Sailing Wind Shifts – Lifts & Headers

sailing wind shifts

Wind shifts. Some sailors hate them, some love them. They can be the cause of unbelievable gains and embarrassing losses out on the racecourse.

They make a huge difference to our results but aren’t taught much to amateur sailors. Perhaps this is because they are seen as too complicated. However, they are relatively easy to grasp.

This article will cover the basics of wind shifts. For more advanced wind shift tips click here:

Rarely is the wind direction steady and an un-moving wind direction would be a miracle to rival walking on water. Wind direction can change because of obstacles upwind, gusts, macro weather influences and more.

So, how can we use these changes to our advantage? Or at least minimise being caught out by them…


Let’s start with the basics.


If the wind is in a neutral position then there is no advantage or disadvantage as a result of the wind direction- as you can see in the diagram below. All else being equal, if both boats sail on, they will make the top mark about the same time.

Ok, so what if the wind direction shifts? Let’s see what would happen if the wind shifts left.

As you can see, with the wind direction change the no-go-zone area also shifts. To sail upwind optimally we want to be sailing a closehauled course. So, to maintain a close-hauled course in a left shift the starboard tack boat (pink) has to bear away to avoid being stuck head to wind. Pink is experiencing what we call a header (a shift that heads your boat more downwind).

For the port tack boat (turquoise) to maintain a close-hauled course in a left shift they have to head up. Turquoise is experiencing what we call a lift (a shift that allows you to point closer to the mark).


In this case the left shift allows the turquoise boat to head almost straight towards the next mark, therefore shortening the distance they have to sail. Whereas, pink will have to sail a longer distance to get to the next mark (unless they are clever and tack onto port tack).

If the wind shifts right then everything above is reversed. So the starboard tack boat will now be lifted and the port tack boat headed.

It might help to think of headers as ‘bad’ and lifts as ‘good’. The dramatic effects of taking advantage of lifts or not realising headers is shown in the diagram below. As you can see the distance travelled by the two boats is very different.

sailing wind shifts


Once you understand lifts and headers then all you need to do is stay on the lifted tack. However, it’s not always obvious whether you’ve been lifted or headed. You haven’t got someone shouting at you telling you you’ve been headed (unless you’ve got a crew that knows what they’re doing).

So, how can we notice whether we’ve been lifted or headed?

This video explains 3 ways to spot this:


For more advanced wind shift tips head here: