Growing up in San Diego, I feel sailing the way surfers talk about surfing. “Just out there with the waves, man . . .” I actually live on a boat. Sailing is particularly exciting for beginners. One of the coolest things is sailing upwind, even just around the bay. You will feel the wind on your face, you will hear the sail. A large boat comes by and there is a wake. You hear the waves lapping and feel the boat heeling to one side. Suddenly, a couple of dolphins emerge from the water.
And all of that stuff is sensory information that helps you determine what to do. The sound of the sail will tell you if it is luffing or not properly trimmed. The way the water moves predicts a coming wind shift. That’s what’s so special about sailing: the connection to nature is created by setting the boat in motion. Sometimes when you have everything perfect, it gets quiet and all you can hear is the hull cruising through the water and the breeze blowing past you.
It’s original. Even spiritually. Just out there with the waves, man.
Find a place to study
Along with the American Sailing Association and US Sailing being the two main certification bodies, there are a few hundred sailing schools across the country – even in unexpected places like Oklahoma and Arizona. Beginner courses often last two days, so there are weekend packages. Expect to pay around $500 per person. At higher levels, US Sailing emphasizes regattas and ASA pleasure boating, but the introductory classes are more or less the same.
Understand what is happening
Sailing is rich in jargon, tradition and lore. You’ll absorb the complexity better if you know the basics up front.
How the wind moves a boat: A full-wind sail forms an airfoil and propels the boat with lift, much like an airplane wing does (except over water and not in the air). The work of sailing is to position or trim the sails to maximize lift in the desired direction.
Once you’ve hoisted the sails with the lines – never say “ropes” – called halyards (A), They are trimmed with the leaves (D), swinging the boom (E) between the port and starboard sides, i.e. the left and right side of the boat. On a two-sail boat like this (called a sloop), the emphasis is on the mainsail (B), the sail closer to the stern (H), this is the rearmost or rearmost part of the boat. The smaller boom (c), closer to the arch (F), forward, also rotates – but as a new sailor you will focus on the mainsail.
The basic idea: You use the tiller (G) to move the rudder (I) and orient the boat so that it is perpendicular to the wind. Use the sheets to angle the mainsail so that it fills with wind. In the swept airfoil shape, air moving over the longer, curved side moves faster than air flowing past the other side, creating lift.
“tying off” a “line”
At some point you will be asked to attach a leash to a cleat. Here’s how, using a simple knot called Cleat Hitch.
- Start with the horn farthest from the load and wrap the line around both horns. (Only once – more increases the likelihood of interference.)
- Make at least two figure eight turns around the cleat.
- Secure the free end of the line by tucking it under the last loop.
Each skipper who takes you on a lesson has safety equipment and navigation hardware. Your main task is to dress appropriately for the occasion. So: imagine a sailor – then don’t dress like that. You don’t need a cable-knit sweater or a whistle. Check the weather forecast and wear the layers you would wear on land – and make sure you have these four things.
Should you buy a boat?
Actually yes. If you’ve caught the virus, a Sunfish, a 14-foot single-sail tender, is a good entry point for boat ownership. A Sunfish can be had new for around $4,500, but they’ve been around since the early 1950’s – with several hundred thousand of them being made, there’s at least one pair out there in decent shape at a much lower price.
If you’re feeling more entrepreneurial and can find a copy of the 1950 classic Popular mechanics: 23 boats you can build, The Su-Lu plywood boat offers a decent approximation of a Sunfish.
FAQ for the first time sailor
What if there’s a gust of wind? Will the boat capsize?
If there’s a big gust, you simply turn into the wind, causing the boat to stop. And fortunately, the heavy ballast under a keelboat’s hull makes it quite difficult to capsize. Even if a strong gust can cause the boat to heel or pitch, everything is fine.
Am I getting seasick?
You could – although you’ll be near shore while you’re learning, and being able to see land generally helps. If you are about to throw up, get to the leeward side of the boat for the good of all involved.
If I fall overboard, can the boat get back to me in time to save me?
Make it known that you’ve hit the water and someone will toss you a flotation device (if you’re not already wearing one). Then for a moment it looks as if the boat is going to sail away. Don’t freak out. It only takes time to tack a sailboat.
How hard is it to operate the sails?
Wind-filled sails can require a lot of strength to handle, but tools like pulleys and winches give sailors a mechanical advantage. Anyone can sail for leisure. (Racing is another matter.)