A beginner’s guide to sailing

Sailing is one of the most popular sports in the world – and for good reason. It can be enjoyed by all ages and abilities, and you can sail competitively, for leisure, independently or in groups. While some people might think that sailing is an expensive, highbrow activity, you might be surprised to find out how accessible it can be. You don’t need to have your own boat to start sailing – and you don’t even need to live by the coast.

It might take a bit of time to become a skilled sailor, but the sense of freedom and peace you can experience while sailing, as you cruise along the water towards the horizon, is truly unique. If you’re interested in getting into sailing, here are some helpful things to know before climbing aboard your vessel.

1. Know the sailing basics

Before hitting the water, it’s helpful to know a few basics of sailing. Sailing is a combination of specific knowledge, refined skills and instinctive intuition for the wind, and how the boat feels in the water. Learning to sail itself isn’t necessarily hard, but there will be a lot of new terminology and traditions you’ll need to get to grips with – so ensuring you understand the foundations can help you progress much more quickly.


When most people think of sailing, often it’s the image of a yacht that first comes to mind. A yacht is a medium-sized sail or power vessel that is equipped for cruising or racing – and sometimes has a cabin below the deck, where passengers can sleep or relax. While yachting is the most popular and well-known form of sailing, it certainly isn’t the only discipline. Sailing doesn’t actually refer to boats; it refers to the use of sails to harness the wind. In its simplest form, sailing is just the act of wind forming an airfoil in a sail, and pushing the boat along with it. The main aim of sailing is to position the sails in a way that makes it quick and easy to go in your preferred direction.


The fastest form of sailing is actually windsurfing, where you can reach speeds of more than 50mph. Windsurfing is sometimes viewed as an extreme sport, but it doesn’t have to be. It can also be enjoyed in a leisurely, relaxed way – as just a bit of fun, or a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Either way, windsurfing is a much more physical form of sailing than yachting. If you’re keen on learning, you might want to check out The Royal Yachting Association’s National Windsurfing Scheme.


The third common form of sailing is using a dinghy, small keelboat, or a multi-hull boat. These boats are small, easy to control, and very responsive – plus they sail just as well on inland rivers as on the sea. This form of sailing is generally one of the simplest and cheapest ways of learning to sail, and it’s suitable for the whole family, including children. 

Can anyone learn to sail?

Whichever form of sailing you want to pursue, one of the great things about it is that almost anyone can do it. If you want to learn more about sailing with disabilities, check out Sailability, The Royal Yachting Association’s programme that helps disabled people learn to sail.

If you’re interested in sailing but don’t have much experience on the water, it’s a good idea to try to go out on a boat for a few hours to see whether sailing is for you. No matter how attractive sailing may look, the reality is that not everyone has sea-legs! If you have friends with a boat, you could ask them to take you out for the day – and if you don’t, you could consider chartering (renting) a boat. If you don’t have any sailing experience you won’t be able to take it out yourself, but you can get an idea of what sailing entails by watching the skipper (the person who has command over the boat) and crew.

To find out more about the basics of sailing have a watch of the video below.

2. Get familiar with the lingo

Let’s assume that yachting is the form of sailing you’re interested in. After all, sailing along turquoise water, with the wind in your face, is a dream for many people, and learning to sail a yacht provides endless opportunities for fun, relaxation and adventure. You can spend sunny days bobbing on the water with friends, sail to exotic, warm locations for winter, or even spend weeks or months sailing around the world. But first, you have to know some nautical lingo.

Before you arrive for your first sailing lesson, it’s enormously helpful to familiarise yourself with some sailing jargon beforehand. While you’ll learn much of this when you begin a sailing lesson or course, there’s so much new terminology and equipment to get familiar with that it can seem rather overwhelming. However, it really is quite straightforward once you learn what it all means, and like anything else new, you just need a bit of time to get used to it all and find your feet. The more you know before you get started, the more prepared you’ll be in your lessons, and the easier sailing will be to pick up. Here are 10 terms every new sailor should know.

●  Aft: Also known as the stern, the aft is the back of a boat.

