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Learning to sail: What to know before you get on a boat

By Edited Nov 24, 2013 0 0

For many people, the expense, uncertainty and plain physics involved in sailing keeps them firmly routed to land. If learning to sail is a dream you have, here is what you need to know before you get started. Sailing has changed dramatically over the last century, and while the traditional sailing experience is still available, the boats, navigation, and even the sailor have changed it from a livelihood into a sport. This article describes four general types of sailing and suggests ways you can get out on the water and finally learn to sail. Before you get on a boat, decide what type of sailing you hope to do and what you need to learn to achieve that goal.

Traditional Sailing

Traditionally, sailboats were built of mainly of wood and used square or rectangular shaped sails, making it difficult to sail into the wind. For this reason, traditional sailing routes were downwind. Navigation aboard these boats used the boats speed and the elapsed time to determine the location as well as celestial navigation. Many sail training vessels today use these methods to teach students to sail. These programs range in length from a few hours to long ocean passages and often combine sail training with oceanography or maritime studies. The American Sail Training Association (ASTA) provides information about many of these programs. Most of these programs cost money; however, there are a few boats that will take you on and train you as part of the crew.

Modern Cruising

With the ever changing technology of today's world, the modern cruising sailboat is more likely to be made of fiberglass or metal then wood and to use a GPS rather than a sextant. All around the world people sail from port to port, anchoring on many nights to enjoy the local culture. These people travel on personal cruisers or boats chartered from rental agencies. If your hope is to cruise a local or foreign coast, you will need a basic understanding of sail handling, navigation, weather, basic boat mechanics and seamanship. There are many independent vessels and programs that teach basic keelboat sailing, although these will all cost you. You can also charter a boat from a rental company with a Captain and pick up as much information from him/her as you can while aboard the vessel. If you have the luxury of time, heading to your local marina and lurking on the docks will often provide you with an opportunity to join a vessel as crew for a day or a transit, people often need help moving their vessels north or south during the spring and fall. You can also join your local yacht club or sailing club to learn some of the basics and to start meeting people with boats.


While many people who cruise also race, racing is the facet of the sailing world that has grown the most over the last century. Racing ranges from around the world solo races, to super fast small boats races, to relaxed racing followed by Dark and Stormies on the dock. Racing involves a detailed knowledge of sail trim and the racing rules as well as the skills to get to and from the race course. In general, racing boats are constantly looking for crew, especially for weekly race series. Scanning the internet for races, or contacting your local sailing club will usually land you a spot on a boat. Even if you plan to cruise, racing is a great way to learn the basics by allowing you time aboard a boat to watch others with minimal cost to yourself.

Small Boat Sailing

While some people who enjoy small boat sailing also race, many people just want to sail for a day on a nearby lake or the ocean in a boat they can handle alone or with a few friends. Small boats range from small 8' or smaller tubs to sunfish and lasers, to keel boats. In order to safely enjoy a day sail, you need a basic understanding of sail handling, seamanship, and local navigation. The best way to learn how to sail a small boat is spend time on the water in a safe environment. There are many sailing school or yacht clubs around the US that teach these basic skills while providing a nearby motorboat and skilled sailor in case of mishap. While there are great learn to sail books, applying the theory to a boat in the real world takes time and should always be done with a safe rescue plan.

Learning to sail can be an amazing experience whether you choose to race on your local lake, or cross the Pacific using only celestial navigation. Just determine what type of sailing you are interested in, what skills you are going to need, and you are on your way.



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