Before you get your boat rigged and head away from the dock for the first time, there are a several things you should check. Whatever the other goals of your sail may be, you probably plan to safety spend time on the water and safety return back to the dock. To ensure success you need to check the weather, the tides and currents, hazards to navigation, your boat, and your equipment. Checking these 5 things each time you sail takes only a few minutes and can help keep you safe on the water.


The two weather elements you should be most concerned about when you are sailing are the wind and potential storms. You can check the weather by watching the TV, checking the internet, watching the sky, or listening to your VHF radio. You should be sure that there are no thunderstorms or severe weather expected in your area during the time you expect to be on the water. If this is your first time on the water, you should allow for a few extra hours of clear sailing in case you don't arrive back at the dock on time. You should also check the wind forecast. While too much wind can be a bad thing for a beginner, not enough wind makes it difficult to move your boat and you can become stranded. For your first time on the water you ideally want between 10-15 knots of wind. You should also know which direction the wind is coming from.

Tides and Currents

Before you leave the dock, you should check to find out if the area you are sailing in experiences tides and currents. If you are sailing in a body of water that experiences tides you should consult your local tide chart and if possible plan to sail when the tide is high. You could also choose to sail out with the tide and back in with the tide or vice versus. If you are sailing in a river, it is important that you sail against the current to start, that way you can safely return even if the wind dies. Even areas that don't normally have a current may develop a current. If you are sailing in a new place, it is important to pay attention to what the water is doing as you get ready to go sailing.

Underwater Hazards

The last thing you want on your first sail is to hit something. If you are headed out sailing for the first time or are sailing in a new place, it is important to know what dangerous rocks, shoals, sunken boats, or other hazards lurk under the water. Depending on the size of your boat and the distance you plan to cover, you can either consult a chart or ask someone familiar with the area. Remember that a Harbor that you sailed at when the tide was high may pose another set of hazards when the tide is low. It is also important to know your boats draft (depth underwater) so you know how shallow you can sail.

Check your Boat

In addition to rigging your boat (which is outside the scope of this article) there are a few things you should check on board your boat. First it is important to make sure that your boat is rigged properly. While it may sound silly, you should double check that you have all the parts. I have seen more than one person push away from a dock only to realize they forgot to put on their rudder and have no means of steering. In addition you should check that the lines and metal on the boat are not frayed or broken.

Have a Plan

It is important to have a plan for two important reasons: so you can bring the appropriate supplies for the length of your sail, and so that if you don't come back on time someone know where you are. If you are planning on being out on the water for the 1st time or the 301st time, it is important that someone know your plan. These are some of the important things that should be communicated to someone on land:

  • Where you are going
  • What time you plan to return - I like to give an expected time I'll return as well as a time they should start to worry
  • What to do if you don't return - If you are going out in a small boat, you may only want someone to come tow your boat in, however if you are planning on a long distance sail offshore and you motor has been acting up, you may need a larger search
  • What communication and emergency equipment you have with you -You should let your person know if you plan to have your cell phone or a radio

Equipment to Have Onboard

Even if you are planning a short sail, it is important to take certain equipment with you. Here is a list of some of the things you should bring with you. It is best to put this equipment in a plastic bag or a dry bag to keep it from getting wet. If you are on a small sailboat, it is a good idea to tie this bag to the boat in case you capsize. If you are planning to sail within 50 yards of the dock, this list may be overkill, but in general these items should be available.

  • Life Jackets for every person onboard
  • Communication device - a VHF radio and/or cell phone - remember you may not have cell phone coverage where you are going
  • Water and food - even for a short sail you should take a water bottle.
  • Sunscreen, sunglasses, and hat - The water reflects the sun and makes it very easy to get burnt
  • A watch
  • A shirt or jacket in case it cools off or you get wet -

Sailing is a fun and rewarding activity. When you are learning to sail these 5 things can help keep you safe and make your early sailing trips more successful.