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If you weren’t born into a family of sailors (I certainly wasn’t), the whole sailing scene can seem pretty intimidating. It’s a world where ropes are sheets, bathrooms are heads, and kitchens are galleys. Forget wind dynamics, even the jargon takes some time to learn!
Fortunately, learning how to sail isn’t as intimidating as it seems as long as you have the right approach. In this guide, we’ll share seven tips to keep in mind if you’re just getting the hang of it all.
Table of Contents
1. Start small
As a rule, the smaller the sailboat, the more agile it is. One of the best ways to learn how sails work with the wind is by sailing on a smaller sailboat, ideally something like a sailing dinghy or small catamaran. They’re fast, responsive and fairly low-stakes should something go wrong. As you gain more skills, you’ll be able to move up in vessel size.
2. Take a course
I used to think that volunteering as crew on sailboats was the best way to learn how to sail. While you certainly can learn a lot, you might find yourself cleaning and cooking more than sailing. Plus, if you’re just starting out, you never know if your captain actually knows what they’re doing. Bad sailing habits have a tendency to stick around once they’re picked up.
Cue the sailing course. If your short on time and want to become an independent sailor as soon as possible, this is the best way to go. The American Sailing Association has courses catered to novices and experienced captains alike.
Join Sailing Virgins for an all girls trip this March 25 to April 1, or an intermediate course with us at The Salt Sirens from June 11 to June 19. You’ll learn how to sail while making friends in the meantime. Your week includes all meals, meditation and yoga sessions, plus hands-on learning in a fun environment. This isn’t your local yacht club’s stuffy course run by old salties.
Both courses will take place in beautiful British Virgin Islands. For more information, read our full announcement post. Use the code “SALTSIRENS” for $100 off any course.
3. Learn the lingo
Save the headache and learn the proper terms for parts of a sailboat before stepping foot on deck. You’ll need to know the words if you ever sail as crew, take a course, or have guests onboard of your own sailboat someday. Once you’ve memorized all the parts, you’ll be more reactive when someone calls out directions.
Our tip? Start with the very basics (port, starboard, sail, sheet, boom, keel, hull, bow, stem, mast, stern, etc.). You’ll also need to know the rules of the sea — who has right of way, where you’re allowed to sail, and what the nautical markers mean.
4. Master weather forecasts and nautical charts
As a sailor, you’re at the mercy of mother nature. When you’re just starting out, you’ll only want to venture out in calm, clear conditions. You’ll also want to avoid crowded routes and areas with many hazards, like shallow reefs. This is where mastering a weather forecast and knowing how to read a nautical chart, or map, is essential. This guide from the Windy app is a useful primer on what to look for before you go sailing.
5. Volunteer as crew
If you can’t afford a sailing course, the next best way to learn how to sail is to volunteer as crew from a trusted captain. The more hours you spend on the water, the more natural sailing becomes. Join the Sailing Safety for Women Facebook group, read through our crew safety tips, and vet the captain before venturing onboard — even if it’s just for a day sail.
Many sailing clubs have racing teams, leisure sailing clubs, and boat owners who are simply looking for crew. Walk the docks of your local marina to embed yourself into the sailing scene — this way, you’ll be the first one tapped when it’s time to set sail.
6. Cinch in your safety skills and gear
Even if you’re just going for a day sail, pack the 10 survival essentials with you: navigation, light, sun protection, first aid, a knife, shelter, food, freshwater, extra clothes, and a signaling device. Factor in weather conditions, how far you’ll be from shore, and distance from help or rescue when planning your sailing trip.
As you start sailing, other safety skills like being aware of the boom, keeping one hand for you and one hand holding onto the boat at all times, and tethering yourself to the boat during rough seas or solo sailing will soon become second nature.
7. Go as often as you can
Like any ocean sport, the only way to become a skilled is by putting your hours on the water. Whether it’s lessons, going as a guest, volunteering as crew, or buying a sailboat of your own, you’ll want to sail as often as possible. Soon enough, you’ll be another seasoned salt schooling newer sailors on their lingo.