An Introduction to the Physics of Sailing

An Introduction to the Physics of Sailing


Emma Ferris
Masters of Mechanical Engineering at MIT
Officer, The United States Navy

Lesson Feedback


The goal of this lesson is to explain how sailboats work by exploring basic physics principles. At the end of this lesson, students will be able to identify the forces acting on a sailboat and explain how the combination of these forces results in the forward motion of a sailboat. Students should be familiar with vectors and be able to use them to represent forces and moments, and also should be familiar with using free body diagrams to represent forces and moments. A basic understanding of fluid flow and/or resistance might be helpful, but not necessary. This lesson and the follow-on assessment will each take about one hour to complete. Students only need pen/pencil and paper to complete the activities in the lesson, although an optional activity where students make their own sailboats would require additional materials. The classroom activity challenges are centered around small-group discussions based on the questions posed before each break. Free body diagrams, or another conceptual representation of his or her answer, should support each student’s solution to the questions posed in the video. Instructions for the option of having students design their own sailboats as part of this lesson can be found here:

Attention: It has been pointed out to us that certain experts disagree with the explanation for the generation of lift presented in this video lesson.  For this reason, we would like to refer teachers to the following articles which present an alternative explanation:

Instructor Biography

Emma started sailing at a young age and eventually taught sailing and sailed competitively in college at the United States Naval Academy.. Her passion for sailing and the ocean led her to study Naval Architecture (ship design) as an undergraduate, and she went on to pursue a Masters in Mechanical Engineering at MIT, with a focus on Ocean Engineering. She currently serves as an officer in the United States Navy.

Additional Online Resources

The Physics Classroom: Drawing Free-Body Diagrams
This site, sponsored by the Physics Classroom, provides instructions on drawing free body diagrams, as well as practice situations for applying those instructions.

The Physics Classroom: Vectors and Direction
Also sponsored by the Physics Classroom, this site provides an introduction to the fundamentals of vectors and directions.

The Physics Classroom: Relative Velocity and Riverboat Problems
Again from the Physics Classroom, this is a discussion of vectors and relative velocity.

The Physics Classroom: Addition of Forces
Again from the same hosting site, here you will find an introduction to forces and vectors in two dimensions and the addition of those forces.

University of Cambridge: How wings really work
Developed by the University of Cambridge in England, this short video demonstrates how lift is created by air flowing over a wing.

Live Science: What Is Fluid Dynamics?
This article by Live Science is an introduction to Fluid Dynamics.

Real World Physics Problems: The Physics of Sailing
Sponsored by Real World Physics Problems, this site provides a comprehensive overview of the physics of sailing.

YouTube: The Physics of Sailing
This is an excellent video on sailing produced by KQED in San Francisco.

National Sailing Hall of Fame: Introducing STEM Sailing Best Practices
This site, sponsored by the National Sailing Hall of Fame, introduces two hands-on activities students can do to study the science of sailing.