Sailing Your Canoe Up Wind. Part 2 - Tell Tales

In the first part of this article I described a crude technique for sailing up wind. That technique relied on watching the leading edge of the sail, and bearing away each time the sail was back winded by sailing into the no go zone. Although that technique provided us with a good way to learn to sail up wind, most experienced canoe sailors use a more efficient approach, which relies on the addition of tell tales to the sail.

Boat Set Up.

Low cost self adhesive tell tails are available from chandlers and online retailers, or you can make your own by poking some red wool through the sail with a darning needle. Place one tell tale on each side of the sail, positioning them a third of the way up the sail, and two feet back from the leading edge.

Adjustment of the bridle which attaches the sheet to the canoe can make a big difference to upwind performance, make sure that the bridle is symmetrical, and that when the sheet is pulled in tight, the boom is close to, but not on, the centreline of the canoe.

The Outer Tell Tale.

tell talestell talesThe outer tell tale is the one on the far side of the sail, it is easiest to see if you use a white sail. If the outer tell tail is not flying when you are sailing up wind (Fig 9), then you should turn up into the wind until it starts to fly (Fig 10).

When you start to sail with tell tales it is best to only concern yourself with the outer tell tail. Don't worry about the inner tell tale at first, just watch the outer tell tail, and make sure that the boom is close to the centreline.


Changes in course and wind direction will stop the tell tales flying, so you need to keep a constant eye on them. The longer you take to notice that a tell tale has stopped flying, the longer it will take you to get to your destination. This because you will not be sailing as fast as is possible and also you will not be pointing as high into the wind as possible

The Inner Tell Tale.

We're getting quite advanced now. To get your canoe sailing at maximum efficiency, you will need to get both the inner and the outer tell tale flying....

i.Start from a point where you are sailing upwind, with the outer tell tale flying, and the boom close to the centreline of the canoe,

ii. Turn slightly away from the wind until the outer tell tale stops flying, and the inner tell tale starts to fly,

iii.Ease the sheet very slightly until both tell tales are flying,

iv. Steer upwind a little until the boom is again close to the centreline of the canoe.

Keep an eye on both tell tales as you do this, make sure that your steering is not too abrupt, and that both tell tales keep flying.




In the following photos, the boat is on starboard tack (the wind is blowing from right to left.)




tell tales

The tell tale on the far side of the sail is streaming nicely from right to left showing the wind smoothly flowing along the outside of the sail. If you can steer the canoe, with the boom pulled in close to the centre line of the canoe, and keep the far tell tale flying like this, you will be sailing efficiently upwind.








tell tales

If you turn too much to the left, eventually the wind will not be able to follow the far side of the sail and the sail will stall. The far tell tale will stop flowing backwards and will either droop down or point upwards. When this happens you will have lost all the drive from the far side of the sail which will cause the canoe to slow down.

You will also not be pointing as high as possible which will further slow down your progress upwind.

The inside tell tale will be flying but as long as the far side tell tale has drooped you can ignore this. The canoe needs to be gently turned to the right until the far tell tale flicks back up horizontally again as the wind starts to flow along the outside of the sail again.


tell talesIn a good strong and steady wind it is possible to steer the canoe  such that both the outer and inner tell tales fly horizontally backwards. This is the position that gives the maximum power.

To sail upwind as quickly as possible, keep the boom pulled into the centre of the canoe and steer to keep both flying.

If the near side starts to droop, turn the canoe slightly to the left (away from the wind).

If the far tell tale starts to droop or point upwards, turn the canoe slightly to the right (into the wind)