Sailing off into the sunset is something we all dream about. But, sailing isn’t all hammocks, dolphins and gentle breezes. Sailing is a sport of variables. Understanding the changeable conditions is just as important as knowing how to trim the sails. Here are our sailing tips for beginners to help you be well-equipped for the high seas.
From dinghy and lake sailing to tropical island hopping and offshore cruising, the basics are the same. Using the wind and current to get from one place to another is a liberating experience. After this article, you’ll be able to get a head start on sailing!
LEARNING TO SAIL
1. DECIDE WHICH TYPE OF BOAT
Sailboats are just boats — with sails. Simple, right? But, sailboats can be anything from dinghies to super yachts. So, deciding the kind of sailboat you want to sail is important.
Dinghy sailing is a great way to start. Renting a dinghy or taking lessons is cheap. It also gives you a great understanding of the fickle nature of the wind. If you want to sail across an ocean one day, then learning how to sail cruising yachts is the thing for you.
2. GET THE RIGHT LICENSES & KNOW THE REGULATIONS
Boat licenses depend on your state as well as where and what you’ll be sailing. Lake sailing may have different licenses and regulations from coastal sailing. If you own your boat or are looking to buy one, then check what license you need (if any). Chances are, you’ll also need a VHF radio license.
3. TAKE A SAILING COURSE
Sailing schools are a great way to learn in a safe environment. You’ll get hands-on training plus all the equipment. You can learn in dinghies right the way up to sail training ships offshore! Many sailing schools will also provide routes to qualifications, essential if you ever want to work on sailboats.
4. JOIN A LOCAL CLUB
Local club membership lets you mingle with the sailing crowd. Your fellow club members can offer help, advice and experience. They can also be good drinking companions at the yacht club bar. Clubs often have casual racing nights too, where you can crew aboard club sailboats or on your own boat.
5. GET YOUR OWN PERSONAL EQUIPMENT
If you’re committed to learning how to sail, owning your own life jacket is a real bonus. Buy a modern, comfortable life jacket and take care of it. Owning your own means you always know its condition and will make it easier to crew on other people’s boats.
Waterproof sailing boots are also very useful. Check out waterproof sailing salopettes and a reliable jacket as well. If you want to learn to dinghy sail, a good quality wetsuit will be your best friend.
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UNDERSTANDING THE WEATHER
6. LOOK UP THE BEAUFORT SCALE
Look up the Beaufort Scale and memorize it. This international scale gives the wind and water conditions in a Force of 1 to 12.
This means that not only will you be able to look out across the water and tell if the wind is increasing, but you’ll also sound like you know what you’re talking about.
7. CHECK LOCAL WEATHER
Local weather idiosyncrasies are beneficial to know. Is there a sea breeze that kicks in at 2 pm every day? Do strong gusts of wind whip down from your local mountain and across the water without warning? Asking your local sailing club can often furnish you with priceless knowledge.
8. STUDY FORECASTING
Sailing forecasting is a little different from land forecasting. Study sailing-specific forecasts and start following some well-known marine forecasters to get to grips with it. When you’re planning a sailing trip, you’ll often be looking at weather that’s happening thousands of miles away!
9. WATCH THE CLOUDS
There are lots of mariner rhymes about clouds and for good reason. Understanding what the clouds are telling you will transform your sailing ability. Certain clouds indicate strong winds, while some may either signal consistent good weather or nasty squalls approaching.
10. UNDERSTAND WEATHER PHENOMENA
Waterspouts, derechos and squalls can all come out of nowhere. Understanding what these are and how to deal with them will make your sailing a lot safer. Often, it’s just a case of taking down the sails and waiting it out!
UNDERSTANDING THE WATER
11. KNOW THE DIFFERENCE – SALTWATER OR FRESHWATER?
It sounds simple, but this is important to note. Saltwater will corrode and seize equipment, clothes and anything else in its way. Saltwater boats need considerable maintenance while freshwater can be more forgiving.
12. UNDERSTAND TIDES
From a staggering 30 feet tidal range to just one inch, tides are tricky creatures. If you’re learning to sail in a place with a discernible tidal range, this is one of the first things you need to understand. No one wants to be left high and dry!
13. LEARN YOUR LOCAL CURRENTS
Currents travel around lakes, seas and oceans. They can be very localized or seen on an oceanic scale like the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic. Generally speaking, you don’t want to be sailing against the current. Learn your local currents. Remember, they might switch direction at certain points in the day.
14. AVOID WIND-OVER-TIDE
Wind-over-tide is a potentially dangerous situation in which the wind is traveling in one direction and the tide is traveling in the other. This is worst when there is strong wind and strong opposing tide. It can cause nasty chops or even large standing waves. Since tides are predictable, always keep updated tide timetables on you to avoid wind-over-tide.
15. READ THE WATER
If you have dreams of sailing the Caribbean islands, reading the water is a skill that could save your life. Subtle changes in the water’s color will alert you to shallow reefs, wrecks and submerged rocks. This is especially important in narrow reef entrances and poorly charted areas.
