Unless you were born in a sailing environment, you are unlikely to have access to a sailing boat when you start toying with the idea of sailing. You may love the idea of cruising the world without having ever stepped on a sailboat. But is this really for you? Many people begin with the question of how they should to start sailing, but unfortunately abandon the idea under the impression that it is too difficult or expensive. Fortunately, the Internet now provides a wealth of information, and more and more people are finding their way through the winding path towards learning to sail.
Indeed, advice available online is so ample that it can cause some confusion. Some will say that you should start gradually, possibly taking dinghy lessons first before doing a more comprehensive skipper course. Others will argue for a shock-therapy, such as the ‘go and get into trouble’ attitude. The truth is that there is no single ‘best’ choice that fits everybody’s lifestyle. If you live near the coast or a lake, you will have much more opportunities than someone in the middle of the Sahara. Personal finances, family and career restrictions can also determine your choice. But these difficulties should not deter you from pursuing your dream. Instead, all you need is to find an alternative that works best for you. Here are a few tips on how you can start sailing. And more importantly, have a lot of fun!
1 Have you considered dinghy sailing?
Dinghy sailing is an excellent choice for getting hands-on sailing experience. Essentially, a dinghy is a small yacht without a cabin or an engine. The principles of dinghy sailing are, in general terms, the same as those that you need to sail a large cruiser.
There are however a few advantages in learning to sail with a dinghy. The main one is that they are much more responsive than cruisers. Under good wind conditions, you will only need to move the tiller gently to feel the boat change course immediately. This quick response is really helpful to understand how things work and to get used to reacting quickly. Dinghies also give a great sense of how sails interact with the wind and how to trim them for performance. The boat’s response to heeling is also evident in dinghies. The fact that dinghies don’t have a heavy keel means that you will have to learn how to balance the boat and avoid excessive heeling. You may need to capsize a few times before you understand how to avoid it, but as long as you are capable of holding your breadth for a few seconds, it should be fun. Dinghy sailing is also much cheaper than cruising.
It is true that you will need to learn a lot more things before sailing a yacht, but most of the skills that you learn with dinghies are directly transferrable to yacht sailing. Finally, you won’t cruise the world on a dinghy, but some people have done incredible adventures on dinghies:
2 Take a taster sailing session
Wondering whether you or your family will really enjoy it? I’m sure you will, but just in case you aren’t sure, take a taster sail session. Many sailing schools offer one- or half-day taster sessions that will introduce you to sailing. These are a great ways of getting started with the basics of sailing without investing much time or money. A few hours aboard with an experienced instructor will give you the chance to clarify all the questions that you may have initially. Instructors usually cover a few topics that are taught in more comprehensive courses, giving you the opportunity to understand what these courses would involve were you to take your training further.
3 Sailing holidays
Still not convinced or you would like a longer cruising life experience? Try a week long sailing holiday. Sailboat charters offer the opportunity of experiencing the cruising life without much hassle. Charters can be either ‘bareboat’ or ‘skippered’. The former is for people who can already skipper a sailboat, while the latter includes an on-board skipper. While the skipper can in theory do all the work for you, you may volunteer to help and ask them to teach you while you are cruising. Charters are available in some of the most beautiful waters in the world. Simply pick your perfect destination and enjoy it! If you’d like to socialise with other sailors, you may consider joining a flotilla. Flotillas are basically a bunch of yachts sailing together and supported by a lead boat.
4 Introductory courses
If you’d like to start with a bit more formal training, then you may consider an entry level sailing course. The Royal Yacht Association (RYA) offers a course called ‘Competent Crew’ that is 100% practical. The course usually runs during five consecutive days aboard, although you can split it into two or three weekends. If you can, I particularly recommend the five consecutive days option, which will give you a true live-aboard experience. The course covers the basics of crewing such as ropework, helming and handling sails. This also gives you a ‘RYA Competent Crew Certificate’, which is the first certificate of RYA’s Offshore Cruising Scheme. The entry level course offered by the American Sailing Association (ASA 101, ‘Basic Keelboat Sailing’) would be another alternative. ASA 101 is usually delivered in two days and has a mix of theory and practical work.
5 Volunteer to crew other people’s boats
Have you got friends who own yachts? If you have, that’s great, but unfortunately most beginners are not that lucky. Not a problem, there are many people looking for extra hands on deck.
Do you need experience? Previous crewing experience or training usually helps, as skippers will in general prefer a skilled crew. However, many sailors are happy to take complete beginners as they learn the basics quickly. Start looking for easy recreational sailing, since experience is not critical in this case. It is also good for you to start simple, and gradually build up confidence before taking up new challenges. I met a guy whose first crewing experience was from the UK to Northern Spain across the Gulf of Biscay. He spent three days seasick because of rough weather in the gulf. As you build your sailing mileage, you can decide whether to join yachts for long passages. Skippers doing boat deliveries also actively look for crew.
Many Internet sailing forums have specific sections on crewing opportunities. There are also a number of dedicated websites for people searching for boats and skippers looking for crew.
6 Buy and read good introductory books on sailing
If you are a self-learner, then this may be a great starting point. There are hundreds of great books available that will teach you the basics of sailing. Our section on Basics also covers a few topics that are taught in entry-level sailing courses. Reading an introductory book will clarify many things before you even start sailing. Having a bit of theoretical background before you start will help you get the most out of your first sessions.
7 Join a sailing club
Sailing clubs are a great way of dipping your toes into the sailing community. Most clubs have boats that can be used by members either for free or at low rates. They also organise events such as races, rallies, sailing holidays and social events. One of the great things about joining a club is that other members are often looking for crew, so you are likely to find crewing experience more easily. Participating in the club’s social events will give you the chance to meet like-minded people. Sailors usually like to talk about sailing and are keen to help beginners. Most clubs also provide training at lower prices for members.
Each sailing club has its own character. Some are more focused on dinghy racing and others on cruising. I even know one whose main focus on the bar! So it’s important that you look for information about your local clubs before joining the one that best fits you. Checking information available on the club’s website, such as events calendar, photos, etc is a good starting point. I also recommend that you visit the clubs during a weekend and talk to a couple of members to get an idea of what is available.
8 Purchase a boat and find someone to teach you
Last but not least, your own boat! Buying a boat is the most expensive of all the alternatives, so I left it to the end. While you can find true bargains on the second-hand market, the cost of owning a sailboat is in general high. People usually say that boats are holes in the water into which you throw money. It is also said that boat ownership gives you two intense pleasures: one on the day buy it, and the other when you sell it. The main costs are typically associated with mooring and maintenance. However, depending on your current lifestyle and future life plans, boat ownership can actually be your best choice. Financially, it is particularly appealing if you decide to live aboard. And if you are really decided to go cruising for a long time, then this is definitely for you.
Boat ownership is itself a subject of learning, and one that you will only master if you own a boat. Maintaining a sailboat requires good understanding all the systems aboard and the ability to fix them. Developing these skills takes time and patience, but there are good books and other resources available online to help. More importantly, seek advice from other boat owners who already know how to fix things.
If you buy a boat but cannot sail her, you will need someone to help you out, at least initially. Many sailing schools offer own-boat tuitions for new owners, but these can be expensive. If you are a member of a sailing club, you could find other members who are willing to help you in your first ventures.
As a final tip, whatever works best for you, go and get started!