The 5 Best Sailboats For Beginners

5-best-sailboats-for-beginners

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

February 19, 2020

Sailing
Beginners

Sailing is a fun activity for people of all experience levels. In fact, learning to sail a basic boat is relatively easy—in the right environment, you can start cruising with minimal experience.

However, the idea of a beginner commanding a 55-foot ketch in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is a bit ridiculous. Even though virtually everyone can sail, beginners should learn the basics in a controlled environment—and on the correct boat. 

Boat size doesn’t necessarily affect its beginner-friendliness, because sailors need to take into account factors such as rig simplicity and handling characteristics. 

Many beginners make the mistake of picking the wrong boat to begin with, which can lead to frustration and turn them off of sailing forever. To mitigate these issues, this article will cover the best sailboats for beginners—so you can get on the water and start sailing safely and comfortably.

Table of contents for this article

Best Rigs for Beginners 

There are many types of sailboat rigging, and some are more beginner-friendly than others. Unfortunately, some of the most aesthetically pleasing rigs are also the most complicated. 

Eventually, sailors can acquire enough skill to master complex rigs, but it’s best to start simple. 

Arguably, one of the simplest sailing rigs is the Lateen Rig. This rig consists of a mast, boom, and spar, along with a single halyard and mainsheet. With only two ropes in its simplest configuration, the Lateen Rig makes an excellent starter sailboat, and it will be featured on this list. 

For larger boats, the Bermuda Sloop rig is an excellent choice. This rig is quite common and includes a jib for a larger sail plan. For those who desire a slightly more robust (but single sail) layout, the gaff-rigged catboat is also an excellent choice. This versatile craft (and rig) has a large and relatively simple single sail, which is easier to handle than multiple sails.

Top Five Sailboats for Beginners 

Now, we’ll go over the top five sailboats for beginners. These boats will descend in order from smallest to largest, but not by the level of experience needed.  

Remember, just because you’re new to sailing doesn’t mean you have to settle for a boat that’s too small. Beginners can handle larger boats with some training, and some are easier to handle than their smaller counterparts. 

The following boats were chosen because of their handling characteristics, low cost-of-ownership, and simplicity, as all of these factors are important for choosing the best beginner sailboat.

5) Sailing Dinghy

The sailing dinghy is the quintessential starter sailboat. These tiny, lightweight, popular, and highly affordable little craft is easy to operate and relatively difficult to capsize. The popular Optimist Sailing Dinghy, while designed for children up to the age of about 15, can be used (sometimes hilariously) by adults as well. An Optimist-style dingy is a great option for beginners over the age of 15, as boats of this style can be found in a variety of sizes. The sailing dinghy is a very popular youth racing sailboat, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. While it’s not particularly fast, this little boat has wonderful handling characteristics and is relatively difficult to capsize. This open-cockpit boat uses a centerboard and detachable tiller and can be beached or carried atop a car without much hassle. The mast is removable, and all parts are easily stowed. Overall, the Optimist and its copycats are a remarkable little craft, equally useful as a tender for a larger boat or a standalone beginner sailboat.

Rig

Dinghy rigs vary between builders, but many use the simple Spirit Rig. The rig consists of a single sail and mainsheet, along with one mast, boom, and spar. The leech is stiffened by battens, and ties along the luff secure it all to the mast. Hoisting and securing the rig is easy, and lines are secured to the boat by a cleat. This simple rig has plenty of sail area for most places, and sailors can secure the mainsheet to a block or simply hold it in their hands.

Price

The price of sailing dinghies can vary widely depending on multiple factors. Professionally-made sailing dinghies start around $3,500 new, and plywood kits are available for around $1,000 to $2,000. Used dinghies (including Optimist sailing dinghies) can be found on Craigslist for as low as a few hundred dollars. 

4) Sunfish

The Sunfish is a brilliant little sailboat, and a very fast boat indeed. This little racing dinghy, while only 13 feet in length, can be an enormous amount of fun for beginners and experienced sailors alike. The best way to describe the handling of a Sunfish is, ‘tender,’ though it’s not difficult to master this little boat. For its size, the Sunfish has a relatively large sail area and a very shallow draft. This boat has a small cockpit and can be controlled easily by a single person. The large sail plan of the Lateen-Rigged Sunfish makes for excellent performance in light winds and amazing speed on windy days. The Sunfish is a lightweight fiberglass boat with a simple rig and is a great step-up from a sailing dinghy. It’s possible to learn how to sail on this boat, but every sailor who’s spent time on a Sunfish will probably recommend bringing a towel. The boat is relatively easy to capsize for beginners and it heels aggressively, but these characteristics can teach sailors some important lessons. The heeling characteristics of the Sunfish can help beginners get accustomed to the feeling and help them understand the limits of a sailboat and how to avoid capsizing.

Rig

The Sunfish features a Lateen Rig, which has some shared characteristics with the simple Spirit Rig. The Lateen Rig has a single spar, mast, and boom, and is easy to set up and dismantle. The mast is removable as well, making stowing and transportation relatively easy. The large sail plan of the Sunfish makes it ideal for lakes and other areas where the wind is sporadic or very low, and the boat can be safely handled in many conditions. The boat is great for racing and learning and is also available in a Bermuda rig. The Sunfish is recognizable by the distinctive fish logo in the top corner of the sail, and the classic rainbow sails striping.

Price 

The Sunfish is still commercially manufactured. You can purchase one new from the factory for around $5,000 today, and options are available to make the boat your own. While the boat is designed to be sailed by a single person, two adults can purchase this boat and use it together comfortably. Used Sunfish prices vary, but a fully-outfitted boat in good condition can cost upwards of $1,000. They hold their value well, and they’re a great choice for beginners. 

