Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tips for a would-be New Mexico Sailor

What kind of sailing might interest you? Sailing can mean many different things, from competitive racing to get-away-from-it-all relaxation; on open dinghies or well-equipped yachts; receiving immediate (and wet!) feedback from a windsurfer or experiencing the power of a big boat; solo, with family or close friends, or in teams; in a crowded harbor, a high-mountain lake, in a secluded cove, or on an open ocean weeks from sight of land.

New Mexico does not have an established bricks-and-mortar sailing school, as you may have discovered. But we do have some other resources for learning to sail:

(1) A few New Mexicans are licensed sailing instructors. Rich and Sue (who are sailing one of their boats in Alaskan and Canadian waters right now) have US Sailing dinghy-sailing instructor certification and Bruce of Santa Fe is certified by the American Sailing Association and gives lessons on his cruising boat at Heron Lake.

(2) The Rio Grande and New Mexico sailing clubs have web sites, send occasional newsletters and more frequent e-mails, and host races, cruises, and social events. The RGSC has a monthly social in or near Albuquerque; this is a good place to meet sailors and pick their brains and might also be a place where you could meet a skipper who'd like to take out a new sailor. The clubs have all kinds of sailors, from experienced racers and cruisers to beginners and "armchair sailors".

(3) If you make contact via the socials, web site, newsletters, etc., or show up at a pre-race "skipper/crew meeting" at the lake, you'll have a good chance of meeting a racing or cruising skipper who needs crew. (And, while having a boat is very good, having friends with boats is also a very fine thing.) Crewing on, taking lessons on, or chartering different boats before you buy one makes enormous good sense. There is * no one perfect boat * and your sailing interests and comfort level may evolve as you learn more and try different boats and different kinds of sailing.

(4) Volunteering to help on the race committee signal boat is a great way to see a lot of boats sailing close together and see how their crews do things. Volunteering to take race management training can also be a revealing experience.

(5) Many sailing club members have private libraries and are knowledgeable about learn-to-sail books and resources. The RGSC donated its library to the Truth or Consequences public library near Elephant Butte Lake so as to give the public more access to its collection. The NMSC has a shelf of sailing books at the Heron Lake Marina (unfortunately, a large part of the collection was destroyed in a fire a couple of years ago).

(6) Many of the sailing club members have attended out-of-state sailing schools and can talk with you about their experiences. Our own family, for example, took classes at the Santa Barbara (CA) Sailing School in 1999 and 2002 and other club sailors have been to schools in Santa Cruz, CA, Kemah, TX, and elsewhere.

(7) Colorado has a commercial sailing school and an established community sailing program that offers adult sailing lessons. Arizona has more recently established a community sailing program (though it has more of a focus on youth). My blog,, has links to many community sailing programs across the country. Someday, we might have a community sailing program in New Mexico, probably starting with a youth sailing program.

(8) The back pages of sailing magazines are crammed with advertisements for sailing schools and sometimes the mags have articles about learn-to-sail experiences. If you can't find some of the magazines locally, you can go to their websites -- some of which are linked in my blog.

(9) Further abroad, some sailors like to combine fun under tropic skies with sailing lessons in Florida, the US or British Virgin Islands, etc. Lessons are often packaged as classes to certify students to be able to charter boats upon class completion, though charter companies may also ask for a sailing resume and perform a quick quiz or check ride. As a bridge between taking classes or sailing with a professional skipper and chartering "bareboat" all on your own, some charter companies offer flotilla cruises (several boats traveling together with a professional crew in one boat) and partially skippered charters (a professional captain on board for the first portion of a charter).

(10) Speaking of which, links to other sailing blogs. Perusing them can give you the flavor of many kinds of sailing experiences and maybe even let you avoid some other sailors mistakes.

(11) The New Mexico State Parks department offers free one-day boating safety classes. Although these are classroom-only and focus on power boats, they do give a good overview of equipment requirements, boating laws, emergency procedures, navigation rules and markers, and the local boating scene.

(12) Making mistakes is an inevitable part of a sailing education and sometimes isn't all that painful and often is quite memorable. Ultimately sailing must be learned by doing. Lessons, coaching, videos, books, magazines, and feedback are invaluable, but none can substitute for time on the water. It's perfectly okay to take a boat, check the weather forecast and choose a time with benign conditions, and go out and experiment. And, if someone else is out sailing, it can be fun to compare your sail trim with that of the other boat and experiment with different settings. Top-level sailors do this as "two-boat tuning" with matched pairs of boats to get ultimate performance, but any sailor can profit from observing and comparing among boats.


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