How Can You Learn to Sail?
How Can You Learn to Sail?
(Draft Article for Foghorn newsletter)
New Mexico isn’t exactly known as the sailing capitol of the world. Would-be sailors first have to realize that sailing does happen here before they’re ready to ask, “How can I learn to sail?” And the answer to that question isn’t obvious, because we don’t have traditional commercial sailing schools or community sailing centers or yacht clubs with youth sailing programs.
Without these traditional oceanfront learning venues, new sailors may not know to ask the right questions and get the type of training that works best for them. They may not know what qualifications to look for in an instructor or school. The novice may have no idea what “US Sailing-certified” or “ASA-certified” mean or what is taught in different kinds of classes such as “Basic Keelboat”. They may not even have much of an idea of what sort of sailing and training is the best fit for their abilities and interests. They may have a bad experience with instructors who aren’t a good fit for their needs or who aren’t well qualified.
Yet the good news is that New Mexico has some useful, effective, and affordable ways to learn to sail. And, many New Mexicans have also taken part in traditional sailing schools and opportunities outside the state, and can share their experiences with the new sailor who is interested in these ways of learning to sail. Other New Mexico sailors have plenty of experience with voyaging in fascinating places, and even some of our more “armchair” sailors can point out some of the best books, magazines, videos, web sites, and marine stores, and organizations of interest to the new sailor.
Within New Mexico, most new sailors learn by sailing as crew on other sailors’ boats, watching other sailors and talking with them, and by getting on a boat and trying to figure out what works. But, trial-and-error can be frustrating, unsafe, and inflict extra wear and tear on boats, equipment, and perhaps inflict some bruises and frayed tempers. And, being crew for the first time can be a bit nerve-wracking if you don’t know what to expect or if you don’t get a patient, calm, and well-prepared skipper.
With a bit of preparation and information, you can increase the odds that your first sailing experiences will be fun, safe, and productive. Knowing what to expect out on the water and preparing yourself will go a long way toward increasing your comfort and letting you learn more and have more fun. This article will discuss tips for prepping yourself for a day on the water after we review the different ways you can learn to sail.
DIY (“I did it my way.”): Do-it-yourself types learn on their own, by reading books and then trying what they read. The books used in sailing schools do a pretty good job of focusing on the lessons you really need to know, such as preparing yourself physically for sailing, learning the names of parts of boats, learning to rig a basic sailboat, and learning how to get the boat moving up and down wind, to change direction, slow or stop the boat, and come in and out of marina slips. If you are a do-it-yourself learner, start out easy with mild sailing conditions. You’ll need enough wind to power the boat, but not so much as to make things happen too fast for you. At the end of this article, we’ll list some books and videos that might be helpful.
You can make the whole do-it-yourself experience must less frazzling and much more productive if you can get an experienced sailor to come on board your boat as a “coach”. Your coach can probably tell you a lot about your boat even without having sailed on that particular kind of boat beforehand, and probably has some notion of the boat’s strong and weak points and how you can best enjoy the boat.
Finding a good coach, of course, is the trick. To start with, you should hang around sailing or yacht clubs and attend social events so you can network and learn who might be interested in working with you and who would be a “fit” for your needs and personality. Many sailors love to teach new sailors and aren’t too hard to persuade – certainly an offer to provide refreshments or a bite could be enough to persuade a potential mentor.
Many new sailors have learned by becoming crew on other boats. Different skippers have different needs, temperaments, and ability to nurture and teach new sailors. Don’t be disappointed if one particular skipper doesn’t seem to be a good match for you or if you don’t seem to be learning as much as you’d expected. Ideally, you should try to sail on different boats with different people. Keep trying boats and skippers until you find yourself having fun and getting better at sailing.
A boat note
Crewing on different boats is a quick way to get an idea of what kind of boat you’d like to sail or own for yourself; by sailing on differing boats you’ll learn about how boats are designed and equipped to do different things. No matter what the boat makers say, they can not design a boat to be the ultimate speed-demon buoy racer and at the same time the world’s most comfortable round-the-planet luxury cruiser. Different boats are good at different things; some boats are very good at one thing, a few boats are fairly good at more than one thing, and some boats aren’t very good at much of anything. You might want to learn a bit about which boats fit your needs before you put too much money into buying your dream boat, and crewing is a great way to learn this.
Remember two key principles:
(1) Having a boat is a fine thing. But, for the new sailor, having friends with boats is even better.
(2) There is no ONE perfect boat.
The boat that best needs your needs right now may be the perfect boat for the moment. But, as you learn more about sailing, become interested in different kinds of sailing, or find your personal circumstances changing, your perfect boat may change dramatically.
How to become crew
Some sailing clubs have physical or on-line bulletin boards where potential crew members can advertise their interest. Some events, such as the Baja HaHa distance sailing event even have parties where potential crew and skippers socialize with each other. Potential crew can advertise themselves in sailing club newsletters and buttonhole skippers at sailing club socials and post-regatta parties.
You might be able to find someone to sail with just by walking around a marina and talking to people. If you tell people of your interest in sailing, you might find someone who is about to go sailing and wouldn’t mind having you aboard. If you’re properly dressed and equipped, that may increase your chance of getting a ride, so that will be discussed later in this article.
Other, perhaps more abundant, opportunities may come during sailboat racing regattas. Some competitive skippers don’t want the distraction of training new crew during the pressure of a race, but other skippers don’t mind taking new crew or are short enough on crew that they’re happy to welcome a newbie sailor.
And, sometimes skippers will show up at a pre-regatta meeting who don’t plan to race, but just want to follow the fleet or cruise around, and would welcome your companionship.
Further, the people who are running the race usually need help on the race committee signal boat. This is a boat that anchors in the race area and uses flag, sound, and other signals to run the races. The race officer who is running the boat often needs people to raise and lower flags, sound the horns or guns, record finish times and weather conditions, drive the boat, set race buoys and anchors in place, and take care of many more details. The committee boat offers a ringside seat for a new sailor to see lots of good sailors up close and sometimes is a good place to see and discuss the techniques that they use and the sometimes fascinating mistakes that can be made. Even experienced sailors find that they can learn a lot by serving on the committee boat.
A generally effective way to become crew is to contact one of the club officers, race chairman, or a race officer and describe your interests and abilities, and any special needs or limitations you might have. The race chairman can announce your interest at a pre-race meeting, which you should attend. Odds are better than even that you can get on a boat this way.
Sailing lessons and schools
Although we don’t have commercial sailing schools in New Mexico, we do have some certified sailing instructors. During the summer at Heron Lake in far northern New Mexico, a New Mexico Sailing Club member named Bruce gives sailing lessons on his twenty-five-foot cruising sailboat. Bruce is certified by the American Sailing Association (ASA) as a Basic Keelboat, Coastal Cruising, and Coastal Navigation instructor and also holds a US Coast Guard license. Sue and Rich of the Rio Grande Sailing Club are certified Small Boat sailing instructors with the United States Sailing Association. US Sailing, is the governing body for the sport of sailing in the United States and also has an instructor certification program. They have occasionally provided classes, especially focusing on special groups such as women, students, or youth.
Although you can learn sailing from just about any sailor, those who call themselves sailing instructors and charge money for sailing lessons should have some proper credentials. Certification by US Sailing or ASA gives you some assurance that the instructor has both teaching and sailing skills and that these have been evaluated by professionals who teach and certify sailing instructors. Additionally, instructors who work under a professional framework should qualify for and carry insurance coverage as instructors and will not be running afoul of US Coast Guard regulations. They should also know how to tailor their instruction to what you really need, teach subjects in a logical progression, emphasize key topics, pace the instruction to your comfort level and ability, and keep a proper focus on safety, mastery, and enjoyment.
When evaluating a sailing school or professional instructor, don’t be impressed by shiny new boats and fancy equipment. Yes, it is important that the boats and equipment be well cared for, but you don’t need fancy gear to learn well. What you need is patient, professional, safe instruction that meets your needs. Talk to the school director, to the instructors, and, most important, visit with students or former students. Did they learn a lot? Did they have fun? Did the instructors deal well with challenges? What did they do if the weather didn’t cooperate?
In some other states, especially near big cities or the ocean, there are many choices of commercial sailing schools, community sailing centers, and charter boat companies with learn to sail programs. Quite a few Rio Grande Sailing Club members have completed these programs and could provide advice and tips from their experiences.
In addition to full-blown sailing lessons and schools, there are many other organized “learning opportunities”. The New Mexico State Parks offer one-day boating safety basics classes. These don’t teach sailing or have much to say about sailboats, but they do cover boating laws, safety equipment, safe operation, rules of the road, navigation signals and markers, and many other topics. Plus, you can’t beat the price: free! The US Coast Guard Auxiliary also offers classes, joined in some parts of the world by the US Power Squadrons and other organizations. And, if you travel to other parts of the country, yacht clubs, community sailing organizations, boat shows, and sometimes marine stores and schools sponsor interesting lectures, classes, and demonstrations.
