Sea of Thieves' sailing is wonderful, but part of why it's so wonderful is that it's also pretty difficult to get right.
Dealing with the wind, the weather, and even just easily-forgettable sailing terms can be tricky enough as it is, even without other rival ships coming into the equation.
Here in this guide then we'll be explaining some of those more complex parts, like how to sail into the wind, as well as offering some advice on winning ship combat and explaining those weird sailing terms for the role-players amongst you, too.
Sea of Thieves sailing terms explained
To start with the very basics, here are the main sailing terms you're going to hear your overly-enthusiastic role-playing pirate friends shouting at you over voice chat, that it would really help to remember.
Sea of Thieves sailing terms:
- Galleon - The three- or four-player ship, also referred to as a Galley.
- Sloop - The smaller one- or two-player ship.
- Port - The left side of the ship, as you look forwards from the wheel.
- Starboard - The right side of the ship, as you look forwards from the wheel.
- Crow's Nest - The little platform, or balcony, at the very top of the main mast, used for viewing long distances.
- Mast - The large vertical pole holding the sail.
- Bow - The front end of the ship.
- Stern - The rear end of the ship.
- Helm - Where you steer the boat from. In Sea of Theives this is always the wheel.
- Boom - The horizontal beam attached to the main mast which holds up the sail.
- Tack - Or tacking into the wind, is to turn across the wind, and is the best way to sail quickly "into the wind". More on this below!
With those out of the way, let's dive into the basics of how sailing works, and some starter tips for improving your time on the waves before we get into the more advanced stuff below.
Sea of Thieves sailing basics explained
Sailing well is about coordinating and communicating well - or, if you're on your own, it's about coordinating those various elements yourself and knowing how to multitask them effectively.
A well-organised crew will almost always come out on top against disorganised rivals, so the first thing to know is how you should split the roles - or which roles you need to juggle on smaller crews. You can reasonably break sailing down into:
- Managing sail length and direction
- Managing the anchor
- Repairing holes
- Bucketing out flooding water
- Loading and firing cannons
- Scouting and managing direction (especially on galleons, where the helm's view is obscured by the sails and the map is out of view)
- Fighting off invaders
The way you manage these really depends on the size of your ship and crew, and the situation you're in - there's no point sticking someone on cannon-loading duty when you're in an empty stretch of ocean, but likewise there's no need for sticking someone up the crow's nest to scout when you're locked in combat with a load of enemy vessels.
Our recommendation is that, on a four-person galleon, you have one person steering, one focusing on scouting and direction from the top of the crow's nest, and two people going between the sails and anchor as required (the anchor is deadly slow to raise on the larger vessel, but speeds up the more of you there are to push it round.)
On three-person galleon, you can afford to lose the scout at the top of the crow's nest and instead have them going between direction and sails, and the other non-steering person going between sails and the anchor.
On a two-person sloop, on person should steer, manage the nearby anchor, and use the nice trick of looking through the gap at the back of the ship to manage direction and the map. The other should go between managing sails, cannons, and repairs.
On a one-person ship, you've got to juggle it all yourself! Doing this effectively comes with time and knowledge, but we've found it's very doable with a little practise.
To dive into a little more detail, here's how everything actually works, and the best practice for managing it.
Steering is about getting a feel for it over time, but there are a few things to know. The wheel has marked, golden handles - the default is for that marked handle to be at the top - 12 o'clock, you could say - and when you turn away and then back to the top you'll here a slight clunk, like it's hitting a notch, which lets you know it's back in the centre again.
That's important because the gold handle also appears when you turn the wheel to an extreme direciton either way. If you fully lock it to the far clockwise or anticlockwise direction it'll show up, but this time without the click - so sound is the most important factor when you're trying to notice which way the wheel's actually facing. If you're not sure, give it a little wiggle to try and hear the sound, like you'd wiggle a car's gear stick to feel if it's in neutral or in gear.
Remember that it takes a long time to turn, and likewise to react in general to your actions at the helm. Say you're turning but now want to straighten up: allow time for the ship to react. If you're turning from north to west, and want to stop at west, then start straighening the wheel at north-west and by west it'll have come to a nice stop. If you straighten up after arriving at the direction you want to face, you're going to end up going past it and having to adjust once again.
The sails differ between ships - the sloop has one, the galleon has three - but they work in the same way. One line (rope) is used to set the sail's length, and the other to set its direction.
The obvious point is that, to go as fast as possible, you want the sails to be filled properly with the wind. So if the wind is blowing from left to right, the sails should be on the far right. If it's blowing from the rear (stern) to the front (bow), then putting your sails straight forward will fill them. Look for the lines in the air or, even better, the direction the flag on top of the mast is blowing for a clear idea of the wind's direction.
