How do I learn to sail?

by Karen Earle Lile, Sail Sport Talk

Yes, sailing is fun and worth learning!  In order to sail, you need access to water that is deep enough, a sailboat that floats, wind, time to learn and an experienced sailing instructor.  There are professional US Sailing accredited sailing schools that teach sailing and have a formal training program with high standards for the teachers. These are the best way to learn how to sail if your time is limited, you want an organized and thorough approach to learning approved by an approved by the National governing body for the sport of sailing, and you can pay for lessons or get a scholarship.  But there are also a lot of sail training opportunities out there that are free or not part of a US Sailing accredited school system.  How do you decide what is best for you?  The purpose of this article is to give you some basics about boats, water, sailing, instructors, schools, safety, but also to help you screen potential sailing programs based on your circumstances, time, age, access to water, money available, personal comfort, social aspects desired and your skill achievement goals.   

What type of sailboat should I learn in?

Sailboats come in all sizes and types depending upon where in the world you are sailing.  Let’s look at the boats typically available in US waters.  Most sailing programs start you out on a monohull. This means the boat has just one bow (the pointy forward end of the boat) and it has one mast (a vertical pole made of wood/aluminum/etc.) that a sail is lifted on to make it possible for the boat to be propelled forward by wind power.  Sailing instructors teach on training boats, either a dingy or keelboat.  Most sail instruction programs for youth (18 and under) are on dingys and focus on racing.  Most sail instruction programs for adults are on keelboats and teach skills that are good for racing, cruising or even as an entry place for a sailing, navy or maritime career. 

What is a Sailboat Dingy?

The dingy is the smallest sailboats (under 15 feet long) is fast on the water and very responsive.  Dingys capsize when you don’t balance all the forces just right, which means they will tip on their sides with the sail in the water.  Part of learning to sail dingys is learning to set them upright after they capsize,which means in the beginning you end up in the water as well as on the boat.  

What is a Sailing Keelboat?

Keelboats are larger boats and are built not to capsize.   There is a permanent fin or structural member that extends under the boat at least 3’ below the surface of the water, that gives the boat stability so the boat doesn’t tip over on its side.   You don’t need to know how to swim, to learn to sail in a keelboat because they don’t capsize and put you in the water.  Keelboats used for training are typically 18’-26’ long.  

  • Sailing Portal in Berkeley Marina:  Uses a 24’ sloop J boat, model J/24 for Basic Keelboat and Basic Cruising Courses and a 36’ sloop sailboat for Bareboat Cruising Courses.  Register or Inquire here

What body of water can you sail on?

You can sail in bays, rivers, lakes, inland waters as well as out in the ocean.  One of the advantages of learning to sail with a professional accredited school, is that the school developers and teachers have already determined where your boat can go during your lessons, so that it doesn’t get stuck in the mud, hit something or get pulled by a current or tide into unsafe conditions.  But, often sailing programs in yacht clubs or sailing clubs also have local knowledge or water, currents and winds and take precautions to protect you while you are learning.  The goal is for you to learn what safe conditions are for sailing, how to predict the effect of a current or tide and how to manage the sail and boat in light to heavy winds.  

Dingys are often stored on land and put into the water from a trailer with either a lift or ramp.  Keelboats usually stay in the water all the time and are accessible from a dock in a marina.

  • Sailing Portal in Berkeley sails out of the Berkeley Marina in the San Francisco Bay. This is considered one of the best locations to learn from in the bay, because the winds are from a consistent direction with 15 to 25 knots being typical every afternoon from Apr-Oct and 5-15 Nov-Mar, the waters are protected with ample space to train. Register or Inquire here 

What is the difference between a Professional Sailing Instructor and a Volunteer Sailing Instructor?

Professional sailing instructors have at the very minimum, a US Coast Guard OUPV license to legally be allowed to be paid to teach.  This means they have passed a physical exam, are part of a random drug testing program, keep their first aid/AED certification current and have a minimum of 360 days of boating experience.  But having a USCG license is only the beginning for a sailing instructor that is accredited with US Sailing.   US Sailing Instructors also have to take teacher training courses, know all the curriculum and standards to teach, pass practical and written exams, and demonstrate their competence to a certifying instructor.  A particular sailing school may have additional requirements.  For example Sailing Portal instructors also have to audit classes from more experience instructors in the school and learn a method of teaching that is organized to assure the student has the skills required to pass the course.

