Back to School

A guide to choosing the right sailing school for your needs – from the August 2012 issue of BWS.

By Andrew Cross

Ask any old salt if they know everything about sailing—if their response is yes, they are not being honest. Learning to sail is a lifelong endeavor that starts with one hand on a tiller, the other on a sheet, and the guts to point your bow away from the dock. But, before you go jumping onto the nearest sailboat, do yourself and your fellow sailors a favor and learn to do it right.

I start every sailing class with one question to my students: What are your sailing goals? It might seem obvious that the main goal is to learn how to sail or improve existing skills, but one great thing about sailing is that there are many ways to experience it—small boats, big boats, chartering, catamarans, monohulls, racing and cruising. I usually get a mixed bag of answers ranging from “Someday I want to sail around the world” to “I just want to see if I like it.” Either way, determining your main objective is critical before starting your search for a sailing school.

All sailing schools are not created equal. In saying that, I am not endorsing one school over another or choosing sides between the American Sailing Association (ASA) and US Sailing. Sailing schools run the gamut from small community sailing programs to destination schools that offer advanced excursions. Curriculums also vary, from day-long learn-to-sail classes to multi-day offshore passagemaking and navigation courses. The key is finding out which school and curriculum best match your overall sailing goals.


Sailing is a sport that comes with its share of dangers, but that does not mean learning to sail has to be unsafe. Inquire about a school’s safety record and policies. Are lifejackets required? Is safety gear provided? Are instructors US Coast Guard licensed and First Aid/CPR certified? What types of weather are you expected to sail in? Well-established schools should have a good grasp on sailor safety and will not be afraid to answer these questions.


It is very hard to start on a big boat and transfer those skills to a small boat. Ask the school what kind of boats they are using and how old they are. If you’re a novice sailor or are enrolling your kids in a program, starting in dinghies or small keelboats (under 28 feet) will provide a better sense of how a boat moves through the water, how the wind works, and how a sailboat handles. Once you have the hang of that, go ahead and move up.


You will not be going anywhere fast in a sailboat, so get used to taking it slow. If you are starting from scratch, beware of trying to gain too much sailing knowledge too fast. How does the school handle certification? Ask about the curriculum and how you will realistically advance through the certification levels. Is there time to soak in what you are learning or are you rushed? Ideally, you should be gaining experience on your own before moving through the certifications. Take a deep breath—there are a lot of things to learn in sailing and you cannot learn them all in one week.


I am not talking about price here, though that is an obvious factor when choosing anything. Inquire about the student-to-instructor ratio in the classroom and on the boat. Are you okay learning in big groups, or does a small class size better suit your learning style? How many other students will be on the boat? An ideal onboard ratio in a basic keelboat class is three students to one instructor. Any more than that and you get far less helm time and practice trimming sails.


We live in a customer service-oriented world and sailing schools are no different. A school with good management and employees will take time to address your specific goals and needs. If they cannot answer your questions, then find someone who can. Learning to sail or enhancing your skills should be fun, and a seamless office staff will make signing up and sailing a pleasant and stress-free experience. Also, find a school that will continue to help even after you sign up and take a course.


Sailing classes are offered worldwide, and deciding on a location is a big part of choosing the right school. Do you want to learn on your home waters or in a far-flung tropical locale? Landlocked sailors do not have much of a choice, though there are many inland lakes and rivers with ample sailing opportunities. Doing a destination course is often a fun way to mix a learning experience with a vacation, but it is not for everybody.


This is a big one. Learning to sail, like many things in life, is all about experience. You can read all the sailing books you want and come to class to watch an instructor draw pictures of little boats on a white board, tell sea stories, and talk about boat parts all day. But the real learning happens when you get out on the water, feel the lines pull in your hands and experience the boat gently heeling as the wind fills the sails. Ask how much time you will spend in the classroom versus on the water. Are the instructors professionally qualified to teach sailing? How do they track student progress and how will your sailing skills be evaluated?


So you have taken the class. Now what? Don’t go to a weeklong sailing course, pass a bunch of multiple-choice tests and think you’re done. Get back on the water as quickly as you can. The better you get at sailing, the more comfortable and safe you will be and the more fun you will have. If you had a positive experience, ask the school you went to about the next steps. If you had a negative experience, find a school that can better help you achieve your sailing goals.


Even if you are not a competitive person, and even if you do not think you will like it, try racing. Sailboat racing is an excellent way to get time on the water with experienced sailors who are usually helpful if you are willing to learn. Find a local sailing club or yacht club that can hook you up with boats in need of extra crew for regattas. Racing is also a great way to meet other sailors and network for sailing opportunities. It helps to bring some sandwiches or a six-pack!


Many sailing schools also have sailing clubs. These are an excellent way to get on the water without the cost of owning a boat, and once you have passed the club’s basic sailing course or done a check-out, you can usually utilize the boats as little or often as your schedule allows.


Once you have gained the requisite amount of sailing skill, do yourself a favor and book a charter. It might seem intimidating, but chartering will push you out of your comfort zone and allow you to see a part of the world you may never have visited otherwise. Also, you will be amazed at how much more confident you are when you return to sail on your home waters.

Learning to sail can be an intimidating process full of questions and unknowns, and it is not for everybody. The best way to figure out if sailing is right for you or to gain more knowledge and experience is to sign up and go for it. There are a lot of great people in the sailing school industry who have been teaching for a long time. Have fun shopping around for a school that can put you on the old-salt-who-knows-everything track!

Andrew Cross is a USCG licensed captain and US Sailing certified sailing and navigation instructor.  After putting thousands of miles under his keel on the East Coast and in the Caribbean, he and his wife Jill now reside in Seattle and are looking forward to cruising the Great Northwest and beyond.

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