Changing the sail's length affects your speed - and interestingly your speed also affects how tight you can turn. You need to go slower to perform a tighter turn, so if things are getting hair and you need to perform a sharp turn to the right, you should both lock the wheel all the way to the right and shorten the sails as quickly as possible.
At high speeds with full sails, it'll take a very long time to turn all the way around, but note that you can perform a "handbrake turn" (and get an acheivement for doing so) by turning the wheel fully left or right and dropping the anchor, which will instantly spin you round. This doesn't damage the ship - despite it sounding rather unhealthy - and is a fantastic way to outmaneuvre foes and surprise them in a high-speed chase.
Listen out for the very satisfying "whoomph" noise to know when your sails are properly filled by the wind, and be aware that the wind changes as well as your own direction, so for top speeds you need to be constantly adjusting them.
Direction, maps and tables
The captain's quarters differs slightly between ships - on the sloop it's the sort of halfway-deck at the back, whereas on the galleon there's an entire room dedicated to it. Either way, it always houses the main map and the table that you pin voyages to to get started. A quick tip for the galleon - there's a small balcony out the back of the captain's quarters, and if you follow it all the way around it makes for a great spot to hide a chest.
It's worth repeating that you can view the map on the sloop by looking over the rear balcony to the lower level, so you don't need to keep running down there if you lined it up well.
Note that the person at the helm has a handy compass in sight at all times, and so you should really always call out directions in the universal terms of north, south, east and west rather than left or right. Everyone has a compass of their own in their inventory, too, so you can always check direction wherever you are.
Cannons and cannonballs
Cannons, like with everything else, work in a fairly common-sense manner. If you're holding a cannonball you can load the cannon without interacting with it first, and similarly you can fire and reload the cannon without having to come off it, reload, and get back onto it again.
You can also climb inside cannons if they're empty by standing at the for end of them and interacting - but note that you can't aim once you're inside, so line up your shot first! Note that you'll take damage if you land from a noticable height when firing, but not when you land in water or, usefully, if you fire yourself into a vertical surface.
Another handy cannon tip - you can tell if they're loaded quickly by looking at the little bit of lighter rope. If there's a short stub of rope sticking out the top of the rear end of a cannon, it's loaded; if not, it isn't.
When your ship takesdamage, prioritise patching up the holes that water is coming through before anything else. The time it takes to fill a bucket with water and throw it overboard is about the same as it takes to fill the ship back up with a bucketload of water.
You normally have enough time to patch up first, so look for holes that water is coming through and first patch them with wooden planks (you need to have the plank equipped) and then get bucketing. Remember to actually get it overboard though if you hit a wall or something as you're throwing it, the water will just stay on the ship.
Note, as well, that holes that are above water level don't take water in - so leave those until last. Do still patch them up though, as in rougher, higher seas water will start to come through them. Also, beware that during combat if you're patching up a hole and it gets hit by a cannon again, you'll take damage and get blasted backwards, having to start repairing again.
Other sailing tips to bear in mind
- The anchor drops almost instantly, but raises slowly - keep that in mind for how you use it.
- If you stop your ship but don't leave the wheel pointing straight ahead, it will continue to slowly rotate - be careful in doing so, because it can easily leave you pointing towards land or crash itself into rocks while you're away, which could mean it sinks without you even knowing!
- Rolling up your sails when you "park" is a good way to make it ever so slightly slower for a crafty pirate to make off with your ship, as they'd have to unfurl them to get going anywhere - and if you see your sails unfurled you'll immediately know someone's tampered with your boat.
- Look out for storms, they're not just lovely aesthetic skyboxes - your ship can take damage and just being in a thunderstorm will cause it to gradually fill up with water, even if there aren't any holes anywhere.
How to sail into the wind in Sea of Thieves
Sailing into the wind is, again, a surprisngly realistic interpretation of how you do it on an actual boat.
The main thing to know is that you should never sail directly into the wind. Regardless of how you angle your sails or how high or low they are, as it's always going to be painfully slow - and worse yet leave you open for an ambush.
To sail into the wind effectively, you need to "tack", or in other words turn, in a sort of zig-zagging fashion, across the wind to use it to your advantage.
Say the wind is flowing from north to south, and you want to sail directly into it, from south to north. The first thing you should do is turn to the north-west, which would be your left, and sail for a short while. Then, turn to the north east, wich would be your right, and sail in that direction for a while, and then repeat.
To do this effectively you need to closely watch several things: namely your sail direction, the wheel direction, and the direction of the wind (in case it changes). You also want to look for a clear route on the map with enough width for you to zig zag through it effectively without having to sail around islands and so on.
In terms of the sails, you should always be trying to "catch" the wind in them. So if you're sailing north-west and the wind is blowing north to south like we said above, you need to sails on your ship's left (port) to catch it.
We found there's a nice timing trick for how to do this as efficiently as possible, too. If you're sailing north-west still and want to now turn to the north-east to carry on zig-zagging, first turn the wheel fully locked to the right (clockwise).
