Picture this: Youíre 16 years old and itís time to take driving lessons before you can get your license. Your dad pulls up in the driveway in a big 18-wheeler truck. "OK son, letís start with parallel parking," he says. Ridiculous?
I think we can all agree that this new driver would be best served by learning first in a small car. Well, the same principles apply in learning to sail.
As adults, big, beautiful sailboats hold an allure for many of us, but by starting out in a dinghy you will be doing yourself a big favor in the future. There will always be lessons to learn as you move from one boat to another, but the basics remain the same. Itís in a small sailing dinghy, down close to the water, that youíll acquire the basic skills that can be easily transferred to virtually any boat at a later date.
For a child, learning to sail in a dinghy seems natural. Once youíre an adult, though, a fear of stepping into a tippy and unstable vessel often surfaces. We see no other end result than our winding up in the drink! For this reason, many people opt for a larger, seemingly more forgiving big boat to learn on. But, if you choose this route, youíll not only be cheating yourself out of the best possible foundation for your sailing skills, youíll also miss out on an exhilarating, pure form of sailing not experienced in larger boats.
There are some basic differences between dinghies and keelboats. Unlike a keelboat that has ballast for stability, a dinghy relies the weight of its crew to stay upright. Once you step in a dinghy, you become part of a delicate balance between wind, water, boat, and crew. You scoot along with your butt just six inches from the water, one hand on the tiller and the other one on the sheet, and instantly feel a reaction for every action that you make. If you make a mistake in a dinghy, youíll feel it right away. The boat will be heeling over too much, the sails will be flapping, or you'll be stopped dead in the water. Conversely, when you make the right move, you immediately see the positive results and feel rewarded. Your boat feels balanced, youíre in control, and itís smooth sailing all the way.
In a keelboat, you are robbed of much of this timely feedback. A large boat is much slower to react to changes. After a sail has been trimmed, the boat needs more time to build speed. Adjustments to the helm are often followed by a delay before you see any change in course. Sometimes a wind shift is missed completely because the forward motion of the boat is carried through the shift by its momentum.
You might ask, "Isnít this a good thing? Wonít there be more time for me to react?" If you really want to learn how to sail, the answer is no. On a larger boat, with the reaction to any of your actions taking longer to happen, you are not reinforcing the correct maneuvers you should be making in a timely manner. On a larger, less sensitive boat, events can occur, yet go unnoticed at first. By the time you notice there is a problem, it may be too late to correct. The ultimate consequence of inattention is usually even more severe in a large boat because of the greater, more powerful sails. When you learn in a small boat, youíre much closer to the elements and the whole body and mind must be involved in the experience. You learn how to deal with each situation quickly, or immediately discover the consequences.
The worst and ultimate consequence in a dinghy is that you tip over. Is getting wet so bad? Tipping over and learning to right your boat again are all part of an important learning process and can even be fun. In my years of teaching sailing, "dumping-practice" day always started out with a bunch of apprehensive adults, only to wind up later with a group of reborn, exhilarated "kids." Although a little wetter for the experience, they all became better, more confident sailors. With the fear of capsize behind them, each sailor was able to concentrate wholly on sailing maneuvers instead of constantly worrying about getting wet.
Taking a structured learn-to-sail program will always be your best bet. Instructors can quickly guide you in learning the ropes most efficiently. Learning in a group can be an extremely fun experience and a wonderful social event where youíre bound to make new friends. Whether youíre searching for a school or choosing a boat for yourself to learn on, youíre going to be presented with plenty of options. I prefer boats in the 10 to18 foot range, with one or two sails, and a design that doesn't include a trapeze.
To learn any sport, practice is essential. In tennis or golf, you wouldnít think twice about practicing hitting the same ball over and over again. The idea is to do it until it becomes ingrained in your brain and your body, and you perform the task naturally. You should approach sailing the same way.
Take each maneuver separately and perform it over and over again. Tack your boat 50 times in a row. Approach a buoy as if landing at a dock over and over again. Rehearse man-overboard drills until you can do it in your sleep. Purposely make the boat heel over until just before it would capsize, then make a recovery. Know how the position of your weight affects the boat and how easy it is to adjust the balance. Experiment with letting the mainsail go completely while on a beat, and see how it "puts on the brakes."
An excellent way to pack in a tremendous amount of learning experience in a short period of time is to try your hand at club racing. The beauty of racing is that it gives you the means to measure immediately the success or failure of the actions you are taking by comparing the performance of your boat to others in the fleet. The race forces you to concentrate on the many different aspects involved in getting the best performance possible from your boat. Spending a single year club racing equates to 10 years worth of knowledge gained from just tooting around on your own. Although you may not always care about going fast when you're sailing, it can come in handy sometimes to beat oncoming bad weather or to get in before dark. Being able to sail your boat most efficiently makes you a safer sailor and can often keep you out of trouble.
With repeated practice and more time spent in the boat, youíll soon find you no longer have to concentrate with every sailing maneuver. In what you once thought was a tippy dinghy, you can now move around effortlessly. A whole new freedom and enjoyment of sailing opens up to you. You can read the wind on the water and adjust your sail in anticipation of a large puff. Your crew moves to the leeward side of the boat and you compensate without a second thought by moving to windward. In heavy weather youíll no longer feel it necessary to maintain a death grip on the helm, but rather youíll hold it lightly so that you can feel the boatís tendencies and adjust quickly.
The dinghy lends itself as an exceptional tool through which to really learn how to sail. Regardless of your age or prior skill level, time spent in a dinghy will put you in touch with the pure basics of sailing. The dinghy experience canít be equaled in any other type of sailboat. Itís here that you can actually feel the movement of the water in every part of your body through the hull. The wind seems purer in your face. People smile as you go by. And you may just find that no matter what size boat you end up with, youíll always want to have a dinghy around.
Suggested Reading List
- Taking Lessons by Mark Matthews
- Turning Passengers into Crew by Bruce Caldwell
- Sailing Basics by Steve Colgate
- Capsized Boat by Dan Dickison