Learn to sail – which courses are best?
In my late 30’s, I did finally learn to sail. It is certainly possible to start something new later in life. Combined with the great outdoor exercise and seeing new places, sailing is a fabulous sport if you love water.
I have always loved water and rowed as an adolescent and student. But I never took it seriously even when I was meant to be in a competitive team. And it bothered me that unless you are really sporty and of the endurance type, you couldn’t really travel anywhere in a rowboat.
After I moved to the United Kingdom, a formerly great seafaring nation with a tradition in sailing, it took me five years of living 20 miles from the North Sea to finally get my act together. To be honest, work was taking up 90% of my time by then. As I tried to focus on having a life outside work after having secured a mortgage for my home, outdoor pursuits like cycling and watersports began to be more important.
One fine day while on a jolly trip with my gang of photographers, I went on a short ferry ride to the Frioul Islands in France. We passed through the Vieux Port of Marseille with its small sailing yachts, and it hit me like a flash: I want to learn sailing!
This said and done, a few months later, in November 2012, I landed in Gibraltar to learn to sail. I had picked Gibraltar because, unlike the Mediterranean, Gibraltar waters are tidal. Gibraltar being part of the United Kingdom, they teach the syllabus of the Royal Yachting Association (RYA).
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Why Royal Yachting Association Syllabus?
The Royal Yachting Association is the national Governing body for sailing and motor cruising in the United Kingdom. They have a structured syllabus for training with accredited training centres worldwide, and their qualifications are usually internationally recognized. Saying this, you can, if you have a sailing qualification from another country, apply for an International Certificate of Competence (ICC).
Which certificate to obtain?
First, you need to decide whether you would like to learn sailing a dinghy or a yacht. A dinghy is usually an open, small boat in the “Bermuda sloop” configuration of main sail and foresail. They are sailed mostly on inland water or the coast. They usually have a retractable keel or foil and can easily be pulled on a trailer. A yacht is a larger vessel with no fixed definition but usually at least 7m long, with a fixed keel, and a cabin or overnighting. Most yachts int he West use the two-sail “Bermuda sloop” sail configuration but other well-known types are gaff, yawl, cutter and other rigs. Most sailing schools use boats with the most common Bermuda sloop rig.
Royal Yachting Association Sail Training
A colleague early on advised me to learn sailing a yacht first, get some basic knowledge in sail handling and pilotage and then learn more “technical” sailing on a dinghy. If you live far away from a larger body of water, learning to sail a dinghy makes more sense. The RYA has an overview of their courses and what they entail.
In Germany, they do not distinguish between dinghy and yacht at all! Germany has many inland lakes and waterways, so here it’s all about “sport boat driving licence/inland” versus “sport boat driving licence/sea” and then inland distinguishes between motor and sailing licences.
If you are close to the sea or a larger body of water, my advice would be to learn sailing by first doing a “Competent Crew” Certificate. You could also do a “Start Yachting” COurse followed by an accelerated “Competent Crew” but many courses are set up for five days and you can go to “Competent Crew” straight away with no previous sailing knowledge. You must be a safe swimmer, though. If you love sailing you can then continue to learn and do a “Day Skipper” Certificate. The “Day Skipper” would let you charter in some places, although it would be better to get the next level certificate, the “Coastal Skipper”. This is the order I did my courses in. A bit later I then also did the Dinghy Level 1 and 2 course at my local reservoir.
Things are a bit different in Germany
Much later, after moving to Germany, I did the German boating license. They have, among a glut of boating licenses, the Sport boat Sail Licence for inland (which is my current life situation now, living nowhere near the sea) and the Sport Boat Licence for Sea. Both had the same theory course – so I only had to pay a little extra for the second exam. This post will primarily focus on the RYA courses.
RYA Competent Crew Course
This is a real beginners course. The minimum you need is a pair of non-marking shoes and a pair of gardening gloves. I did my Competent Crew Course in Gibraltar in November. I wanted to get away from the English weather yet get the certificate for tidal waters, hence Gibraltar. You can find a more detailed post on my Competent Crew Course here.
The courses are five days long and usually based on a yacht. At present, they cost between 500 and 700GBP full board. I did my course with Rock Sailing Gibraltar, which currently charges 649GBP. I have no comparison to the other school but they struck me as a good safe school and I can recommend them.
What to expect from a Competent Crew Course
Usually this course takes 4-6 students and a teacher and you will sleep on the yacht. You will start with absolute basics, so don’t worry if you don’t know any technical terms. The first day of the course is basically parts of the boat, basic sail handling and a lot of Health and Safety, and some short sailing if the weather allows. Often there are students at differing levels in the same course. This never bothered me, in fact, I found this really helpful to recap things for myself, and if you are the absoute beginner, you can also learn from the other students.
Over the five days, you should learn how to prepare a yachts, rig sails, set sails and do some navigation. You will need to learn about buoys ans signals in a relatively short amount of time, so it helps to spend a couple hours every day studying no matter how much the bar beckons at the end of the day. Depending on where you are, you may return to port at night, or cruise and anchor or stay at different marinas. On my Competente Crew Course, we sailed out of Gibraltar and stayed in Spain, Ceuta and Morocco and crossed one of the busiest shipping streets in teh world twice. Plenty of adventure in four days!
RYA Day Skipper Course
Expecting favourable weather in June, I started my intermediate yacht sailing journey in Scotland. The beauty of the Western Isles of Scotland, long evenings, and a relatively short journey won this over a trip to the relatively crowded Solent in Southern England or a multi-weekend local course.
What to expect from a Day Skipper Course
This is the certificate that you can convert into an ICC if you live in the UK. Which in turn lets you charter a yacht in some places, either the ICC or the Day Skipper. So the teacher will be a lot more strict and often do a practical exam before handing you the certificate! If you cannot do a safe “Man over Board” maneuvre or if you screw up in any other way during the course, it will be recommended that you do some more training.