Preparing for a Day on the Water
You can do a lot to make your day on the water comfortable and safe.
Begin with yourself. Basic fitness is helpful. Stretching exercises will help protect your muscles from strain. Becoming a swimmer or a better swimmer will improve your safety on the water, but even swimmers are advised to wear life jackets (“personal flotation devices”, “PFDs”, “buoyancy aids”), especially in high-risk situations.
In New Mexico, sunscreen is a basic need, even in the spring and fall. Sailors who forget sunscreen may want to apply an aloe vera gel to reduce the discomfort of a sunburn. Sweat or spray washes off sunscreen, so you may need to reapply it between races or in the middle of the sailing day. Insect repellent may be useful in some parts of the world, but is generally not needed in New Mexico. A hat, however, is critical piece of gear; one that fits well and isn’t likely to be blown overboard will add hugely to your comfort and your ability to see. Polarized sun glasses are also a big help in spotting buoys, other boats, and hazards. These will also reduce fatigue and stinging in your eyes.
Gloves are useful for protecting your hands from possible rope burns and reducing the change of cuts or bruises from sharp edges and blunt objects. If you sail without gloves, you’ll probably find all the sharp edges and blunt objects on the boat reasonably quickly. Gloves are also a big help in gripping and pulling ropes, which sailors would do a lot of if they were really called ropes. But, if you learn everything in this article, you’ll know that it’s really hard to find a rope anywhere on a sailboat.
Shoes the grip well and have light-colored soles that won’t mark fiberglass decks are useful. On most sailboats, high heeled fashion shoes are an especially stupid idea. Special rubbery booties are often used on small dinghies, especially in colder weather. Heavy “sea boots” are rare on New Mexico boats and may not be safe if you were to fall overboard, but there are lighter versions that offer more agility and flexibility.
For sailing in cooler weather, you’ll want layers that can easily be removed and replaced. Comfort changes quickly on the water; there’s a huge difference between how it feels going upwind with the wind blowing on you and downwind. And, weather can change very quickly out on the water with sailors exposed to the elements for many hours without a break. Layers close to the body should wick moisture away from your skin while outer layers should keep spray from soaking in but allow sweat to pass outside. Synthetics are better than cotton for comfort on the water and special wicking fabrics are really great stuff. Cheap rubbery plastic ponchos and raincoats can turn into humid personal saunas, not a nice experience.
Boat manners and safety
If your skipper is well prepared, she may tell you about what to do or not do on the boat. It is good manners to ask permission before coming on any boat and wise not to trespass on a boat except in a real emergency. Wearing shoes with light-colored soles that don’t mark the deck but which grip well is considerate and safe. If the boat has a special boat toilet, called a “marine head”, it won’t work like a regular toilet and you should learn how to work it, and NEVER put anything in it that might block it, because marine heads are finicky creatures, and they can do evil, unspeakably vile deeds to landlubbers who scoff at their ways. And, in general, don’t operate equipment or adjust lines if you don’t know what you’re doing; if possible, ask first.
Please check with the skipper first since some skippers ban smoking, especially below decks, or don’t allow anyone to drink alcohol or only allow drinking when back in the marina or at certain times. You might also want to check on who brings lunch or refreshments, and what is appropriate or welcome. Remember that messy or elaborate dishes are hard to control on a moving boat.
A good skipper will let you know where safety gear is stored and how to find important equipment on the boat.
Skippers may require lifejackets (PFDs) to be worn either by everyone at all times, or by non- or poor swimmers, children, at night or in fog, during rough or cold weather, or by crew working on the bow (front) of the boat. State or local laws or racing rules may require life jackets to be worn in some situations, as well.
Marine critters are not a real hazard in New Mexico, but can be a concern in some parts of the world. Weather, or hazards on the boat are more of a concern.
Docking a boat can be harder than it looks, and more dangerous to exposed fingers or toes! A boat that is lying still in her slip at the marina is a pushover to move; in good conditions even a petite sailor can push a sixty-foot yacht around. But even a very small boat becomes a powerful force to contend with when it is moving well under sail or power; getting your fingers caught between a pier or piling and the boat is a huge no-no. Fenders or cushions were invented for that job and you should definitely leave it to them. Smart boaters will use controlled boat speed along with fenders, lines, and boathooks to make docking easier.
Another good place to watch out for fingers is winches that are used to tighten and adjust sail control lines. Have your skipper or an instructor show you the right way to load and crank the winches and to release loaded lines from them. Good technique and gloves will prevent owies.
