Every Body Counts: Class Size in Sailing Schools
Almost all sailing schools teach in small classes, but each additional person can change the pace and feel of the course dramatically. If you need a fast-paced course to stay interested, or want lots of quality personal attention, keep class size in mind when choosing a sailing school.
Standard Class Sizes
Most commercial sailing schools offering Basic Keelboat and Basic Cruising introductory courses (see Course Content and Types of Courses for details) pair an instructor with a group of three, four, or five students. Recently, most schools have gravitated to a four-student class to balance the pressure to keep prices reasonable with the need to offer students individual attention. Think of a three-person class as a premium offering and a five-person class as a cost-cutting move.
To find a class that is smaller than three, you will typically have to look for smaller schools that don't have the high overhead or profit goals of a large commercial school. Your two options will typically either be private lessons, which can be quite expensive, or schools based outsided the United States. There are schools in Baja California that offer smaller classes custom-tailored to indivduals or couples at affordable rates.
The Value of a Smaller Class
Having three or fewer students in a class has two clear benefits: more personal attention to each student and a faster pace overall. The pace varies because many sections of these beginning sailing courses require an exercise to be repeated by each student. Fewer people in the rotation will allow the class to move on to new material sooner.
Another less significant advantage to a small class is the decreased probability of having a student who significantly slows down the course schedule. While sailing comes rather naturally to most people, there are some that have trouble with more basic aspects of the sport. And while anyone can learn to sail eventually, students who have more trouble can frustrate their fellow students. If you think that you will be easily annoyed by other students who slow down the pace of the class, then consider opting for a smaller class.
Finally, three-person classes are simply more engaging because everyone is involved in most of the basic maneuvers. Even if it is not your turn to be piloting the boat, you will almost always have a role working the sails or navigating. With three students, the class will never get boring.
Dynamics of a larger sailing class
Aside from losing the advantages listed above for smaller class sizes, there are a couple of side effects of a large class to keep in mind. First, the instructor's style tends to change with a larger class. The classroom time will take on a lecture format that is a bit less personal as instructors shift to calling out orders to the group instead of directing all comments to an individual. This impersonal style may disappoint some students.
Second, the boat will be more crowded with four or five students. In most beginner boats (typically 20-25 feet), the cockpit comfortably seats four and can accommodate a maximum of six. With five or six people (including the instructor), space will be at a premium.
The one advantage of a larger class is an increase in rest time. If you are a student who appreciates occasional breaks, a smaller class may feel too intense because it will constantly require you to have some role in the operation of the boat. In a four-person or larger class, there will usually be at least one person enjoying the cool breeze and the view.
Actual Class Sizes May Vary
Depending on the time of year, classes may not fill up with students. The winter months often leave classes a few attendees short. Schools typically price their programs assuming that most of the classes will run with a full roster, so students that end up in a class with one or two fewer students will get an exceptional value for their money.
Scouting for partially filled classes is not recommended, however. Commercial schools will often reschedule classes that are not full in order to keep their class size up. Also, new students can enroll at the last minute. If you do decide to look for a class that is priced for more students than are actually enrolled, expect to have your class rescheduled at least once.
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How to Find Sailing Schools to Consider -- Make sure to start yourself with a solid list of schools to compare before making a decision. The right school for you isn't always the easiest to find.
Quality of Boats in Sailing Schools -- A list of great boats to learn on and some perspective on what types of boats give rise to the best sailors.
Every Body Counts: Class Size in Sailing Schools -- The facts about how a larger or smaller class is going to affect your experience in sailing school.
How Much Should Sailing School Cost? -- Learn how to compare prices and see some typical course costs.