●  Bow: The front of the boat is called the bow.

●  Port: The left side of the boat when you’re facing the bow.

●  Starboard: The right side of the boat when you’re facing the bow (one tip for remembering your nautical left and right is that the word Left is shorter than the word Right, just like the word Port is shorter than the word Starboard).

●  Windward: The location the wind is currently blowing from.

●  Leeward: Sometimes called ‘lee’, leewards is the opposite to windward and is where the wind is blowing to. It is often used to refer to items or locations that are sheltered from the wind.

●  Boom: The horizontal pole which extends from the bottom of the mast. The boom is important because you need to move it towards the direction of the wind in order to harness the wind’s power – and be sure to duck under it when you change direction and it swings across the boat!

●  Rudder: A flat piece of wood, fibreglass, or metal found underneath the boat, that’s used to steer it.

●  Tacking: One of two basic sailing manoeuvres, tacking is how you head into the wind and involves turning the bow (front) of the boat into and through the wind, to keep the sails as full as possible and continue moving.

●  Jibing: Jibing is the opposite of tacking and refers to changing direction when you are heading downwind. It means turning the stern (back) of the boat into and through the wind.

To hear some of these phrases being used, and learn some more sailing terms and phrases, have a watch of the video below.

3. Decide what you want to learn

Acquiring a basic knowledge of yacht sailing

If you want to sail independently, you’ll need to take lessons first. Being out at sea comes with some unavoidable risks, so knowing what you’re doing and feeling confident is essential. These can be as intensive or relaxed as you like, but if you’re serious about being skilled and confident on the water, taking a course is almost always the best idea. The Royal Yachting Association (RYA) offer a variety of sailing courses aimed at beginners, and while there are plenty of other decent sailing companies who provide courses, the good thing about a RYA course is that the curriculums are designed to overlap, meaning you can work your way up from total rookie to expert skipper at your own pace.

One of the best courses for beginners is the RYA Start Yachting Course. As a two-day course, it’s a great way to spend the weekend, learning new skills, getting used to sailing terms and manoeuvres, and relaxing on the water. By the end of the two days you’ll have steered a yacht, handled a sail, got to grips with ropework, and become aware of sailing safety. You’ll cover topics like rules of the road, man overboard recovery, clothing and equipment, emergency equipment and precautions, and meteorology – and after completing the course you’ll have a basic knowledge of sailing.

Gaining more advanced knowledge of yacht sailing

To further develop your sailing skills, you can take part in the RYA Competent Crew Course. This is a five-day course, although if you’ve already completed the RYA Start Yachting Course, you can complete it in just three days (this is why it can be a good idea to stick to RYA courses). This particular course is designed to turn you from a sailing beginner to a competent member of the crew.

During this course, you’ll get to experience actually living on board, and really get to know how a modern yacht works. Almost all of the course is hands-on, and while you’ll be accompanied by at least four instructors, you can’t rely on them to do things for you – if you don’t get the sails up, the boat won’t move! By the end of the course you’ll know how to steer, handle sails, keep a lookout, row a dinghy, and help out with all the other daily tasks that sailing entails.

Because this course takes several days and you’re out on the water the whole time, you’ll also get the chance to visit some interesting places at sea and along the coast – it’s rather like an educational nautical holiday! Plus, once other sailors know you’ve passed this course, they’ll be much more inclined to have you join them aboard, as they’ll know your sailing knowledge could be a valuable commodity.

The next step up is the RYA Day Skipper Course, the RYA Coastal Skipper Course, and finally the RYA Yachtmaster Course, the last of which is a well-known and highly-respected qualification worldwide. It proves to everyone that you’re a competent and experienced skipper. However, all three of these courses require a good amount of prior sailing experience, so it’s advisable to work your way up at your own pace, starting with either the RYA Start Yachting Course or the Competent Crew Course.

If you prefer the idea of windsurfing or sailing in a dinghy...

