Sailing is easy to learn if you are willing to put the time and effort in. As with any other skill, time spent equals eventual mastery. You can learn to sail in a short amount of time if you are dedicated, willing to learn, and have expert guidance to help right your path along the way, such as a professional instructor or sailing school.
You need to understand the maximum capability of your sailboat, whatever size it may be, before accurately planning out your trip.
Whether it’s circumnavigating a small island or you’re taking it across the ocean, knowing the speed of your sailboat can help you out with planning your trip properly.
But how fast does the average sailboat go?
Sailboats (and boats in general) don’t measure speed in the imperial system or the metric system. Instead, they have knots, a measurement of speed that is still in practice today
A knot is short for a nautical mile, but it isn’t measured in the most conventional way.
Before we had speed gauges and ways to measure how fast we were going, sailors in the 17th century would use a piece of wood tied to the end of a knotted rope to determine distance, and they would time how long that distance took to cover.
That device was called a common log, and measured how long it took (on average) to travel one latitudinal mile, which is based on the circumference of the earth.
We still use this method today, but since sailing speeds can vary, and since we have satellite maps to chart our courses now, it’s important to know the conversion.
One knot is equivalent to 1.15 miles per hour, or 1.85 kilometers per hour. The knot speed that you’re able to achieve is also dependent on other parts of your boat.
Hull Types and How They Affect Knots
Knots are affected by wind speed of course, but the wind can only carry you so far.
You’re capable of achieving a high speed if your boat doesn’t have a lot of drag or is more aerodynamic/lightweight.
Let’s look at the two main hull types that you’ll run into.
Your boat sits in the water, and the front of it pushes water to either side.
This is actually heavier and less efficient on speed and might require you to use the assistance of a motor from time to time while cruising around if the wind speed drops significantly.
Monohulls are among the most common type of boat hull.
Deemed the “unsinkable hull,” these boats float on the water instead of sitting in it.
They’re called planing hulls, and there are either two or three of them depending on which boat type you go with.
You’re not going to encounter these types in a lot of boat dealerships, but they are more lightweight for racing and can go faster than monohulls on wind speed alone.
Because of the multiple planing hulls, even if this were to capsize, it’s just going to float upside-down on the water and essentially be a big life preserver.
Speeds Achievable by Boats
So we know about hulls and about knots, but now it’s time to figure out how fast these can go.
This largely depends on the length of your hull.
The rule of thumb is, the longer the boat, the faster it can go. You can get about five knots per hour out of a short 16 ft boat, and up to 16 knots per hour out of a 140 ft boat.
This, of course, requires picking up momentum, wind power, and the possibility of being assisted by a motor.
Those are monohull speeds. If you have a catamaran or trimaran, you’re in this for the competitive element.
Some catamarans that are only about 25 ft long can travel twice as fast as the wind is blowing, thanks to using wind power in a much more efficient manner.
A 32 ft catamaran can reach around 35 knots on average, if everything is working as it should be.
How Far Can Sailing Ship Travel in One Day?
Let’s take a look at the most likely scenario.
Most sailing boats are monohulls, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you have a reasonable 32 ft boat, then you can get about eight knots per hour.
If you’re with a mate, you can each actively sail for eight hours while still getting enough rest in between, so sixteen hours of transportation in one day.
That averages out to be around 147 miles per day.
If you have a catamaran, which usually requires two people to man at a time, you can actively sail for ten hours per day while still getting enough rest and achieve about 345 miles per day with an average knot speed of 30.
That being said, we can’t always bank on the wind speed and direction is what we want it to be. It’s best practice to account for 60% accuracy.
If you applied that rule to our previous scenarios, you could achieve about 88 miles per day and 207 miles per day, respectively. That’s nothing to scoff at.
The Underdog Component
What if the wind blows sideways?
Your boat’s going to rock a bit, sure, but have you ever wondered why it doesn’t just try to tip over?
That’s because there’s one aspect to your sailboat that isn’t mentioned all the time, and that’s the keel.
Your keel is like a huge fan blade that’s jutting into the water, which keeps the ballast in place (keeps you upright), and works independently to maintain a calm and easy steadiness.
The keel is why boats undergo so much resistance when the wind isn’t blowing in the right direction because it’s working with you to prevent a big issue.
But there are different kinds of keels, each with their own benefit, such as enhancing your sailboat speed.
If you have a wing keel, you arguably have the very best keel for increasing speed.
Instead of just sticking out of the bottom of the boat (which creates a small vortex as you sail), this has an additional blade or “wing” on the bottom that cuts through the water.
This prevents that vortex from forming and reduces your drag by just a little bit, but every bit counts when you’re trying to reach max knots.
Wing keels are among the best for speed, but more boats are going to come with a bilge keel, which is best described as two blades that jut out from either side, and keep your boat from tipping over.
They aren’t ideal for speed, but are faster than some other options.
Lastly, there’s the bulb keel, which is similar to the wing keel, but slightly less aerodynamic.
Similar to spoilers on the back of cars, a wing keel cuts down on air, while a bulb keel looks like a blimp sticking off of a fin on the underside of your boat.
They don’t create a vortex, and are the second best keel to have for optimal speeds.
Tips and Tricks to go Faster on the Sailboat
You want to hit that maximum speed and cruise over the water: we’re right there with you, but first, you need to figure out the best way to achieve that.
These tips and tricks will work on just about every sailboat:
Trim the Sails
It’s time to manipulate the wind and make it bend to your will.
Trimming the sails involves you changing the angle to achieve the most possible power based on wind alone.
If you’re in ideal conditions for sailing, your sails would constantly be full and you’d just be steering and cruising along.
That’s not always the case though, and trimming the sails properly can actually make you cruise faster than the wind.
The less drag on your boat, the more power, and the speed you’re going to have.
Leave behind items that you don’t need.
It’s fun to take a full cooler and a small grill out on the boat, but if you can go without, then go without.
If you can’t, you can empty your water and waste tanks before leaving to help decrease drag.
Cut Down Friction
Regularly servicing your boat can actually reduce the amount of friction that’s built up from wind speed and resistance.
Your winches, tracks, and blocks all need to be lubricated on a regular basis (ideally every single time you sail before you leave port).
This not only cuts down on friction but increases your efficiency while utilizing every aspect of your boat while cutting down on fatigue.
Ever heard of a folding propeller?
They’re wildly lightweight and built for speed by reducing drag.
The common misconception is that these are fragile or overly expensive, but neither is the case.
Folding or feathered propellers are built tough to withstand whatever your sailing adventure throws at it.
Is It Faster to Sail Upwind or Downwind?
Downwind sailing is when the wind pushes against the sails, and your boat follows suit in that direction.
Upwind sailing is when you’re heading in the direction that the wind is coming from, which isn’t going to do you any favors unless you have a turbine engine.
In short, downwind sailing is always the faster option, even if you have a motor.
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