OK, so you've been bitten by the bug. You went out sailing recently and had a great time. Then you bought this book and read it cover to cover. Now you're ready to get more involved in the sport. What can you do?
Unlike most other recreational activities, sailing is a rather limited access sport. You can't just pick up your tennis racket and walk over to the nearest court. This unfortunate situation is a result of several factors. The most obvious is that you need a boat to go sailing. If you've looked into buying, you know the cost can be prohibitive. It is possible to buy a sailboard for as little as $500, but even the most inexpensive daysailer will run you at least a couple thousand dollars. And if you want a boat for overnight cruising, you're looking at a minimum of $15,000.
A second sailing requirement is, of course, water. Even if you're fortunate enough to live near the ocean or a lake, you still must find access to this precious resource. Most waterfront property is expensive and private nowadays, which makes it difficult to find places to launch or moor a boat. Many areas have yacht clubs with good facilities, but most of these are also very expensive to join, especially for someone just getting into the sport.
Fortunately, there are now a number of ways for people to get involved in sailing. Thanks to the America's Cup and increased media attention on the sport, more people are coming into sailing than ever before. This means that the opportunities to go sailing are much better than they have ever been.
Probably the best way to try out the sport is to go out with a friend who has a boat. More people own boats now than ever before, so there's a good chance that someone you know has their own sailboat. Going with a friend will give you the opportunity to try out the sport without any financial commitment. It's also a great way to learn, since most sailors love to share their knowledge and enthusiasm about the sport.
Of course, you don't want to impose yourself on friends with boats. Be aware, however, that many sailboat owners are often looking for crew, especially if they do any racing. Your eagerness to learn and willingness to make a commitment to sail with them may make you a welcome addition to their crew.
If your friends aren't into sailing, don't worry. There are many other ways to get out on the water. One of these is community sailing centers. A number of cities (such as Boston, Milwaukee and Seattle) now have public sailing programs that give thousands of people a chance to go sailing each year for a small price. With these programs, you typically pay an annual membership fee, which entitles you to use the boats as often as you wish. Many centers also offer sailing classes and other group activities
If you want a more focused learning experience, try a sailing school. There are currently more than 200 sailing schools in the United States. Most of these use small centerboard boats or keelboats for instruction, and offer courses that last from a few hours to a week. They teach everything from basic seamanship to boathandling and beginning racing (photo). The best thing about sailing schools is that they will quickly improve your sailing skills and thereby make sailing more fun. They'll also introduce you to other people in your area who are enthusiastic about the sport, and will likely open up sailing opportunities.
Another way to get on the water is by chartering. The typical charter involves a large, roomy cruising boat somewhere in the Caribbean. It's possible, however, to charter almost any kind of boat anywhere around the world (photo). If you don't have much sailing experience, you will have to get what's called a "crewed" charter, where a captain comes along to manage the boat. Sometimes it's possible to get a captain who will also function as an instructor, so you can charter and learn at the same time. Eventually you may be able to "bareboat" charter, or take the boat by yourself.
Buying a Boat
If you really get hooked on sailing, sooner or later you will want to buy. There's nothing quite like having your own boat. It gives you the freedom to go sailing whenever and wherever you want. And you have the "opportunity" to spend many hours learning the skills of boat maintenance.
When you're in the market for a boat, it's not always so easy to find out what's available. Boat shows are one good source of information, but they tend to feature mostly bigger boats. To find out more about the smallboat arena, talk to your local boat dealers as well as all your sailing friends. Also, some of the national sailing magazines publish good annual issues listing all the boats available on the market.
Here are some of the factors you should consider (in rough order of their importance) when buying a boat:
Size -- Will you be sailing this boat by yourself? Can your kids handle it? Or do you want a boat that can accomodate you and three of your best friends? In general, smaller is better (especially when you're starting) because it's less expensive and easier to launch, sail and store. Smaller boats are also more sensitive to steering and weight placement, which is a plus if you're keen on learning the finer points of sailing.
Safety -- Perhaps the most important quality in a boat is the ability to self-right. In other words, when a boat capsizes, can the crew easily right it and continue sailing after a capsize? The last thing you want is to capsize and not be able to get your boat back up. What you should look for is a small, self-draining cockpit and large, tightly sealed flotation tanks. Sunfish and Lasers, for example, are simple to get back up when you turn them over because they have small cockpits and a large, waterproof tank area.
Ease of transport and rigging -- Sailing should be easy and enjoyable. If you have to spend an hour or two getting your boat ready each time you go out, that's not too much fun. Unless you have a mooring, a priority in buying a boat should be ease of rigging and launching. Boats that are light enough to put on top of your car, for example, are usually the most hassle-free.
Cost -- Unfortunately, cost is a factor in almost any boat-buying decision. There are quite a few used boats on the market these days, and this is often where you can find the best value. Fiberglass construction will give you better durability and easier maintenance than wood.
Performance -- Try not to base your buying decision solely on economics. The most inexpensive boat probably won't keep you happy for too long. Chances are you will soon be ready for a bigger challenge. A more "performance-oriented" boat often gives you better value in the long run. This type of boat is light, fast and usually a bit tippy, but it gives you more challenges and learning opportunities. If performance appeals to you, consider getting a boat with a spinnaker (and possibly a trapeze) that will plane easily.
Outboard -- If you sail in an area with light wind, or if you have to travel a long way out of a harbor or river to get to your sailing area, you might want to consider having an outboard motor. This will save you time and, possibly, a lot of paddling. A lot of small boats are not designed to carry an outboard on the transom, so make sure you check this out.
Cruising comforts -- If you'd like the option to cruise overnight, get a boat with a cabin, a cooler and some type of head. There are quite a few small, trailerable cruising boats these days that also make good learning boats.
Racing potential -- If you would like to get into racing, this should be a major consideration when buying a boat. Almost all small sailing boats race as one-design classes, so research your local area to see what fleets are racing there already. Often the members of these fleets can arrange for you to go sailing in their class, and can help you with buying information. If there are several different classes in your area, check to see which has the strongest national organization.
Once you've found a way to get out on the water, it probably won't be long before you start looking for new ways to learn. As with any sport, there is a large number of books on the sport. There are also a number of excellent periodicals on all aspects of sailing. For example, if you are sailing in a one-design class, be sure to join the class association so you will get their newsletter. This publication contains all sorts of useful information about your boat and class.
Another good way to learn is simply to go out and practice. Whether you are trying to learn how to set a spinnaker or drop an anchor, there's nothing quite like trying it a few times. As they say, practice makes perfect. If you're inclined toward racing, a great place to practice is in a hands-on sailing seminar. This type of on-the-water instruction is typically sponsored by a yacht club, one-design class or sailing association. Contact the U.S. Yacht Racing Union for more information on sailing instruction. One final place to look for instruction is the Marine industry. Some sailmakers, for example, offer instructional weekend seminars during the winter.
No matter what your level of sailing ability, there is always a way for you to take the next step and get more involved in the sport. It's been a little tough to do this in the past due to limited access and the expense of participation. But now that sailing is receiving much more attention from the media and from corporate sponsors, there are growing opportunities for new people to get involved in the sport.
From our experience, we'd recommend taking any chance possible to learn and get onto a sailboat. The more you know about sailing, the more you'll enjoy being on the water. And that will make the sport better for everyone involved. Good luck.