Learning to Sail

woman sailing

If you’ve dreamed of learning to sail but are short on friends with yachts, a sailing club or school is the perfect shortcut to life on the high seas. The trick to getting started is momentum—learn the basics online or in a class, then be friendly and hardworking in exchange for crew experience on someone else’s boat. Before you know it, you’ll be pondering what kind of boat you want for your own—and happily showing newbies the ropes.

Start Online
If you’re landlocked, or just eager to get started, start with an online course. You’ll need to learn a lot before you get on the water, and there’s no reason you can’t learn at home. The American Sailing Association offers an online starter course that will help you learn the anatomy of a sailboat, how sailboats use wind to move through the water, rights of way, sail trim, safety, basic knots, basic commands and lingo. Once you get on the water for your first lesson you’ll likely feel like you’ve forgotten everything you learned online, but you’ll be surprised how many basic skills you can learn without ever setting foot on a boat.

Small Boat Racing Clubs
The best way to learn to sail is to start small. Look to your nearest large body of water for a yacht club or sailing school that teaches sailing (or racing) on small boats called Sunfish, dinghies or Lasers. These boats range from 10 to 14 feet long, are easy to maneuver and a great way to learn the basics of sailing—including sail trim and tacking (making the boat change direction). Don’t be afraid to jump right in and start racing little boats. With an experienced sailor in the dinghy with you, you’ll learn fast on the fly!

Take a Vacation Course
If you live near a large lake or on the coast, check your local yacht club for sailing classes or a sailing school. If you don’t live near water—no problem. These groups often cater to out-of-town students by offering week or week-end long basic sailing certification classes so you can study and vacation at the same time. You’ll likely have one day of classroom work where you’ll learn the anatomy of a sailboat, safety, basic knot skills, basic maritime law and rights of way, commands and sail trim, then you’ll get out on the water in a 20′ to 24′ sailboat for a couple of days of hands-on practice. Some schools can even arrange for you to live aboard the sailboat during the class so you won’t even need a hotel room if you’re traveling.

Join a Race Club
Where there’s water, there are sailors. Where there’s more than one sailor, there’s usually a race. Race sailing is a long tradition and tends to be a friendly, open culture where experts are happy to train newcomers in exchange for hard work (and cold beverages). Find out if there is a race sailing club near you and call to ask if you can come to a meeting. By joining the club, you’ll get to attend their events. Show up, be friendly and let people know you’re looking for a ride in exchange for crew work.

Once you’ve learned the basics of sailing, many yacht clubs have “bareboat” programs where members share the use of a small fleet of boats for a yearly fee. These fees can be surprisingly affordable—around $500 a year—for use of a basic sailboat whenever you want it.