Types of Courses: From Small Boats to Large
In general, children's sailing courses tend to focus on smaller sailboats, while most adults opt to learn to sail on a large boat that won't tip over. If you aspire to sail someday on an ocean, a large lake, or a bay, you'll find that large boat sailing is very appealing.
Different Sailing Schools for Different Sailboats
While courses vary widely on a number of dimensions, the material that a course is intended to cover ties closely with the type of boat used. Boats can be fairly cleanly divided into large and small. Large boats are over 20 feet in length and are typically designed for extended travel with sanitary and sleeping facilities. Small boats, under 20 feet in length, are designed for recreational day sailing and are limited in their accommodations for longer voyages.
Learn to Sail Large Boats
Most adults choose to sail larger boats, for two reasons. First, they don't tip over. Second, large boats offer the advantage of accomodating many people, allowing for longer cruises and striking an appealing balance between comfort and excitement.
The lesson structure for large boats is standardized and well-designed. Two organizations, US Sailing and the American Sailing Association (ASA), maintain a curriculum of coursework supplying individual schools across the country with textbooks, instructor education, testing, and certification authority. Certification by either of these institutions should qualify you to charter boats anywhere in the world (though in some places cash alone will suffice). Higher-end sailing schools typically align themselves with one of these associations so that they can offer certification. The coursework content of the two types of courses is similar, beginning with a course called Basic Keelboat which is often coupled with a second course, Basic Cruising.
Check out our boats page for more information on good large boats for a beginner.
Sailing Small Boats
Cruising the world's oceans on long tropical voyages is a goal for some beginning sailors, but others just want to go really fast in a small piece of fiberglass and still have enough money to pay the rent. If the grandeur of sailing a large vessel doesn't entice, then consider learning to sail a small catamaran or skiff. These recreational craft fly across the water, jarring their passengers into blissful terror and eliciting water-soaked grins.
Sailing small boats does not require a standardized course like the Basic Keelboat curriculum. The best way to learn is probably to read a bit, and then rent a boat with a friend who knows what he or she is doing. A great place to start reading the basics is the Hobie Sailing Guide. With a smaller boat, learning the hard way how to sail can be fun, whereas on a larger vessel it would be dangerous, frustrating, and expensive.
If a formal lesson in small boat sailing is what you're after, there are classes. Courses are taught in groups and often cost around $100. However, the courses often require membership in a sailing club, which will significantly increase the total cost of the enterprise. Courses should cover operating the boat, recovering from a capsize, safety, and some basic racing techniques.
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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.
Typical Content for a US Sailing or ASA Beginner Sailing Course -- Know what your sailing course will entail in terms you can understand.
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.