Your First Sailing Lesson

First published in Chesapeake Bay Magazine, 1989

The first sailing lesson – What to expect

by Tom Dove

While a few people teach themselves to sail with a book and a boat, the easier and surer way is to take a sailing class. There are many commercial sailing schools all around the world as well as classes offered by water-oriented communities and by yacht and sailing clubs. A little research in magazines and local newspapers will turn up several opportunities to learn to sail.

Most sailing classes – yacht club, community or commercial – start with a classroom session. The classroom may be a beach or pier instead of a place with four walls and rows of chairs, but the learning will be similar. Before you step into a boat and go sailing, you should know what you are about to experience.

The first session is usually an introduction to the lore and language of sailing because sailors speak in unfamiliar tongues and boats are constructed in unfamiliar ways. Think of the first shoreside lesson as a class in “sailboat literacy”. You need to know what the parts of a boat are called so you can communicate efficiently with your instructor and with the other people aboard.

You also need to know what makes the boat go – how the wind is harnessed by the sails and hull. It is easier to explain these things ashore using model boats, drawings, pictures and hand waving than to attempt to show you what is happening while you are becoming accustomed to the new surroundings of a  sailboat.

The exact format of this first lesson will depend on the instructor and the nature of the class. In an adult class all of the basic things you need to know for your first sail can be taught in about an hour. After that, it’s time to go out on the water. 

Depending on the way you learn best, you may want to do some reading ahead of time. If you are an avid reader, pick up a copy of a good basic sailing book a few weeks before your scheduled sail and skim through it. Don’t worry about absorbing it all; you can’t do that any more than you can teach yourself brain surgery from a textbook. Just try to get the feel of the new language and pick up the theory of how a sailboat works. A book with lots of good drawings will be helpful if you are visually oriented.

Many people prefer to go into the first class “cold” with no advance preparation and that is fine if you learn best by physical experience rather than by reading. After the first few hours you will probably know as much in your own way as the people who studied the material in advance. 

One of the unique features of sailing is that it can be approached in so many ways. Kinesthetic learners will associate sailing techniques with body movements while verbal and visual learners need to see a description in print and pictures first so they can assimilate the information later. For many people, the best way is a combination of stimuli: See the information, say the information, experience the sensations.

What you get out of sailing will be influenced by your approach to learning it. Racing tacticians often see the sport in an intellectual fashion and play it as a game of chess on the water. To pure tacticians, sailing is a challenge to be mastered and the physical sensation is secondary to solving the problems of when to tack, what a wind shift will do to the boat’s relative position and how to maximize boatspeed according to polar coordinate graphs. 

Physical, kinesthetic learners are more likely to develop good ”seat of the pants” ability and be able to tell when a boat is at its best by the way it feels to them. A physical sailor senses the wind, waves and boat motion and integrates all of those inputs to arrive at decisions about how to steer and adjust the sails. 

Most people sail with a combination of intellectual and physical techniques but one of the two will predominate. Those who like to ski, skate, fly and surf are more likely to sail physically while card players and computer programmers are often mental sailors. Sailing is always an extension of yourself.

After the first class session, you will go aboard a boat and learn how to rig the sails. Your instructor will point out ways to judge the wind and predict what your vessel will do in various circumstances, including how to leave the dock or mooring. As your boat pulls away from shore, you can expect to learn what you learn best, so relax and let the new experience flow over you.

You will notice the sensation of motion without effort. There is no engine vibration as the land and other fixed references glide by like scenes from a movie with no soundtrack. Tactical sailors will begin to observe how buoys and landmarks change relative positions when they move the rudder and adjust the sails. Physical sailors will sense the change in sound of the bow wave and the angle of heel as they make the same adjustments.

Yes, the boat will tip slightly, or “heel” as the wind moves over the sails. That’s no more cause for alarm than the sensation of moving from side to side when a car turns a corner, but you may need several hours of sailing to become accustomed to it. A person who notices the heeling acutely has the makings of an exceptionally good physical sailor and helmsman who can sense when a boat is moving at its best speed.

You will become aware of the wind flowing over the boat, the sails and your body. Some new sailors make mental note of the angle of the wind to the hull and which way the yarn telltales flow while others get the same information by the airflow across the skin of their faces and arms. You may find the first sailing session is the first time you have ever really noticed the ocean of air we all are submerged in.

You will see dramatic differences between the way a sailboat behaves and the way your family automobile handles. Even exposure to powerboats will not prepare you for it, so expect to be pleasantly surprised to see how easy it is to manipulate tons of vessel with nothing but the forces of Nature. Sailing does not force itself upon the natural world but uses the qualities of the world harmoniously to its own advantage.

You will certainly notice that your mistakes are instantly recognized and repaid. Sailing is one of the safest sports and errors produce reminders. For example, if you try to turn the bow of the vessel straight into the wind, the boat simply stops and waits for you to do something intelligent, making a sailboat the ultimate teaching machine. 

Expect the first sailing session to last about two hours for that gives you about all you will be able to absorb at one time. After a break, you will be ready for more information and practical experience in tacking, gybing, “reading” the wind and water, right-of-way rules, weather and seamanship.

You will need at least four hours of class and eight hours of sailing practice to feel reasonably confident in your ability to do the basic maneuvers in a sailboat. Some courses spread this out over several weeks while others condense it into one intensive weekend. Choose the way that suits your learning style best. 

After an intensive weekend of instruction, an average motivated adult can learn to rig a daysailing boat, leave the dock or beach, sail around without incident for several hours, return home and unrig the vessel. With the basics learned, you will be ready to expand your experience to some of the other joys of travel under sail: daysailing with friends, cruising to nearby waterfront towns, racing or chartering in exotic locations.

It’s a different world and one you will be able to spend a lifetime exploring.

— The End —

A stable centerboard boat like this 19-foot Flying Scot is an excellent choice for learning to sail, and it is also lots of fun to daysail and race.