A Beginner's Guide to Sailing a Sailboat

Key Information for Beginners and Sailors

Fire In The Sky
Aaron Whitaker Photography / Getty Images

There are many ways to learn to sail:

  • You can just jump in a boat with a friend and try to learn from experience
  • You can sign up for a formal course at a sailing school
  • You can buy or borrow a small sailboat and do it all on your own

No matter which way works best for you, it helps to understand the boat and what's involved in sailing first before you're out on the water, where suddenly you might get into trouble.

The Basic Steps of Sailing

Sailing involves both specific knowledge and skills. The following are the basic steps of learning to sail- as much as you can learn while not actually on a boat. You don't have to follow this order; skip ahead if you already know some of the basics. If you're mostly new to sailing, you might want to proceed through these steps like chapters in a manual.

  1. Understand Basic Sailing Terms. To get into sailing, you have to understand the words that are used to talk about the sailboat and the skills used to sail. Start here with a review of basic sailing terms. Don't worry about memorizing everything as many of these terms and concepts will become clearer as you read on about how to do it.
  2. Learn the Parts of the Boat. Before you go on the boat, it's helpful to know the words used in different parts of the boat. Even if you have an instructor, he or she won't say "Grab that rope over there and pull it," but instead will say "Haul in the jib sheet!" Review the basic boat terms you'll need to know.
  1. Start an Online Course. Now you're ready to learn more about what all those parts of the boat are used for. Here you can start an online learn-to-sail course by learning more about the parts of the boat along with a lot of photos, so you'll see what to do.
  2. Rig the Boat. Read to go sailing now? Hold it a minute- you have to rig the boat first by putting on sails and making other preparations. Here again are a lot of photos of what to do on a typical small sailboat used by beginners.
  1. Review Basic Sailing Techniques. OK, now you have the boat ready- so what do you do now to make it go? Manage the sails to go in the direction you want by learning basic sailing techniques.
  2. Discover How to Maneuver. Sailing in a set direction is reasonably easy, but eventually, you'll have to change direction. That often involves tacking and gybing. Take a moment to learn what's involved in these critical maneuvers.
  3. Recover From a Capsize. Now you've got the basics down. But did anyone ever tell you that small sailboats often tip over if the wind is gusting? Be prepared and carefully see how to recover from a capsize.
  4. Dock or Anchor the Boat. Now you're out there sailing and you've got the boat under control. Learn how to go faster, dock or anchor the boat and use some of the equipment you've ignored so far. Take a look at some of these additional sailing skills.
  5. Practice Tying Knots. For thousands of years, sailors have used times where it is cold or raining by doing things like tying knots. Knots are important on a sailboat and you will need to learn at least some basic sailing knots to sail at all.
  6. Sail Safely. At this point, plus practice on the water, you're good to go. However, it's good to remember that water is a dangerous place. Learn the basics about sailing safety. Staying safe makes it easier to keep having fun out there.