3) Laser 

The Laser is considered by many to be the Sunfish’s main competitor. The two boats are the same length (13 feet 9 inches) and share many of the same handling characteristics. However, the boats do have some notable differences. Many people consider the Laser to be a step-up from the Sunfish in difficulty, as the boat handles much more like a racer. The Laser has been used in the Olympics for racing. The laser is small and simple enough for beginners but requires skill to operate. Beginners can learn a lot from sailing a Laser and have an enormous amount of fun in the process. This fast little boat is simple and easy to set up but handles like a racecar.  If you’re a beginner on a laser, you’ll probably capsize at some point—which isn’t always a problem if you’re in a controlled environment, as the boat can be righted easily.

Rig

The laser is a Cat Rigged boat. This means it has only one mainsail and no headsails. The simple rig has a mast and a boom and is very easy to set up. The sail area of the laser is relatively large and designed for speed in high winds. The rig combined with the overall design of the sailboat makes it handle tenderly, which may be off-putting to some beginners. Regardless, it’s still a blast to sail for beginners with some experience.

Price

New Laser sailboats start around $6,000 which is slightly more than the Sunfish. This simple centerboard cruiser is constructed as a race boat, which can explain some of the price increase. Used Laser sailboats are available on the market, though usually not as common as the Sunfish. Used Laser prices vary widely.

2) Gaff-Rigged Catboat

The gaff-rigged catboat isn’t a brand of boat—it’s a style of a sailboat that was once a popular workboat on the New England coast. This boat, which has only one mainsail and no headsails, is available in a wide range of designs. Catboats are famous for their handling and power and make a great sailboat for beginners. These vessels are available with centerboards, keels, cabins, and in open designs. Most catboats range from 15 to 19-feet long and can be built from wood or fiberglass. Catboats are easy to handle, and one who learns on a small catboat can easily transition to a larger one. Besides being one of the most easily recognizable sailboats, catboats are also some of the most versatile. A catboat can be just as suitable for lake cruising as it is for coastal waters.

Rig 

The most common type of catboat rig is the Gaff Rig. This classic and robust rig is more complex than the simple Spirit and Lateen rig, but it’s more suitable for a ‘proper ship.’ The Gaff Rig can provide similar power as an equivalent Bermuda Rig, with much more elegance and a shorter mast. Many sailors prefer the classic Gaff Rig for its handling characteristics and durability.

Price

It’s impossible to specify the price of catboats because they vary so much in design and size. New catboats (between 15 and 25-feet) can be purchased for less than $20,000, and used boats are numerous and varied. Cabin catboats tend to cost more, especially new—some run for more than $50,000 with a high level of amenities, including a head and galley. Numerous catboat plans are available online, and sailors report constructing them (usually of plywood) for just a few thousand dollars.

1) West Wight Potter 19

The West Wight Potter 19 is a fiberglass sailboat designed for safety, easy handling, and beginner-friendliness. This 19-foot trailer-sailor features a cabin with a vee-berth, a simple rig, and a retractable keel. The West Wight Potter 19 could potentially be the best cabin sailboat for beginners, and certainly one of the safest—the West Wight Potter 19, according to the manufacturer, is quite literally unsinkable. The hull is filled with buoyant materials, allowing the boat to be flooded and remain afloat. However, unsinkability isn’t the only characteristic of this boat that makes it ideal for beginners. The rig is simple and easy to set up, and the handling characteristics are excellent. The boat is not prone to aggressive heeling and handles confidently in a variety of conditions. While one generally wouldn’t consider it to be a blue-water cruiser, it’s still extremely capable—one sailor even sailed this vessel from California to Hawaii, which is over 2,000 nautical miles. The theoretical hull speed of this boat is around 5.4 knots, but it actually has a tendency to plane and achieve higher speeds. It’s a flat-bottomed cruiser, making it easy to beach and transport with its retractable keel and removable rudder. The West Wight Potter 19 is a great introduction to large sailboats and carries amenities normally reserved for boats at least 1/3 larger.

Rig

The West Wight Potter 19 is a Bermuda-Rigged sloop. The sail plan is sufficiently large to propel the boat in a variety of conditions, but not so large that it overpowers the boat. Sailors can single-hand the boat with ease, and set up and takedown are easy and require no special tools. The boat handles well in a variety of conditions and is well-known for its superior stability. The rig comes apart easily and can be stowed and trailered by one person.

Price

The West Wight Potter 19 has been produced and sold commercially since the 1970s, and the used market has plenty of boats available, generally starting around $5,000. New West Wight Potter 19 sailboats are remarkably affordable compared to other boats with comparable characteristics. The West Wight Potter 19 is manufactured by International Marine in California. New sailboats start at just shy of $25,000. Owners can add an enormous range of extra features to their boats, including a hull-strengthening ‘blue water’ package, a stove, a head, electrical power, spare parts, and much more. The boats are highly customizable and can be outfitted for weekender sailing or long-term liveaboard cruising.

How to Pick a Sailboat

Picking a sailboat for beginners doesn’t have to be difficult.  Before deciding on a boat, consider your experience level and location.  If you only have access to rough ocean, it may not be the best idea to get an open dinghy.  If you live near a lake, a Sunfish could be a great way to start.  Also, consider your budget.  If you’re looking for a $50 sailboat, you can probably find one, but it won’t be ideal.  If you have just a few thousand dollars to spend, you can set yourself up nicely with a little research.  Also, consider what you want to do with the sailboat. Recreation, fishing, cruising, and exploration are options, and require different kinds of boats.  Whichever you end up choosing, make sure you try it out and can sail it comfortably.

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