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Old 02-01-2004
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sailing schools-vs-seat of your pants learning to sail

Back to the original question, which seems to be two separate questions:
-How should one learn to sail (i.e. school vs self-taught)
-How did you learn to sail?

I don''t think that there is one universally right answer to the first question. People learn to sail in all kinds of ways and to a great degree their own personalities and really shape how they learn best. I am a big believer in reading and then getting out and just doing it BUT I also strongly believe that sailing with more knowledgeable sailors is critical to learning how to sail well and that you can end up with a lot of misconceptions if you don''t occasionally have a more knowledgeable sailor looking over your shoulder once and a while. If you can''t get to sail with more knowledgeable sailors for free then perhaps a school makes sense.

I have literally taught 100''s of people to sail in my lifetime. Almost from the beginning I have had a pretty standard routine that I follow. I usually give a very basic pencil talk on how sails, keel and ballast work and what it means when the teletales act up and then we go sailing. I usually start out by having them steer to the teletales on a beat which helps them get used to the feel of the tiller (or wheel). I then put the boat on a reach and have them trim the jib to a poorly held course so they get to understand how the teletales work and how angle of attack works. Then I will have them trim the mainsail teaching the basics of mainsail trim; twist, camber and angle of attack and how these are controlled by sheet, traveler, outhaul and backstay.Throughout the whole process I am explaining terms and how things operate as the student is being exposed to them. I then work on basic boat handling skills; tacking, jibing, picking up a mooring under sail, man over board drills, steering a straight course looking at something on land and then sailing a straight course watching a compass. And then we simply sail putting all of that to use with me throwing out pointers.

What I can tell you is that everyone plots their own course from there. For some that is all that they ever want to know. Others read extensively and come back with in depth questions. Some get on race boats to learn more about sail trim. Some ask about navigation, anchoring and how to properly tie up a boat. Some take advanced sailing courses at places like J-World or advanced cruising courses, or go through Power Squadron or Coast Guard Auxiliary courses. The ones that follow my advice usually buy a small boat and spend a bunch of time sailing her as well as reading like crazy. They will often bombard me with huge quantities of increasingly sophisticated questions as they see things, experiment and read. That groups tend to learn very quickly and end up with both a greater range of knowledge as well as a deeper understanding of what they have encountered.

As to the second question, I first sailed 42 years ago when I was 11 years old. It was in an aluminum sail boat (probably a Grumman Gull) at a summer camp. I would like to think that I loved sailing from that very first sail, but that probably is not true. I remember very little about the sail except that the counselor did not really seem to know much about sailing, that the winds were light for most of the sail and I was a little bored, but my most vivid memory was of one brief moment when a small gust hit and the boat heeled and accellerated. I sometimes wonder whether I never would have tried sailing again if that one brief gust had not occurred.

My family started sailing when I was 13. My folks had taken their first mid- summer vacation and had gone to the beach. They had perfect beach weather and so after two or so days had become a bit bored with doing not much of anything. They had seen a sailboat rental and decided to rent a boat. In those days, most small boat rental places had some kid who would teach you to sail in a morning and then you would be on your own. Mom and Dad had the mandatory morning course and then spent the rest of their vacation puttering around in a rented Sunfish. They were hooked. And immediately began to look for a boat to buy.

By late August they had put down a deposit on a new boat, but the company folded and they began to look for a used boat. By early October we had purchased a 25 footer.

Dad and I read whatever we could get our hands on. The boat was a mess and dad tore into whatever needed to be done, doing much of the work himself. I tagged along and helped learning about varnishing, painting, bedding hardware, making fiberglass repairs, sanding and oiling teak, lubing winches, and the dozens of small jobs that were required to keep up a boat.

That first winter Dad enrolled in the Power Squadron''s Basic Seamanship and Navigational courses and I enrolled in the New York Junior Power Boater Licensing course which was required to operate a boat under power if you were under 16. I also audited the Navigation course but could not actually take the course because I was too young. That was all of the formal courses that I ever took in sailing. The rest I learned by reading, sailing, attending lectures and by the kind assistance of those who knew more than I did.

Dad learned quite quickly and he pulled me along with hime. He and I would talk sailing in much the same way that most kids my age talked baseball or football. Our first sail with the new boat was on a day when the winds reached into the mid-20 knot range and over the course of the day, Dad was able to handle some very tricky manuevers reciting the step by step processes that he had committed to memory. We watched as a Dragon lost its rig and 110 lost its boom and we later heard that the 12 meter Columbia lost its mast. We jibed down and came up along side of the Dragon to offer assistance in the short chop and gusty conditions, maintaining control all of the time. (It is amazing how much Dad had learned in three or four days of sailing plus a winter of reading. Mom and I handled the jibsheets)

When I was 14 I bought a 10 foot sloop with money that I had saved doing odd jobs, and sailed whenever, and wherever, I could and that taught me a lot about boat handling. After two seasons with the 25 footer my family moved up to a 32 footer. When I was 15, my family lived aboard for the summer. I participated in a summer Jr Sailing Program that taught me the racing rules and the basics of tactics. By the end of that summer I could sail the family 32 footer in and out of the dock with a rag tag bunch of frieds that I had taught to sail, and was very comfortable with most aspects of coastal cruising and racing.

When I was 14, I decided that I wanted to be a yacht designer. Our family had a friend who was a designer with Sparkman and Stephens and he was kind enough to tutor me in yacht design. I began designing boats around that time although I was in my early 20''s before the first boat was actually built to one of my designs.

I have worked as a yacht designer at various times in my life and my employers have generously shared their wisdom with me. I have attended yacht design symposium for the past 20 years and have had no fear about asking a large number of designers some whom are house hold names and highly respected like Olin Stephens and Bruce Farr, questions that came up in the course of the lectures, and they have been gracious enough to endulge me with an answer.

I must say that by biggest breakthroughs came out of the kindness of those who helped me all along the way, some in their writings and others with their time spent along the way, which is mostly why I try to return these favors by trying to be helpful to others on sailing forums and BB''s.

That''s about it,
Jeff





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