Still, nothing beats the experience gained (or the ab work) of sailing a dinghy on a day with variable wind for really internalizing the concepts of wind, waves, weight, and water.
I suspect you've just hinted at a way to set this debate to rest forever. There's no one right answer, it'll depend on the student. There's a theory of learning that says: each person has a preferred pathway for taking in information and they learn best when the stuff comes in through that route. If it comes in through another route, they may not get it at all, or may need to work very hard to accomplish the same thing that would be easy if it came in through their preferred path.
Some people learn and retain information best if it comes in through visual pathways, i.e., they see it. You probably know someone like this - you've *told* them your name a half-dozen times, then the first time you're in meeting together and you're wearing a nametag so they can *read* your name, they never forget you again. That person is a visual learner. Hearing your name, over and over, will never really help him, because the information is coming in by the auditory path. As soon as he sees and not hears your name, it sticks. By contrast, other people learn best by auditory pathways, and a third group learns best by kinetic pathways.
My strong suspicion is that people who are visual or cerebral learners - it won't matter if they learn on a 14-foot dinghy or a 40 foot heavy cruiser, they'll accomplish just the same. Because they're not learning by "feel;" they have physics diagrams in their heads and they're busy superimposing vector diagrams on a mental sketch of the boat, sails, and wind. People who are kinetic learners, who learn by feel - they're the ones who seem a bit slow in the classroom and only get it when they get out on the water. But when they get on the water, they get it right away. They're the ones who have to learn first on little dinghies before they go on to medium-size Colgates to big boats.