Did you know what to do when the skipper says “Jibe ho!” Boom!
Really Basic Sailing Primer
Sailboats have two ways of using the sails to go somewhere. When a sailboat is going mostly in the same direction as the wind, the wind pushes on the sails and boat.
But, sailing gets trickier when the crew wants to go upwind. If you point the boat straight upwind, it’ll simply get blown backward. But, if the sailboat is pointed at about a 45 degree angle (1/8 of a circle or one slice of pie or pizza worth!) away from the wind and the sails are pulled in fairly tight, then the boat will be able to go mostly upwind. The skipper and crew can use the lines holding the sails (“sheets”), a steering blade that sticks down into the water (the “rudder”), and sometimes their body weight, to steer the boat and make it go (mostly) where they want it to. They are able to do this because the sails work sort of like an airplane wing, creating a partial vacuum on one side of the sails that helps pull the sailboat upwind. The “keel” or “board” that is below the boat also provides some lift and keeps the boat from being pushed too far sideways when the crew want to go mostly upwind.
If a boat has two or more sails, the sails can be adjusted in different ways to help steer the boat. Moving the rudder by itself usually isn’t enough to steer the boat and the boat goes faster and sails better when the sails are set for the right place for the direction of the wind and where the skipper wants to go.
Bringing all the sails in snug helps the boat go upwind.
Letting the sails out helps it go downwind.
With the front sail (“jib”) tight and the mainsail loose, the boat will turn more away from the wind.
With the front sail loose and the mainsail tight, the boat will turn more toward the direction the wind is coming from.
Of course, it gets more complicated when the skipper and boat are racing and the crew wants to get the best possible performance from a boat, but even high-performance sailing builds on these basics.
When the boat changes direction with the wind in front of the boat, going so that the wind is on the other side, that is called “tacking”. During a “tack” the lines holding the sails (“sheets”) will need to be adjusted. The skipper uses the rudder to start the “tack” by pushing the “tiller” (the stick connected to the rudder, which is a steering blade that sticks down in the water) away from the direction the wind is blowing. The skipper may say something like “ready about?” and then “helm to leeward” or “tacking!” before moving the tiller. A crew member in the front of the boat will have to release the line that is holding the front sail (“jib”) on one side of the boat and attach a line on the other side of the boat as the boat turns. If it is timed well, switching these “sheets” is easy to do; if it is not timed well the jib trimmer may need to do a lot of cranking with a winch to tighten the new jib sheet to the proper position.
Note: For safety’s sake, learn how to use a winch properly and hold lines so as to protect your fingers and the rest of you. During strong winds and on larger boats, control lines may have very powerful loads on them.
When the boat changes direction with the wind, it is called “gybeing” or “jibing”. During a gybe (or jibe) in brisk winds, the boom (the pole holding the bottom of the big mainsail) may swing suddenly to the other side and crew members should keep their heads out of its path, especially on smaller racing boats where the boom may be low. Especially with new crew, it’s a good idea for the skipper to call out “Ready to Jibe?” and then “Jibe Ho!”
Pieces of boat
Sailors go on and on confusing landlubbers with their sailing language, but knowing the basics is important for learning to sail.
The basic boat is the “hull”. Beneath it in the middle is a “keel” or “board” (“centerboard” or “dagger board” or maybe even “lee boards”) that keeps the wind from pushing the boat too far side ways (“making leeway”). Also in the water at or near the back (“stern”) of the boat is the “rudder”, a steering blade that is turned with a stick (“tiller”) or wheel to help change the boat’s direction, along with adjusting the sails.
Kinds of sailboats are called by different names depending on how many sails they have.
Many boats will have one tall stick (“mast”) holding two sails and are called “sloops”. The front sail (“head sail”) is usually called a “jib” but might be called a “genoa” if it’s bigger or a “spinnaker” if it’s a balloon-like special downwind sail. The back sail is the “main sail” and usually has a pole along its bottom edge that’s called the “boom”. If you forget to duck when the boom swings during an “accidental gybe” you might find out why it’s called the Boom! Fortunately, getting hit by the boom is rarer in real life than it is in silly movies with sailboats, especially on cruising sailboats where the boom is usually fairly high up above where people sit on the boat.
“Halyards” are lines used to raise the sails. “Sheets” are lines used to let the sails in or out sideways, being brought in closer for upwind work and out looser for downwind. Note that a piece of rope brought on board a sailboat almost always gets called something other than a rope!
