Interested in becoming a sailing instructor? Whether you choose to pursue accreditation with The American Sailing Association or US Sailing or to teach on your own, first give some serious thought to the teaching process itself and whether your personality and interests make a good fit. It’s easy for experienced sailors to forget how much they have learned over the years, and you might realize too late, once you start teaching, that a lot is involved. The better you plan things out in advance, the more successful you’ll be as a teacher and the happier and better sailors your students will become.
The Right Personality
Obviously you love to sail or you wouldn’t be interested in teaching, but will that alone make you a good teacher? Here are some of the personality traits needed to succeed at teaching, especially with young kids:
- Patience. Remember that it took you a long time to learn what you have, and don’t expect your students to remember everything you say the first time—often they’ll have to hear it repeatedly and practice it before it sinks in.
- Flexibility. Don’t come to every session with an engraved-in-stone plan for the day. Students may learn slower or faster than anticipated, forcing you to adapt. Weather may interrupt plans on the water and force a classroom session instead. The failure of boat gear may require you shift focus to some other topic altogether.
- Creativity. People learn in different ways. Some learn better through language—by reading or hearing something described in words. Some learn only by doing—no matter what you say, they won’t get it until they do it with their own hands. Some pick up things like sail trim through an intuitive body awareness of the wind and boat motion, while others need to understand the physics. If you see that a student is just not getting it, switch tacks and come at the issue from a different direction.
- Trust. It is essential that you trust your students enough to let them learn. If you’re so afraid they’ll capsize the boat by turning broadside to a brisk wind when the sails are close-hauled that you won’t take your hand off theirs on the tiller, then they’ll never get a feel for the tiller. Trust them—but just be ready in case they do goof up!
Too much trust can lead to problems, however. Maybe you lectured an especially enthusiastic student on the danger of cleating down the mainsheet on a gusty day, and then you’re surprised when he does it anyway and the boat is knocked over because he can’t spill the wind fast enough. Keep an eye out for safety at all times. Don’t assume beginners will always remember everything, especially when stress builds. You do have to trust them to do things right, but that doesn’t mean turning your back.
Never underestimate the ability of kids to do the unexpected. ‘Nuff said!
Even when teaching adults, and perhaps especially with friends, don’t relax and assume that just because they’re adult they’ll understand the dangers of being on the water. You’re the one who understands the risk of going to the foredeck without wearing a PFD on a bouncy day—not them. You’re the one who knows when an accidental gybe may occur and the boom may take someone’s head off. In the worst-case scenario, the judge won’t let you off the hook because you thought the victim was mature and smart enough not to make a “stupid” mistake.
Enjoy the Experience
Sailing safe doesn’t mean you have to stay somber and serious at all times. A good teacher knows when to let loose and enjoy the thrill of sailing well and fast, and your enthusiasm will be infectious for most students. Go ahead: have a good time!
Don’t Be Afraid to Let Learners Make Mistakes
Beyond the issue of trust, people do learn by making mistakes. Really. As long as you keep things safe, let students experience what happens when they goof up. It’s not the end of the world if a kid puts the boat in irons because he turned into the wind without first gathering enough boat speed to complete the tack. Just resist all temptation to say I told you so!
Teach the Reasons for Doing It Right
Finally, try to help students understand why you’re showing them a certain way to do things. I’ll never forget my own instructor who was always yelling “Clean up the spaghetti!” at kids who left jibsheets or dock lines heaped up in a mess. We thought he was just being obsessive-compulsive, and we never knew why we had to “Flemish” a coil of line. Until one day, that is, when someone tripped on a loose line and went overboard into frigid water—and then we knew and stopped grumbling about doing it right. This is where real seamanship begins.