sailing schools-vs-seat of your pants learning to sail
I read "basic sailing" books, bought a dinghy and spent two seasons flipping it over and laughing at myself in a local sheltered bay (that''s where I really cut my teeth), then took a sailing course on a small (24'') keelboat w/ inboard diesel while buying and shakedown-sailing my own 22'' swingkeel trailerable w/ outboard motor during my third season.
I learned something during each phase, though I must admit that the sailing lessons did more to confirm that I already had basic the basic skills, rather than to teach me anything new. I attribute this to my voracious reading and willingness to try out my book-learning in that responsive little dinghy. (Anyone remember the 14'' plywood and mahogany half-decked <em>Enterprise</em> class that was made extinct by Lidos? Jeff? I still have it in my garage).
But that''s just the kind of learner I am: I want to read about it thoroughly so that I don''t look like a fool out on the water, then try it out for myself, where my mistakes will be my own. I like taking that risk without the teacher looking over my shoulder. That made my first attempts at benign practices like anchoring in settled weather and heaving-to seem like real risk-taking, but all the more rewarding for the sense of self-reliance and accomplishment they yielded.
That said, I realize that I''m unusual in that regard, and I recommend sailing schools to everyone, unless you''re a hard-headed indivualist like I am who wants to claim every little success for yourself and who doesn''t mind making mistakes until <em>you</em> decide you''re competent. Sailing schools give a good basic knowledge and the foundation of confidence needed to step out on your own.
I personally believe that after you''ve completed the sailing course, a small (25'' max.) keelboat with a tiller is the biggest first boat to own or learn to sail on, because it is so much more responsive and will put you on a steeper learning curve, put you in less danger under most learning conditions (handling, stress on rigging, approaching a dock or slip under power, etc.) and is easier to quickly get out of trouble with than a bigger, less tender boat is. And a dinghy is even better, if your age and agility and the local climate allow. But there are others on this board who have different opinions, and there''s plenty of room below this post for them.
Sailing school is definitely not a waste of money, and can give you the basic skill set and the confidence to begin to enjoy the sport independently (many schools run a side business by renting boats to their certified students by the hour, and in my area it''s just about the only way to rent a small keelboat for the afternoon); but it just covers surface (no pun intended) skills. The real teacher (for me, anyway) is the practice you get after the class is over.
Hope this is Helpful,