Traditional Sailing Instruments

Most sailboats have mechanical aids that provide information a helmsperson and crew use to sail a boat efficiently. Mechanical sailing instruments include wind vanes, sailing yarns, tell tales, clinometers and load cells. The instruments we discuss here are not to be confused with electronic instrument systems that appear separately online.

Wind Vanes

Sailing dinghies and other small sailboats that lack electronic sailing instruments often have a mechanical wind vane. Examples include Windex and Spar-Fly™ wind vanes by Davis Instruments which register small wind shifts that may be too subtle for an unaided helmsperson to notice. In a race situation, a helmsperson’s ability to quickly react to small wind shifts can make the difference between winning or not. Many wind vanes include reference tabs that align with the pointing arrow when the boat is close hauled.

Sailing Yarns and Tell Tales

Not to be confused with fables and fanciful stories, these are actual yarns or lightweight ribbons that are attached to a boat’s sails, shrouds and backstay. Depending on how the yarns react to the wind, a helmsperson can either head up or fall off and trim the sails for optimum performance.


Normally installed on the centerline of the boat at the forward end of the cockpit, clinometers register a boat’s angle of heel in degrees. Provided you know your boat’s maximum righting moment in degrees, extreme readings on your clinometer can warn you when capsizing is imminent.

Load Cells

Load cells are sometimes used on sailboats to gauge forestay, shroud and halyard tension. They are often used on high-tech sailboats to gauge backstay tension, which must be frequently adjusted to optimize performance on various points of sail.