What is the difference between a Gybe and a Tack?

For those of you completely new to sailing the idea that there are so many things to learn can be daunting. The terminology in particular can be intimidating.

The good news is that, like everything else we learn, the key is to take bite-size chunks. 

One of the first things you will learn on the water is points of sail and the difference between tacking and gybing. This knowledge is key to all sailors and without it you can’t move on. So, what is a gybe, what is a tack and why do we need to know the difference?

The Tack

When a sailboat tacks it is moving from a starboard tack to a port tack or, alternatively, a port tack to starboard tack. This means you are turning through the wind - in the case of a tack you are turning the bow of the boat (the front) through the wind.

For more information read: What is a tack?

The Gybe

Like a tack, the gybe takes place when you turn a boat through the wind and take it from one tack (say port) to another (say starboard) - or vice versa.  The difference is that in the case of a gybe (as opposed to a tack) we have turned the stern (back) of the boat through the wind.

For more information read: What is a gybe?

Why is it important to know the difference?

First of all, we need to know these definitions so that crew know what they are about to do. “Standby to tack” or “ready about” are instructions given by the helm and both terms notify the crew that they will be tacking. “Standby to gybe” or “ready to gybe” would indicate… a gybe. Yep - it isn’t rocket science.

A tack is generally much less involved than a gybe. The primary reason for this is that, when cruising at least, the tack requires the mainsheet trimmer to do very little, if anything’ when tacking through the wind (assuming you are tacking from close hauled to close hauled). 

The gybe is different because of the way the mainsail is rigged. The leading edge of the mainsail is called the luff. This is attached to the mast by way of sliders that run up and down the mast in a track. The back edge (the leach) is not fixed. This means that in a tack the sail simply depowers, flaps a little and then powers-up again. 

In a gybe the mainsail (which is let out perpendicular to the wind direction) must be centred by the mainsheet trimmer BEFORE the gybe. Failure to do so will result in the mainsail whipping across the boat in what is generally referred to as a ‘crash gybe’ or ‘accidental gybe’. The crash gybe is very dangerous. The risk of being hit by the book or collected by the mainsheet is very real and it can be lethal. 

Learning how to tack and gybe a boat safely and proficiently is all part of an RYA Competent Crew course. Our experienced instructors teach this manoeuvre in a safe, controlled environment.

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