This course builds on Competent Crew knowledge and will deepen you knowledge especially in the navigation, pilotage and taking responsibility for your vessel and crew. You can still get a Day Skipper with shoddy sail trimming as long as you are safe. Also included is usually making a passage plan involving some tricky tidal bits, and skippering the vessel for a period of time, as well as a night sail. I was asked to take us through the Sound of Cuan after repeatedly requesting whether we could “take a look” at the Gulf or Corryvreckan. Not nearly as impressive as the Corryvreckan, this is a narrow channel with strong tidal streams and great potential of running aground rather than getting swallowed by a maelstrom. The teacher always very close y, of course.
You can find my detailed blog post about this course on this blog, too.
RYA Dinghy Level 1 and 2
Last not least – the mighty dinghy! By the end of 2013, I was sailing twice weekly during the season in club races as crew on someone else’s boat. While you need no formal qualifications to crew in a club race, I wanted to learn more about sail trimming, AKA going faster in races. So I looked around my local area and found a dinghy sailing course on a reservoir in North Yorkshire that autumn, with the weather just warm and the days long enough.
This was a small enthusiastic club, and the dinghies we would learn to sail on were easygoing, safe Wayfarer dinghies. It got a lot wetter than on a yacht, and a lot more physical! I sailed in a 6mm wetsuit all the time – not flattering at all but warm. And capsizing and righting the boat was actually part of the course, so at some point it was getting into the ice cold water.
What if there is no wind?
Actually happened to me, haha! If can happen, and not only that, but you may have days that are positively stormy and sailing out is not safe. The teacher will usually have a good idea of the weather and wind forecast in the area and plan accordingly so that there should be favourable wind condition on at least some days do do the sail handling bit. Otherwise, you can learn a lot of the syllabus while the yacht is under motor so there is little chance that you won’t go through the entire syllabus.
Can I learn to sail if I am prone to travel sickness?
This is a highly individual issue. I share muy own experience with you. I get travel sick to the level that I cannot ride in the back of a car, or even in front or on coaches on curvy roads. Before I learned to sail, the longest I spent on a ship was ten days on a Hurtigruten trip in the 1990’s and regularly got sea sick. I’d be the one lying flat on the floor on shorter sea passages.
However… I can only recommend you try to go on a few hours sailing trip and stay on deck and see what happens. Normally, if you are on deck and busy, you will barely get seriously sick except in the most squally sea. The situations where I got seasick on my sailing trips were always under motor with squally seas. Saying that, my passages have always been short, the most extreme being a club race in a Force 8. It was super bumpy, but we were so busy on deck, I did not get sea sick. It’s a different matter if you go below deck. I always get really sick in bumpy seas there except if I lay flat. It hasn’t hindered my sailing so far, but I would think twice whether I could stomach an Atlantic passage.
Difference between RYA courses and German courses
For the most part on the RYA Course, we were on the water, except for the Dinghy, where we’d spend about less than half the time in the classroom. The German courses were a ton of classroom work. If you have a good teacher, its fun, if you don’t imagine a weekend back in school. Then we had to book our training sessions separately. And at the end you will need to sit a written and a practical exam! For the exams, some federal official came to actually watch the exams and to hand us our certificates. I would certainly say the RYA courses are more hands-on and versatile, whereas the German course made me learn all about buoys and light signals.
In the UK, you dont actually need a licence or certificate if you have your own yacht. Which I find a bit frightening. IN Germany, the water police is omnipresent and can check your licence and make sure you have the right one! And if you happen to drink drive you will lose all licences you may have – car, motorbike, and yes, boat.
Books on Sailing
The very best book when you learn to sail is the cheap-ish RYA Competent Crew*. If you are very keen, consider getting the next one up the RYA Day Skipper Practical Course Notes*. These two are the single most useful books on sailing – there are tons of other sailing books, but these two are the ones you need to learn sailing.
Don’t be put off by the kindergarten-like illustrations, didactically these are the best books. I also bought the RYA Day Skipper Handbook-Sail* and the RYA Weather HAndbook*, but more out of personal interest.
For bucket-list type reading, I recommend Ultimate Sailing Adventures* .
If you love pictures of beautiful classic yachts, take a look at Classic Sailing Yachts*. This really is a book to look at unless you are a millionaire. The excellent Classic Classes* is of a more practical nature and explains, well, the Classic UK and international classes that re still sailed. It’s useful if you want to learn more about what’s on the water, and offers some technical details as well.
Spinning a Yarn
For a crackin’ good read, A Voyage for Madmen*, the excellently written tale of the first round the world yacht race will keep you occupied a night or two.
Of the protagonists of the book, the attitude of Bernard Moitessier seemed most attractive. Sailing in the lead, he decided to pull out of the race and enjoy Tahiti. His own account of the race is called The Long Way*.
The saddest and most desperate figure, Donald Crowhurst, has been the subject of two movies recently. He sailed off in a plywood trimaran and made it as far as somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. He was faking his progress convincingly, until he lost his mind and disappeared. You can read his story in A Race too far* and The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst*.
The winner of that 1968 race was Robin Knox-Johnston, who wrote his own account of the race in A World of my Own*. I’ve not read the last three, finding them too sad/not dramatic enough – but if you have, please let me know what you think of them!
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The Small Print
I organised and paid for all my sailing courses from my personal funds. Links to sailing schools are genuine recommendations but legally I must proclaim them unpaid advertising. I have also included some affiliate links to Amazon, which are marked with an asterisk. If you purchase something through an affiliate link, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Please refer to the Terms and Conditions of this website for further information.