When it comes to learning to sail or improving your sailing skills, what exactly are you seeking? Have you thought through your short- and long-term goals? Do you seek certification - and if so, do you really need it?
These are just a few of the questions to ask yourself before deciding what kind of sailing instruction is best for you and then seeking the best instructor or school to meet your needs. Following are basic guidelines for ensuring your final result is really what you want.
What Are Your Sailing Goals?
There are three main reasons why people seek sailing instruction. Where you should look for a sailing school (or instructor), what kind of class you should take, and how much you'll end up paying for it are all determined mostly by your primary goal.
I just want to learn to sail and get started, maybe some day own my own sailboat.
- You may need only an instructor, mentor, or sailing friend - you may not need a sailing school.
- You certainly don't need certification to sail legally, to own or operate a boat, or even to charter a sailboat. (See below for more on certification.)
- You don't need to pay a lot for sailing instruction. You have many options, once you start looking around.
- Look locally for possibilities (see below). You can learn to sail on a vacation to an exotic place, but when you return home you may lack contacts to continue sailing.
I have a sailboat but want to learn how to sail it (or sail better).
- You probably don't need a sailing school.
- Look locally for a captain or willing sailor (see below).
- A sailing school may be appropriate if you seek specific skills, such as preparing for coastal passage making or offshore cruising.
I want to be able to charter a sailboat
- Certification is not legally required to charter, and most bareboat charter companies do not actually require certification (regardless of the hype you may hear from certificate-issuing sailing schools).
- Charter companies are more interested in your sailing experience in a similar size sailboat than in a certificate, and sailing your own boat or crewing experience can count just as much on your sailing resume. (The charter company may simply check out your skills when you arrive.)
- If you do not have much sailing experience and can't get it otherwise, a certifying sailing school is an excellent way both to learn and gain significant experience to qualify for bareboat chartering.
Where to Look for Sailing Instruction
- Many communities offer low-cost learn-to-sail programs. Boston and Key West are two examples where you can learn to sail and then continue sailing the center's boats. You'll find community sailing centers in many areas - do an online search in your area. (These are usually smaller sailboats and won't help you gain experience for bareboat chartering.)
- In many areas, the public school system (or an adult education program) has learn-to-sail courses, as do many private, state, and community colleges. Such courses are less expensive than private sailing schools, and you'll make contacts with others in your area to continue sailing after the course.
- Many yacht clubs operate learn-to-sail programs for both kids and adults, usually at a reasonable cost. Virtually all clubs have websites easily found with a local online search. Again, you'll also meet sailors in the community, may discover a club you'll choose to join some day, and find sailors seeking crew on their boats.
- If your goal is to learn on your own boat or gain better sailing skills, you probably don't need formal instruction at all. Call up your local yacht club and ask if you can post a bulletin board notice asking for help on your boat or offering to crew with others. Bartering is common - you might offer to help with an owner's spring maintenance in return for some crewing.
- Legally, a sailor needs a USCG captain's license to be paid for operating a boat - including yours, if you're hiring someone to teach you on your boat. Be sure anyone you plan to pay is qualified. But lots of friendly bartering deals are made among sailors helping each other out, so explore all the options.
- Finally, consider the cost savings of learning locally. A two-week trip to a national sailing school will likely cost more than buying your own daysailer and learning to sail it near home - plus you'll own a boat when you're done!
National Sailing Schools
There are some good reasons to attend a national sailing school:
- If you live nowhere a coast or major lake, you may have no other option. Since you'll be paying significantly for the experience, consider the sailing school like a vacation and make sure you'll have some fun too. Most big sailing schools offer liveaboard learning - often in tropic paradises.
- If you really want sailing experience on a cruising size sailboat and can't get it locally, the national schools offer courses on bigger boats. You have a wide range of choices.
- If you don't anticipate buying your own boat and chartering is your only option, taking a course leading to bareboat certification is likely the fastest way to reach your goal.
- If you have your own cruising sailboat but feel you lack the skills needed to head offshore or on a long cruise, consider local options first. (Sailing schools are a relatively new phenomenon, sailors having learned on their own or with friends for hundreds of years.) If you have no other option, or just want the vacation, take an advanced course that meets your exact needs.
Continue to next page to learn about different types of certification and how to choose the sailing school that's right for you.