The world of sailing can feel especially exciting to beginners. Sailing is a physical activity, but it’s also one that perpetually feels like a vacation and adventure in motion. To sail well, you must know how to read the wind, waves, and other micro factors to make decisions on the best routes and speeds. Thankfully, to just enjoy sailing (like many other sports), you don’t need mastery over these skills or need to be a fitness guru. In sailing, as long as you know how to navigate, you can enjoy the sun on your cheeks, the feel of a breeze on your skin, and lean hard into the “vacation” rather than the “adventure” part of your boat trip. Like I said, even — or especially — sailing beginners can enjoy a day of sailing.
Here, to satisfy your sailing curiosities, or prep you for a formal course, we’ve outlined the basic elements of sailing that every aspiring beginner sailor should know.
Weather and wind conditions
Wind is essential to the sport of sailing. Without wind, there wouldn’t be sailing (well, there wouldn’t be a lot of things, but we’re focusing on sailing today). First things first: You should learn how to read the wind. Specifically, what direction is it coming from? How fast is it?
It’s a little more complex than simply licking a finger and feeling the direction of the coldness. But not too much more difficult. You can use your face and rotate it until you feel that the wind is blowing straight into you. You can look toward the flapping of a flag to figure out from what direction it’s being swayed. You can also inspect the ripples on the surface of the sea to see where they originate (aka where the wind is blowing from).
Sailors who’ve had many seasons to hone their craft might also be good at reading weather conditions by looking to the clouds. If thin and slim Cirrus clouds are above, a storm might be approaching. If there are puffy, bulbous singe clouds, you’re probably set for a good day of pleasant weather. If you really want to get into it, you can also use topographical variations in your environment to try and predict wind and weather changes.
The right boat for you
First of all, if you’re just getting started, then it might be more worth it to rent a boat and see what you like and don’t like.
Some experts will tell you the right beginner boat is a Sunfish, a 14-foot dinghy with a single sail. Others say that the best starter boats for families are pontoon and deck boats. But most everyone will agree that if you’re just starting out, you should definitely buy something used.
The best way to start out on your boat buying journey in our completely unbiased opinion, though, is by going on a boat trip. And we can definitely help you select the perfect boat rental for you.
Safety tips to keep in mind
Before embarking on a sailing trip, every passenger — beginner or not — should make sure that the boat is equipped with some essential safety items. These safety items should include a first aid kit, a tool & repair kit, and all the basic navigation equipment. If you’re the one who’ll be operating the boat, you should make sure the boat is outfitted with all these items. And even if you’ve hired a skipper for your trip, it doesn’t hurt to inquire about the safety items onboard.
Before you go sailing, it might also be interesting to brush up on the top 11 causes of boating accidents, most of which you’ll see have pretty mundane sources. The list includes careless mishaps like speeding at night when you’re less able to determine weather conditions, falling overboard, running out of gas, or drinking and driving. As you’ll realize, most accidents occur when we neglect the basics of safety. The best beginner tip we can give you is to never forget what you learn at the beginning of your sailing career, as it’ll probably save your life at some point.
Essential boat equipment
If you’re renting a boat from a charter, then the charter should have already made sure your boat has everything it needs in case of emergencies big and small.
If you’re outfitting your own boat though, you should peruse our list of safety essentials and tips so you’re not caught stranded without what you need to get back on shore.
Basic sailing techniques and how to maneuver
To properly learn how to sail a boat, you should attend a basic sailing course with at least 15 hours of instruction.
But for a more rudimentary idea of how to sail, you can always look to online sources for beginner tips, guides on how to position your boat, dock off a beach or marina, handle your sails, and, obviously, stop your boat. Here’s a rundown of all the beginner sailing skills you’d need to brush up on before sailing off into the sunset on your own.
No skill is considered more synonymous with sailing life than knot-tying. Knots are important for securing boats to marinas, repairing boat lines, etc. And each specific type of knot — and there are TONS — has a specific job. A knot can be a stopper knot, it can be used to tie two lines together, or the knot can be used to secure the boat to a stanchion or cleat. Read up here on the seven important types of knots that every beginner sailor needs to know. The best thing about these knots? You can often use them outside of the boat, around the house.
Books on sailing for beginners
If you’re ready to get serious about sailing technique, then it’s time for you to pick up a book.
The Complete Sailing Manual: This classic manual covers the basics of sailing, navigation, and boat maintenance using diagrams and photographs.
Sailing for Dummies: Sure, the title might sound a little less serious, but that’s the point of this book, which is focused on removing a beginner’s fear at such an established sport.
Sailing Fundamentals: The official sailing guide for the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, this book offers the “fastest, easiest, most systematic way to learn basic sailing and coastal cruising.”
Sailing Made Easy: This book does exactly what it claims in its title, via outlines, photos, and even chapter quizzes to help you self-direct your learning.
Of course, as all sailors will tell you, the best way to learn how to sail is to, well, sail. Even if you’re a beginner, you don’t need any special training or fitness to simply get started. We all have to start somewhere, after all!