Volunteer sailing instructors do not get paid for their time.  They may have spent only a few days on the water learning basic skills before they start teaching or they may have years of experience.  They do not typically follow a method of teaching and often the methods they use to teach are vastly different from one to the other.  In a yacht club, volunteer instructors are often affiliated with a racing program, and the instructors may be racers, who are teaching in a youth sailing program.   In a sailing club using volunteer teachers, the standards for teachers vary vastly.  

Does it matter to students if a sailing instructor is an independent contractor or an employee of a sailing school?

Yes, it can make a difference, depending on the state the school is in and what the labor laws are.   US Sailing Accredited Schools often require that instructors be employees, because then the employer can specify a curriculum, a schedule and insure both the instructor and the boat.  It also makes a difference if the school is adhering to labor laws and paying attention to the well being of their teachers.  If a sailing instructor is an independent contractor in the State of California and the school is adhering to the law, the school cannot control give the independent as much direction as they can give an employee, especially in California.  Also, it is rare that an independent instructor is insured with worker’s compensation insurance or with unemployment insurance or for the Jones Act.  And depending upon the insurance coverage the school has, if  you sustain an injury during a lesson, the school’s insurance may not apply if an independent contractor was teaching you when the injury happened.   Before you step on a boat, or enroll in a course, find out if teachers are independent contractors or employees of the school and ask about their insurance.

  • All Sailing Portal Instructors are employees.   Sailing Portal has an operations manual, employee manual and emergency crises response manual that all instructors are required to follow that take into account the best practices for the schools, students, boats, instructors, marina and more. Register or Inquire here

What is the difference between a professional and a volunteer sailing school?

Professional sailing schools hire professional sailing instructors and are either accredited by a National governing body like US Sailing or they are not.  The purpose of US Sailing accreditation, is to assure that a sailing school is teaching sailing according to a uniform standard, that is generally accepted both Nationally and Internationally.  This allows you to learn at one school, and then go to another school or charter company to take lessons or charter boats, where they will accept what you already learned in your certification courses. It also makes it easier for you to work with other people who have had similar training, either as crew or captain.

Volunteer sailing schools use volunteer teachers and do not have a standardized approach from one school to the next and often no standard method of teaching from one teacher to the next. But, they teach for free, and you usually have access to them by membership in a club, whose dues you pay regularly.  The quality of training varies widely.

How do my circumstances affect the sailing school I choose to learn from?

Your circumstances are usually a unique mix.  You may only be able to learn on weekends, or you may be coming to the school from somewhere else, and need a hotel and to spend consecutive days on the water to finish in a specific time before you leave.  You may need to consider access by public transit, hired driver or rental car.  Parking can be a consideration.   You also might have disabilities and need a US Adaptive Sailing Instructor, or modifications to the boat or dock. You may need to have classes begin or end precisely at the time you are told they will, because you are catching a plane, bus, or ride or have other commitments before or afterwards. Make.a list of what circumstances you have that will need to be taken into consideration before you select your sailing school.

  • Sailing Portal in Berkeley Marina custom designs the timing of classes to accommodate your schedule.  There is a Double Tree by Hilton hotel in the Marina if you are flying or driving in from another area and plan to take consecutive lessons.  Adaptive Sailing accommodations can be made and Michael Arntz is a US Sailing Certified Adaptive Sailing Instructor.
  • The nearest BART station is Ashby/Berkeley, from which it is possible to take a bus, taxi or hire a driver through LYFT or UBER.  If you are driving, there is free parking in the marina, and we give you instructions based on which boat you are sailing on that day. Register or Inquire here

How much time does it take to learn how to sail?

Learning to sail is a process.  You can start crewing on a boat with specific tasks within one day. But it takes time to begin to be competent in understanding the forces of wind, water and the skills of manipulating the sails through the wind and boat through the water.  This is really where you are going to find the biggest differences between sailing school programs.  Lets look at three professional schools as an example, all of which offer a Basic Keelboat Certification.   Ask how much time you will be spending on the water, and if the classes start and stop promptly at the designated time.   You can expect that sometimes a class will be rescheduled because there is not enough or too much wind, or if there is a storm.  Also, how many students are learning with you at the same time can affect how much time you get practicing the various positions on the boat. 

