Can You Teach Yourself to Sail?

Can You Teach Yourself to Sail? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

Sailing is one of the oldest and most enjoyable sports around. One of the beautiful things about sailing is that there’s a place for everyone, regardless of their experience level. You don’t have to start out sailing blue water in a 50-foot schooner. Sailing an 8-foot dinghy in a calm and quiet lake is within everyone’s grasp.

But what if you’ve never been on a sailboat? Can you teach yourself to sail? In this article, we’ll go over what it takes to learn to sail, along with how to get the experience you need to sail a boat safely.


Table of contents

The Best Way to Learn to Sail

Most people learn to sail from friends, family, or lessons. In many instances, sailing is passed down through generations. Many people find it hard to learn to sail without connections in the boating world, as boats are expensive and require maintenance know-how.

People who don’t own a boat (or know any experienced sailors) generally solve the problem by taking lessons at the local yacht club or online courses. But others who don’t live near a yacht club (or don’t care to pay for classes) have to figure it out independently.

Teaching Yourself To Sail

So, is it possible to teach yourself to sail? Yes! Although most people learn from experienced sailors, it’s possible to teach yourself in a controlled environment. The biggest concern when teaching yourself to sail is safety, as going out on the water alone and inexperienced can be perilous.

It would help if you found an enclosed area with good weather nearby assistance, such as an inland recreational lake with spotters and a dedicated space for sailing. It’s always best to have professional in-person instruction, but if that’s unavailable, here are some key points on how to teach yourself to sail.

Learn The Ropes

Start by researching the basics. Learn the parts of a sailboat, how they work, and what they do. It’s essential to understand the mechanics behind sailing before attempting to learn the technique. Once you wrap your head around the boat itself, it’ll be easy to deduce what’s happening out on the water. Once you begin sailing, your knowledge of how the boat works can help you figure out what to do before you need to do it. Here are some common sailing terms to study.

  • Hull
  • Mast
  • Rudder
  • Keel
  • Centerboard
  • Transom
  • Sheet
  • Mainsail
  • Boom
  • Jib
  • Stays
  • Cleat
  • Block
  • Winch

Some deceptively simple-sounding parts are extremely important. Stays, for example, are the ropes or wires that tether the mast to the hull or deck. And while the mast is likely bolted to the deck, it’s the stays that bear the majority of the stress under sail. Without a few seemingly insignificant wires, the mast can collapse under the force of the wind. Many people wouldn’t give stays a second thought, which is why it’s essential to understand the function of each part.

Research Sailing Techniques

After learning the basic parts of the boat, it’s time to research how to sail. Resources such as YouTube and the Sailing Forums are a great place to start. Now is also the time to ask questions. How do you sail upwind? What happens if I capsize? Is the boat supposed to lean over when I sail? These are all valid and important questions to ask. Here’s a list of topics to research during this phase of teaching yourself to sail.

During this period, you can also get to know the basic types of sailboats. Things that differentiate boats such as keel type and sail plan are important down the line, especially when choosing a sailboat. After you’ve spent some time studying how to sail a boat, it’s time to put it into practice.

Find A Boat

After you learn the basics of sailboats and sailboat parts, it’s time to find yourself a boat. You don’t have to buy a boat, but small beginner-friendly vessels don’t usually break the bank. It’s best to start with a small open sailboat such as a sailing dinghy or a Sunfish.

If you don’t want to buy a boat, see if you can rent one at a public lake or recreation area. Many local water spots that rent kayaks and umbrellas also have a small sailboat in the back. Once you have a boat, practice rigging it up on land. Experiment with the controls and find a comfortable place to sit where you have access to the main sheet and the rudder.

Practice! (Safely)

Now it’s finally time to drop the boat in the water and practice sailing. It’s essential to take safety precautions during this time, as there’s a decent likelihood that you’ll end up in the water at some point. First, learn to swim before you learn to sail. Even if you’re a pro swimmer, always wear a lifejacket when sailing.

Sailing in a controlled environment, such as a small lake with lifeguards on a warm and clear day, is necessary to avoid extremely dangerous situations. Make sure you bring a buddy with a boat or to stand on the shore and keep an eye on you. If possible, bring an experienced sailor along as well. Whatever you do, don’t go at it alone or in a remote environment.

Once you get out on the water, practice tacking (sailing upwind) and sailing downwind. Practice controlling your speed and direction, and learn the heeling characteristics of your boat. Also, get acclimated to the idea that the boat heels over to one side when sailing, and learn the difference between a normal sailing angle and a dangerous list.

If you capsize in a one-person sailboat, don’t be too upset—pretty much every beginner rolls over at some point. Learn how to ‘right’ the boat (flip it back over), or signal for help from someone else. Small boats can be righted by hanging onto the centerboard, but you may require assistance. Again, all of this is easier if you have an experienced buddy with you. This is the benefit of being in a safe environment for beginners to sail.

Best Alternatives To Teaching Yourself To Sail

Now that you have an idea of what it takes to teach yourself to sail, we understand if you decide to seek lessons. But don’t discount this information entirely. Even if you decide to take lessons, you can still benefit enormously from learning the basics of sailing before going out on the water. Here are the best alternatives to teaching yourself to sail.

Group Lessons

Group lessons are a popular and affordable way to learn how to sail. Group lessons consist of a handful of people and a professional sailing instructor. Usually, you start the lesson in a classroom learning the basics of sailboats and sailing techniques.

After classroom instruction, students ‘graduate’ to basic sailing lessons on a medium-sized sailboat. The advantage of learning to sail in a group is the reduced cost and experience on a larger boat, which most beginners wouldn’t be able to handle on their own. Group lessons are one of the best ways to learn sailing if you want to buy a 20 to 30-foot cruising sailboat.

Individual Instruction

Individual instruction is costlier but provides the best and fastest way to learn to sail. Plus, you usually don’t have to worry about finding a boat. Experienced instructors take individual students on medium-sized cruising boats and walk them through the intricacies of sailing. Individual lessons are quite safe, as the instructor can handle the boat without any assistance.

You’ll start by performing basic tasks and work your way up to controlling the boat by yourself. These kinds of sailing lessons are ideal for beginners who want to take their own boat on the water as soon as possible or learn from professionals before bringing their friends and family on board.

Teaching Yourself To Sail Is a Tradeoff

Teaching yourself to sail is completely possible, but it’s a tradeoff of safety and time for convenience. Many people teach themselves to sail, but it’s safer and faster to book a lesson and learn from professionals. But if you really want to teach yourself, don’t be discouraged by this article. Take the time to study and practice, ask questions, and you can become a skilled sailor through your own perseverance and determination.

Don’t get discouraged when teaching yourself to sail. Everyone makes mistakes, and in the right environment, they’re nothing but a positive learning experience. It might be embarrassing to flop into the water or run into the reeds, but it happens to almost every beginner at some point. Don’t be afraid to try again and experiment with different techniques.

Once you master a small boat, congratulate yourself on a significant milestone. It’s a learning curve, but it’s easy to move up to larger boats once you have the basics down. With time, you’ll know what to do intuitively, and you’ll learn the individual characteristics and quirks of your boat. So if you want to teach yourself to sail, be prepared to study hard and make a few mistakes. But in the end, you’ll learn a valuable skill and open the door to years of safe enjoyment out on the water.

Can You Teach Yourself to Sail?
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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