Learn to sail

Learn to SailHow long does it take to learn to sail? We hear that question frequently.  In a sense, it is a hard question to answer because there are so many variables.  We have a short answer, which we will share in just a moment, but first, we want to show why it is a hard question to answer.

First, what do you mean by ‘sail’?  One of the appealing aspects of sailing is that it is not just one thing.  Sailing really covers a broad spectrum of activities centered around a sailboat.  Dinghy racing, keelboat racing, day sailing, weekend cruising, and long-range cruising are a few of them.  All sailing, but all different.  Add in foiling sailboats and we move into a completely new dimension.  Windsurfing also fits in here; remember the first windsurf boards were called sailboards. 

For our question, we will assume day sailing since learning to day sail can really lay the foundation for most of the other variations.  So, how long does it take to learn to day sail?  Again, what do you want to be able to do?  That is one of the first questions we ask our students.  We think it is important because we strive to meet their goals.  If all they want to do is to have a basic understanding of what is going on and be able to competently help out on someone else’s boat, what, and how, we teach is going to be different than what we teach to someone that wants to single-hand a cruising boat down the coast.

Sweet Sixteen

For our question, we will assume that our student wants to be able to take a sailboat out for a few hours and bring it safely back to the dock.  Our short answer to this question is it takes sixteen hours to learn to sail.  We have found that it takes the average person about sixteen hours of instruction to be competent enough to complete this task.  Granted, there are still lots of variables.  Different boats have individual handling characteristics.  Additionally, there are considerable variations when it comes to leaving and returning to the dock. Wind and current, as well as boat design have considerable effect when maneuvering around a dock.

However, in most situations, with most people, it will take about sixteen hours of instruction to be safe and competent.   The type of instruction plays a large part in this.  We have witnessed sailing schools that sit all the students in a classroom and lecture them for hours.  In our opinion, that is not effective instruction.  We have also seen instructors who simply tell the students what to do.  While the student may become competent in executing the maneuvers, they do not seem to have a solid understanding of when or why to do the maneuver.  In other words, they are only good at taking orders.


Competent sailors are not order takers.  We sail in an ever-changing environment.  The wind is never perfectly steady.  The conditions are never exactly the same.  Sailors need to have enough knowledge to make decisions for themselves.  An instructor may be able to tell a student to head up and the student may be able to respond correctly.  However, we do not think that is good enough.  We want our sailors to realize that the wind has shifted more towards the stern (or maybe it is just the apparent wind shifting because the true wind is lighter) and because of that, they need to steer a little closer to the wind. 

We feel it is important to give the students enough knowledge base to help them make decisions.  This also helps build the student’s confidence.  One of our teaching techniques is to ask the student leading questions. “How does the sail look?” “Where do you feel the wind?”  “Are you happy with the course you are steering?” We have found that these can help the student find an issue and correct it without us just giving orders.

Sailing instruction

When we say sixteen hours of instruction, we do not mean classroom lectures or barking orders.  We believe the best instruction includes both the conveyance of information and guided practice with specific (both corrective and positive) feedback.  With our experience in several sailing centers, we have witnessed all kinds of instructors.  We have seen the ‘boot camp drill instructor’ to the indecisive, non-confrontational ‘friend’ and everything in between. 

The best sailing instructor is going to earn the confidence of the student.  A large part of that is taking the time to understand the student; their goals, how they learn, their fears, and strengths. A great sailing instructor is going to provide structured lessons with just enough flexibility to allow for variables.  While many students have a fear of making a mistake, the best instructors will provide a safe environment where students can make mistakes that lead to learning. 

Blended learning 

In our current COVID world, we are seeing more and more blended learning. Students participate both in person and online.  We think this is an excellent way to learn to sail as well.  In fact, our most successful students have all done this in one way or another.  It is not uncommon for us to have a student tell us that they have been watching sailing videos on YouTube.  We think this is a great way to solidify concepts.  Every student is slightly different; everyone processes things differently.  We encourage students to read sailing books and watch videos in between our lessons. 

This blended learning allows the brain to process and rehearse the information.   In the early stages of beginning to learn to sail, there is so much information that most students cannot grasp all of it in a short period of time. Working straight through all the necessary information in one session would put the brain into overload.   Shorter practice sessions with time to reflect and process allows for more comprehension and retention of the knowledge and skills.

Speaking of shorter times, we have found that a two-hour session seems to be best for most people. Two hours allows enough time for sufficient repetition to practice a skill without becoming too laborious. While longer sessions would provide more time for practice, we have found that we do not see much improvement in skill within that session. 

 A lifetime Master

The tagline on the board game Othello was “A minute to learn…A lifetime to master”.  We think that applies when you want to learn to sail as well. Maybe not the `minute to learn’ part.  But we do think it can take a lifetime to master sailing.  While we want to build confidence, we do not want a student to leave our training thinking they know everything about sailing.  Confidence is great, and necessary. Overconfidence is dangerous. 

Getting Started

Where should you start? We recommend starting with our two-hour Introduction to Sailing.  We spend 15-20 minutes on the boat, at the dock, going over some terminology, basic theory, and safety.  After motoring out, and have the students take over hoisting the sails, steering, trimming the sails and tacking.  The session ends with a brief review.  

From there, we recommend private lessons.  This allows us to focus on the skills you want to learn.  And, we help you learn at your pace.  If you need a little extra explanation or practice on a particular skill, we can do that.  In larger, structured classes, most students would be out of luck.  Or, if the instructor spent more time with a struggling student, it would be at the expense of the students who already had a solid understanding of the skill. We have found this to be the best way to learn to sail.

In conclusion, we ask the question again. How long does it take to learn to sail?  Anywhere between sixteen hours and a lifetime!

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