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Learning to Sail

Learning to sail is relatively easy and most people can be taught to move a sailboat around in a couple of hours.

Moving a sail boat around safely and expertly can take a life time of practice! Most of us are somewhere in between.

Lucky for us, learning to sail is great fun! A plus is that it doesn't cost a fortune either.

First Steps in Learning to Sail

In order to learn to sail you have to get yourself on a boat! You have a few options.

Take a Course

Probably the easiest way to teach yourself to sail is to take a course. Most boat clubs will offer sailing courses. All things being equal I would choose to sail in a Dinghy first instead of a keel boat. The skills you develop are transferable to larger boats and there is a wonderful immediacy to small boats.

Learning first in a keelboat is less scairy I think but he skills do not transfer to dinghy sailing as well as in the other way around.

Taking a sailing course is one of the safest ways of learning to sail. You don't have to worry about getting a boat, safety equipment, back up system if things go wrong, and there is someone to ask questions to.

Crew for Someone Willing to Show you the Ropes (literally)

Most boat clubs have race nights and skippers are often scrambling to get reliable crew. For this reason, clubs offer Crewing Memberships at often quite low prices. This is a superb way to learn to sail if you are confident enough and someone is willing to teach you.

I had canoed and paddled and motor boated but never sailed. A friend once asked me to come along on her Wayfarer dinghy as crew in a race and I was hooked. I only went out a few times but I knew this was for me.

If you are willing to show up and crew regularly many clubs will offer a crewing membership at reduced rates.

Get a Boat and Go Out.

That's pretty much the path I took. I got plans, built a boat and went on to learn to sail her.

Used boats are not hard to come by and are not expensive. Check Craigslist and Kijiji. Ask around at the clubs, people get interested then get busy, the kids grow up, people retire. It's easier if you have a place to store her and easy access to launch facilities. Otherwise you need to find a sailing club where you can keep your boat. Many of the sailing clubs, as opposed to social yacht clubs, are not expensive and will welcome you particularly if they are eager to add to their racing members.

Some boats are better than others and you need to do some research before you decide to buy, build or acquire a boat. Your main goal is to match your needs to the proper boat.

What do you Need to Know, First Steps in Learning to Sail

Its always easier and safer to be with someone who know what they are doing. Don't go out by yourself unless you are confident that conditions and boat are safe.

This summer while sailing in a lot of wind, I ran across an inflatable dinghy filled with obvious land lubbers, just drifting about a mile and a half off shore. They had no idea they were in trouble and certainly could not have gotten back to shore. I called the marine unit that came and rescued them. I was not in a position to tow or take them on in the rough conditions. I stayed close-by till they were safe.

The Absolute First Step is to Make Sure You are SAFE

More to the point, as safe as you can be. If you are taking a course or going on someone's boat you will not be directly responsible except for wearing your life preserver...er.. I mean personal flotation device.

If you are ze capitaine YOU have to make sure you have the safety gear in order. The law requires you to have a personal flotation device and a bailer which could be a bucket, scoop or a pump. You also need a throwing line that floats, a line you can be towed with, a whistle or noisemaker, paddle etc. There are various requirements depending on the type of boat and size and if you have a motor or not.

Transport Canada has the safety equipment Information

You need to check your boat to make sure its safe. Look at flotation chambers,lines, stays if you have them.

Make sure you float without taking in too much water and that any automatic bailers are not open or broken.

A third safety requirement is to make sure you are dressed for the weather. If there is a chance you will tip in cold water, wear a wetsuit. It's colder on the water so have an extra windbreaker or gloves. Think about what will happen "if".

Finally check the weather forecast. Nasty conditions come up really fast and can get you in a heap of trouble in no time at all.

I have made my Skerry boat sails out of orange polytarp so I will be visible when I'm out. Not because I love orange. That way I am more likely to be noticed if anything goes wrong. I sail alone most of the time.

Helps if you know how to swim, if you've paddled or if you've been on the water before.

Learning to Sail, You Need To Know This BEFORE Going Out.

Before you go out, there are a few basic things you must know.

You should know how to steer you boat, you will have a tiller and a rudder. Figure out how they work! Seems like a silly thing to say but some people don't understand how to turn. Getting towed and steering is a simple way of getting the feel of a tiller.

You need to know that you can't sail upwind, only side way at various angles. So get yourself a little sailing book and figure this out. You need to understand on a basic level how you sail works and how to go forward.

Before you go out, tip your boat in deep water and bring it back upright (don't stand on the ground to do this). You should know how to get back in and empty your boat too. Tipping is a regular occurrence in many dinghies and you should be prepared.

You should know the theory on how to tack and jibe. Your little sailing book will explain this and you need to read this twice. In particular check the jibe part. That can get you in trouble.

Figure out what you're going to do if everything goes wrong and you simply cannot control the boat. Do you drop the sail, paddle to shore, call for help. What you do depends on conditions but you should know what your best option is. You should have OPTIONS all ready to choose from.

Finally figure out the approach you will take to get back to shore, to the dock or to the mooring safely. This will usually consist of bringing you boat into the wind and gliding gently to wherever you are going. PLAN this before going out. Remember that if you have a daggerboard it needs to come up before you beach your boat. Same for a fixed rudder, you don't want to grind it into shore.

Learning to Sail, Going Out.

OK, you think you're ready.

Do it, leave the land behind and spread your wings, (sails). That for me is one of the biggest thrill ever. The day I cast off in my brand new little boat and actually sailed around. I then proceeded to jibe unexpectedly, almost tipped, dropped the line, and made straight for the break-wall at what seemed like a million miles an hour. I recovered and enjoyed an amazing if scary afternoon.

Learning to Sail the Next Step.

It will take you a bit of time to learn what you have read about. Tacking and Jibing are not learned from books. You will quickly learn how to get out of irons!

My first season in the Skerry boat was spent figuring out just the basics of sailing. Since wind and waves are always different there is lots to learn. Just figuring out how to move around safely and how to spill wind when you get caught in too much of a blow will take a while.

One of the most difficult things I finally figured out, while learning to sail, was how to come back to the dock without bashing the boat against the dock boards.

The most useful was how to deal with too much wind. How to safely spill wind and still keep control.

I gradually got the feel for my little boat and got to understand when something was going to happen that I needed to respond to. For example the sprit sail I use has no boom vang and lifts when there is a gust or I'm not controlling my boat properly. It took a long time to get the feel of when this was happening.

You will gradually learn how to read the conditions and know how you should approach the waves and the wind.

Learning to sail More Stuff to Learn

Depending on your interests you will want to develop your skills further. You will want to learn a few knots. Here are my MUST LEARN knots

Racing is a fabulous way of honing your skills. Some people really enjoy touring from their boat.

Building and maintaining your boat will expand your understanding of the structural side of sailing.

Taking lessons after you have mastered the basics is really helpful as is going out with more expert sailors.

Have fun.


Be safe, don't go out in big wind, big waves, lots of current. Ask experienced people what they think. Tell people where you are going and when you're coming back. If you can, carry a vhf radio or at least a cell phone in a waterproof bag.

email me if you find mistakes, I'll fix them and we'll all benefit: Christine