Then, head to the sails while that's locked to the right, and turn them all the way to the right. By the time the sails have turned all the way to the right it'll be almost exactly the right time to straighten up the wheel. Continue on for a bit then repeat - lock it hard left, go to the sails and turn them left, come back to the wheel and straighten it up, go straight on for a bit, repeat!
Treasure hunting for more guides like this? Best to start with our main Sea of Thieves guide, including voyages, quests, progression and what to do first, or if you're right at the end of the game, take a look at our guide to Pirate Legend rewards and the Mysterious Stranger explained. We also have step-by-step instructions on how to download and install Sea of Thieves; there's also a guide on the Sea of Thieves map and how to find every island location, shape and name, along with our guide to Sea of Thieves' chicken, pig and snake locations for Merchant Alliance Voyages, a guide to loot values and how to earn Sea of Thieves gold fast, info on the full set of Sea of Thieves controls for Xbox and PC, a long list of various Sea of Thieves tips and tricks, an in-depth explainer on the dastardly Skeleton Forts, Skull clouds and Stronghold Keys, a massive collection of advice on Sea of Thieves sailing, ship combat and how to sail into the wind, plus how to find and kill Sea of Thieves' Kraken, and finally some advice for those encountering Sea of Thieves LavenderBeard, CyanBeard and CinnamonBeard error messages, too.
How to defeat other ships and win ship combat in Sea of Thieves
The final, key element of sailing ships is combat which, if you've had luck like ours, will probably be something you have to deal with quite a lot.
The principles of combat are largely the same between ships, but the actual putting into practice of those really depends on the size of your ship and crew. Generally, the following tips always hold true:
- Don't sail front-on into an enemy - Not literally "don't crash into an enemy" (that can actually be a useful last resort...), but don't drive towards them head-on, especially if they're facing you side-on. In other words...
- Always keep the enemy to one side - This is because your cannons are on the side, and can't shoot directly forwards or backwards. The longer you keep enemies to your side and within the range of cannons, the better chance you have of winning a duel.
- Weight up the risks and rewards before you engage - How much loot do you have on board? How much do they have? How many of them are there compared to you? How much damage have you taken already? Are you any good at aiming?! Answer all of these before you decide to attack - you never know, if you didn't fire that pointless potshot they might have ignored you anyway.
- Keep your lights off - The lanterns around your ship can all be turned off, and this makes a massive difference to your visibility, especially at long distances. If you want to avoid being seen - either to avoid combat or to sneak up on enemies - then the rapid day/night cycle makes turning off your lamps is essential.
- Stay calm! - It's dead easy to panic when you're attacked out of the blue, but try to keep your head. Staying more organised and sticking to your roles will make a massive difference to your chances of success.
- Assign roles quickly - Get your scout off the crow's nest and onto repairs duty, for instance, and make sure everyone know's what they're responsible for and that the essentials (steering, repairs, cannons, fighting invaders) are covered before anything else.
- The best offence is sometimes the best defence, sometimes it's really not - Firing pirates out of cannons onto enemy ships is ridiculously fun, but there's a huge margin for error. If you do manage to get onto their ship, try to either: drop their anchor (to slow them down and make them easier to hit with cannons); blow up some explosive barrels; or distract people trying to repair the ship below deck.
- You can scuttle your ship if they nick it - The same idea as voting someone into the Brig, you can scuttle (sink and respawn) your ship if your team votes for it at any time. This is what you do if it gets stolen from you and there's no chance of getting it back.
- Go for the broadside - This is the ultimate goal, really, especially on a galleon. A broadside is when you get a full side of your ship firing at an enemy ship, ideally on repeat. If someone charges at you head-on, if you can turn to the side and nail them with several cannons firing at once, it's near impossible to lose.
- Aim cannons low - Damaging their ship above the waterline does nothing but send pirates flying if you manage to hit one. Your goal is to sink the ship, and to do that you need to damage it at or below water level, so try to hit their shop as low as possible to be most effective. Don't waste ammo if you're too close to hit them at the right height.
- Focus down invaders fast - It might seem counterintuitive to take people off their duties to kill a single attacker, but it's much worse to leave them wreaking havoc in one-on-ones than it is for several of you to quickly burst them down.
- Finally, stay prepared! - Fail to prepare and prepare to fail, etc. Whenever you set sail, do these things: stock up on bananas, cannonballs and wooden planks from the island where you're docked, making sure the on-ship stores are full and you have a few in your own inventory too. Fill every cannon with a cannonball from the start, so you can immediately fire when needed. Always have your weapon fully loaded when you're on a ship in peacetime, as it's a nightmare running below deck to reload in the middle of combat, and finally: always be on the lookout for enemies! With the wind in their favour, it's amazing how quickly you can be ambushed. Eyes on the horizon, mateys!