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16. WATCH OUT FOR THE BOOM
That big metal pole that sticks out of the mast and holds the mainsail out? It swings. Booms can easily catch you unaware if the wind swings around or the boat turns and gybes.
They can easily knock you overboard and can even kill. Injury is easily avoided. Just don’t stand on it’s way and always gybe in a controlled manner. Look out for other on board hazards too. No one wants a finger trapped between a sheet and a winch!
17. KNOW WHERE THE SEACOCKS ARE LOCATED
Seacocks (gate valves) are located where there are openings in the hull below the waterline. Sink and toilet outflows as well the engine intake and outflow will all have seacocks. Usually, seacocks will be open and all it takes to close/seal them is a turn of the handle.
However, if a seacock fails, you’re suddenly looking at an unsealable hole in the boat. This is rare, but you should always know the location of every seacock onboard as these are the first culprits to check if you have a leak.
18. KNOW HOW TO HANDLE A FIRE ONBOARD
Fires are one of the most catastrophic occurrences on a boat. Many seasoned sailors would never even have candles lit on board. Boats are both flammable and meltable, so be very careful.
Also, have one or more fire extinguishers onboard. Make sure to position them in quick-grab places. Most importantly, ensure everyone onboard knows how to use them.
19. KNOW MAYDAY PROTOCOL
Knowing the Mayday protocol can save your life. Learn how to issue a Panpan and a Mayday. Know in what situations to use them. It’s a great idea to have a laminated Mayday card next to your VHF radio so you can read straight off it in an emergency.
20. HAVE A BILGE PUMP
Bilge pumps take any water from your bilge and pump it into the sea. If you have a leak or start taking on water for any reason, the bilge pumps could help prevent a sinking.
Many yachts have automatic bilge pumps, but you should always have a manual one just in case. If you’re dinghy sailing, you’ll need a plastic scoop and a quick arm!
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SAFETY ON THE WATER
21. KNOW THE RIGHT OF WAY RULES
Knowing who has right of way will not only lower the risk of collision, it’ll also always mean you’re on the right side of the law. Read the international collision regulations and be aware that individual harbors and ports may have extra rules for right of way.
22. USE NAVIGATION LIGHTS
Being out of the water in the dark is a bad idea without lights. Lights not only show others where you are, their different colors also indicate which direction you are traveling. It’s good to check these are working, which might sometimes mean walking to the other end of the marina when they’re turned on.
23. LEARN HOW TO READ PAPER CHARTS
Lots of people rely solely on electronic charts these days, but what if your electrics fail? Owning and understanding paper charts will not only help you in sticky situations but it’ll also impress your fellow sailors.
24. LEARN HOW TO HANDLE GROUNDINGS
Grounding can happen to the best of us especially in tidal areas or places with roving sandbanks. Learning what to do in a grounding is a good idea and can save you from a lot of embarrassment.
25. LOOKOUT FOR FLOATING OBJECTS
The sea and lakes are filled with debris and it’s only getting worse. From logs and fishing floats to trawl nets and containers, hitting something on the water can be dangerous. Always look out for floating objects and check your propeller if you think you’ve caught a net.
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EXTRA TIPS AND TRICKS
26. KNOW WHO’S IN CHARGE
You might find yourself sailing with buddies of equal experience but if the situation turns dangerous, too many voices will hamper your efforts. Before setting off, always agree on a captain. In serious situations, that’s the person who has the final word.
27. LEARN HOW TO DEAL WITH SEASICKNESS
Seasickness is many people’s biggest worry when it comes to sailing. It’s understandable. Various tactics work for different people. These could range from ginger biscuits to prescription tablets. Seasick people should be looked after, kept hydrated and be taken seriously.
28. STOCK UP ON FOOD AND WATER
Sailing is hungry work, so take a ready supply of food. Motion while sailing can make cooking or even reheating challenging so take easy to eat, high energy food. Plenty of drinking water is essential and should always be kept in at least two different storage containers in case of contamination.
29. STAY WARM
Sailing is colder than on land and the wind will make things even chillier. Don’t underestimate how cold it can be once it clouds over. The air is over the water. So, you should check the water temperature rather than the air temperature forecast. It’s way more reliable!
30. PRACTICE MAN OVERBOARD SITUATIONS
Falling overboard is probably the single most dangerous accident on a boat. It’s also very preventable. With life jackets and safety lines clipped to each person, you can minimize the risk of falling overboard.
Practicing for cases of having a man overboard is not only useful for emergencies, but it will also give you and others an impression of just how difficult rescuing a person could get. You can use a bucket tied to a fender for practice.
31. HAVE FUN!
Learning how to sail will give you the freedom to use the natural world to get around. Once you learn how to sail and understand the weather, you can visit hundreds of countries and islands around the world!
Even without your own boat, there are tons of liveaboard opportunities out there. The most important lesson is to relax and enjoy your surroundings. Also, keep a look out for dolphins!