Direct numerical simulations of the Navier–Stokes equations are performed to achieve a better understanding of the behaviour of wakes generated by wind turbines. The simulations are performed by combining the in-house developed computer code EllipSys3D with the actuator-line methodology. In the actuator-line method, the blades are represented by lines along which body forces representing the loading are introduced. The body forces are determined by computing local angles of attack and using tabulated aerofoil coefficients. The advantage of using the actuator-line technique is that it is not needed to resolve blade boundary layers and instead the computational resources are devoted to simulating the dynamics of the flow structures. In the present study, approximately 5 million mesh points are used to resolve the wake structure in a 120-degree domain behind the turbine. The results from the computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations are evaluated and the downstream evolution of the velocity field is depicted. Special interest is given to the structure and position of the tip vortices. Further, the circulation from the wake flow field is computed and compared to the distribution of circulation on the blades. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.