Points of Sail
Sailboats sail relative to the wind direction. The relative angle of the boat to the wind is known as its point of sailing.
A boat that points upwind for more than a very short time will stop and is said to be “in irons” or “in the eye of the wind”. This can be done on purpose to stop the boat but is often done accidentally. A good sailing instructor should show you how to stop the boat this way and then get it going again efficiently in one of your early lessons. You should not try to sail right toward the wind, except when you are turning the boat through the wind for just a few seconds or less during a “tack”, or stopping or slowing on purpose. Because a boat that’s accidentally pointed into the wind will stop and even go backwards, this point of sail is sometimes called the “no go zone”.
A boat that is pointing at about 45 degrees to either side of the direction the wind is coming from is “beating into the wind” and is said to be “close hauled”.
A boat that has the wind on its side is “reaching”, “close reaching” with the wind forward of the boat’s beam (side), or “beam reaching”, or “broad reaching” with the wind from a little behind.
A boat is “running” when the wind is mostly from behind.
Most skippers don’t usually sail with the wind straight behind them (“running dead downwind”) because there is the danger that the wind might switch and suddenly push the “boom” (the long pole at the bottom of the big “mainsail”) to the other side. This is called an “accidental gybe”. Sailing instructors will generally advise you not to use your head to try to slow the boom during an accidental gybe.
In a few situations, the skipper may want to run nearly dead downwind with the front sail and back (“main”) sail on opposite sides of the boat, running “wing and wing” or even sail with the wind on the “wrong” side of the mainsail, “sailing by the lee”, but these are somewhat special situations.
Sailing downwind with a big, balloon-like spinnaker sail is usually something that beginners don’t do, because it adds some more steps to be followed and can lead to a mess if the steps aren’t done in the right way. But, once you master the basics, learning to cope with sometimes temperamental spinnakers (or “chutes”) will definitely sharpen your skills and timing.
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Typical curriculum outline for a sailing class for adults learning to sail small keelboats
If you, as an adult, go to a sailing school, here are some ideas on what to expect. If you are taking a “Basic Keelboat” class, you’ll probably spend about half a week taking the class, spending more time during the day on the water than on land.
Before you take the class, the school and instructor should ask some questions about what you know and what sort of sailing might interest you. You should be encouraged to ask questions. A good school will likely give you some “homework” and send you your “textbook” well before the class starts. (Don’t worry; these books are well illustrated and aren’t too dense or super technical.) You may be expected to learn such things as the names of the parts of boats and the description of the “points of sail” before starting the class. That way, you can spend more time on the water refining your skills during the class and perhaps learn more advanced techniques.
For a class with a name such as “Basic Keelboat” the emphasis will be on safe boat handling and basic sailing. Along with some description, theory, rules, signals, and chart work (nautical “maps”), you’ll be doing a whole lot of practical work. You’ll be rigging the boat, docking and undocking with sail and motor, raising sails and getting the boat under way (that’s sailor for “moving”), and trimming the sails in and out and using the rudder to steer the boat and adjust the sails to move well in different directions and conditions.
Once you learn the basic maneuvers, your instructor will take great and gently fiendish pleasure in testing your newfound skills by introducing you to the Crew Overboard (“COB”) maneuver. This maneuver, which can be done in a few different ways, has you combining several boat handling skills such as tacking, jibing, and slowing the boat, while also having one or more of your crew tracking an object (simulated victim) that suddenly and unexpectedly leaves the boat, usually while you’re distracted by other maneuvers or happenings!
At the school where we took our basic keelboat class, the task of recovering the “crew overboard” a manikin head on a weighted stick that we’ll call (“Annie”) was made even more challenging than ordinarily by our instructor’s dastardly accomplices, an unruly gang of California Sea Lions. For them, the “COB” maneuver was a most wonderful, marvelous pastime. When the instructor would toss “Annie” overboard, the game was afoot for these mischievous marine mammals; the sea lions would sometimes chase after “Annie”, drag her underwater, and let her pop up somewhere twenty or thirty or forty feet away. To beat the sea lions to their game, you had to maneuver quickly; a slowly responding crew might find that the sea lions would repeat the game two or three times, making precise maneuvering to recover “Annie” a fascinating exercise in crew recovery frustration.
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Other classes will build on these skills. For example, a class with a name such as Coastal Cruising will introduce sailors to boat systems and a class called Bareboat Cruising will prepare sailors for extended cruises of several days and should have an component where the students sail to a different harbor and spend at least a couple of nights on an anchor or mooring away from the sailing school.
Books, Videos, Web Sites, etc.