  • Each Sailing Portal Course gives you between 28 hours on the boat and 5 hours of lectures and you may get extra lessons if you need it, within the same price, because the priority is making sure you have the skills to-meet the standard at the end of the course.  Classes start promptly at 9am and end at 4pm each day.  We customize class schedules over all days of the week. Register or Inquire here

How much does it cost to take sailing lessons?

With professional sailing schools, generally the amount of money you pay, is directly related to the quality of the teaching experience and the time you get on the boat.  Every school organizes their courses a bit differently.   Some schools will give you a price, but the amount of time you spend on the water might be only 2 four hour days of instruction on the water.  Others charge you more, but the value is greater because they give you 4 seven and a half hour days on the water with additional time if needed, plus workshops and help passing the tests.   Some course fees include membership in US Sailing, and the Sailing School’s club, and there are sometimes discount programs on shopping, travel, rental cars that also come with the package.   Expect to pay an average of $140 for each half day on the water if you are learning with up to 2 other students at the same time.  Packages, discounts, and scholarships are often possible with some schools who structure their prices accordingly.

With volunteer sailing schools, the cost is built into the monthly club membership, which can vary from $50 per month to over $600 per month, and usually you are expected to continue membership over months or years, not just during your lessons.  Some clubs have initiation fees from a few hundred dollars to over $25,000 and require sponsors and approval of the board and membership.   Some clubs are affiliated with a college or university, and being an enrolled student is a pre-requisite.   Some clubs are part of the parks and recreation program of a city or offered to the public by a non-profit organization.

  • Sailing Portal in Berkeley has a certification guarantee, which means that they guarantee you will have the skills to pass the tests and certify by the end of the course, or they will give you up to 2 extra days on the water to practice until you can pass. Register or Inquire here

What personal comfort requirements should I consider?

Dingys don’t have cabin space or a bathroom (called a head).  Inquire about public or private restrooms available at the site you are sailing to.  Dingys also capsize and you will end up in the water, so in colder weather, you might need to wear a wetsuit.  If you don’t like to be in the water, take Keelboat lessons instead of dingy lessons.

Keelboats may have a head or portapotty, or in some cases it is the bucket.  

  • Sailing Portal has access to private and public restrooms in the marina and there is a porta potty in the J/24 and a toilet and head (enclosed room) on the 36’ Sloop.The curriculum takes into consideration bathroom breaks and meals times and the instructors are trained to pay attention to the student;s safety and well being during the lesson.  Register or Inquire here

What should I expect a safe learning environment to be like?

There are standards for safety set by the US Coast Guard, the state, county and city ordinances which are available for you to read online, specific to the local you are taking lessons in.  But, in summary, a safe learning environment takes into account the physical, emotional and psychological safety of both students and teachers.  You can expect the teacher to look out for the safety of all the students on the boat, including when it is safe to leave the dock, use life jackets,  how to move about the boat and to do if a student falls in the water.  US Sailing Accredited Schools are very fortunate to fall under the governance of US Center for Safe Sport, which provides training to all instructors on how to “champion respect and avoid abuse”.   

  • All Sailing Portal schools are commercially insured, licensed with the city, have current charter permits and make sure their instructors keep their licenses and certifications current.  Sailing Portal, as a US Sailing Accredited School has adopted the Safe Sport Code accepted oversight by US Sailing and the US Center for Safesport.   Register or Inquire here

What are the social benefits of becoming a sailor?

Sailing opens up access not only to boats, but private yacht clubs, chartering boats around the world to go cruising, racing as an amateur and professional career opportunities as well as volunteer community service opportunities.  It is not only fun to be on a boat you or your club owns, but also talk to others about sailing wherever you go in the world.  The racing community is very active throughout the world.  In California alone, there are 500 races each year up and down the coast. Your sailing school can be a portal to this community.  Some people like to learn how to sail singlehanded, (by themselves), but event sailing solo requires support and a community and safe harbors.  Talk to your sailing school about what they offer that can help you connect to the community. Register or Inquire here