uses realistic scenarios to help you to not just understand the concepts but to imagine them in very natural ways. It’s as though someone transcribed a full day of expert instruction so that you can review any lesson just like when you were there. Regrettably, there aren’t many pictures in the book but those that are included are useful like this one that he uses to help you understand the relationship between headsail size and lead car position.

Plain Sailing-Jib
Sample illustration from chapter 2: Language

The thing I like most about this book is that all the discussion is woven around the central point of learning how to sense the wind. Not just up close on your face in the moment but as a constantly changing, moving medium flowing through and around your entire sailing vicinity, something that usually takes sailors years to attain. Murphy often brings you back to discovering the sensual dimension of sailing, almost to the point of excess and into the realm of the erotic:

You’ll feel a little surge of joy when you first find that groove and the boat suddenly expresses her pleasure.

If you’re thinking about taking a sailing class, this would be a good book to read and study before you take your first lesson. If you’d like to take a class but you can’t afford it or one isn’t offered in your area, this would be a good substitute if you complement it with on-water practice. If you’re looking for a great gift for a new skipper in your life, they would get a lot out of this book. There’s very little to criticize about Plain Sailing: Learning to See Like a Sailor and I recommend it without reservation.

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