Of course, if you’re not concerned about learning to sail in a yacht and would be just as happy in a dinghy, you could always head to your local lake and take a few lessons there. If you don’t live near the coast, this will save you time and money – plus, getting to grips with sailing a dinghy is much easier, and far less intimidating, than having to wrestle with the ropes of a large yacht on your first day at sea. You could even start off with windsurfing, if you like, just to get a feel for using a sail, and an understanding of how the wind propels you across the water.

The RYA offers a range of courses aimed at people who want to learn to sail dinghies, small keelboats or multihulls. Levels 1, 2 and 3 will take you from total rookie to a competent sailor who’s ready to take part in more advanced courses, like Seamanship Skills, Day Sailing, Performance Sailing, or Sailing with Spinnakers. You might want to have a read of the RYA’s website to find our more about courses on dinghy, keelboat and multihull boat sailing.

You can find your nearest sailing courses on the RYA website. Or to learn more about dinghy sailing courses, have a watch of the video below.

4. Get the right clothing and equipment

If you know you’re serious about developing your sailor skills and are prepared to put the time in, you’ll need to stock up on some sailing essentials. When you’re having sailing lessons, all the safety equipment and navigation hardware is provided for you – but there are still some items and accessories every budding sailor needs.

Though in popular culture sailors might have big beards, smoke pipes and wear chunky cable-knit jumpers, in real life, sailors just dress for the weather and the occasion. Wearing comfortable, waterproof, casual layered clothing is a good idea, but you will probably need to purchase the following:

●  Deck shoes: Deck shoes should be light, quick to dry, have a good grip and be non-marking. You can have a look at some of the best deck  shoes on the market here, or else have a browse on Amazon or Wetsuit Outlet.

●  Sailing jacket: Unsurprisingly, the wind can be very strong at sea, and its highly likely you will get wet, so you’ll need a warm, waterproof jacket that can protect you. Have a look on Wetsuit Outlet or Amazon.

●  Sailing gloves: When it’s cold and wet you’ll be glad you’ve got some sailing gloves. These come in full-length or fingerless styles, the latter of which gives you more dexterity but doesn’t protect fingertips. Amazon has an extensive range of both.

●  Dry bag: You’ll need a sturdy waterproof bag if you want to protect your belongings and valuables from rain or spray. Wetsuit Outlet has some good ones.

●  Polarized sunglasses: They’ll need to stay attached to your head as you move about and are helpful to prevent glare, so you can see how the water is moving. Amazon has a good range at varying prices.

Once you’ve caught the sailing bug, you might be wondering whether you should buy a boat. The idea of buying a boat may seem extravagant, but unless you have plans to purchase an enormous superyacht, buying your own boat really doesn’t have to cost the earth. You can buy your own five-metre sailboat for around £2,000. Dinghies can be even cheaper – you can buy dinghys from around £400 second hand – check out eBay to find out what might be available near you.

Of course, buying, maintaining and storing a boat comes with a number of costs and logistical challenges which is why many keen sailors are more than happy to charter boats their whole lives. It’s certainly not something you should consider doing until you’ve become a regular sailor and know that it’s something you want to pursue over the longer term.

However, if you’ve got the sailing bug, then  having your own boat is often easier, more affordable, and far more accessible than you might think – and can open up a whole new world of possibilities. Many people have dreamed their whole lives of buying a boat and exploring the oceans on it – so it’s good to know that these dreams aren’t always as far fetched as we might think…

Final thoughts…

Learning to become a competent sailor takes time, patience and effort – and learning to become an expert skipper can take years, perhaps even decades. But the beauty of sailing is that it’s never too late to learn – and once you fall in love with being on the open water, there’s no going back!

Not only is sailing a great way to stay active, it also provides you with exhilarating experiences, the chance to feel totally connected with nature, and the opportunity to see parts of the world you never would otherwise. Sailing is an experience that hits all your senses – you see, hear, feel, smell and taste it – and the joy, peace and rewards it can provide are limitless. If you’ve always dreamed of sailing, maybe now is a great time to make it a reality.

Are you a keen sailor, or are you thinking about learning? We’d love to hear your stories! Join the conversation on the hobbies, sports, and leisure section of the Rest Less community forum, or leave us a comment below.

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