The Best Way to Learn to Sail

There are two Sailing Schemes provided by the RYA (Royal Yachting Association).  Both offer an entry point to sailing for beginners.  They're often referred to by several different names. 

  • National Sailing Scheme, or Dinghy Scheme, or Small Boat Scheme, or Keelboat Courses
  • Cruising Scheme, or Yachtmaster Scheme, or Competent Crew & Day Skipper Courses

Use the National Sailing Scheme to learn to sail.  Use the Cruising Scheme to learn all the other things to do with cruising on larger yachts.

Learn to sail on a small boat first
Expert sailors know the best way to learn to sail is on a small boat rather than a larger cruising yacht.  Like learning to drive a car it's much easier to learn the basics on something small.  That's what the National Sailing Scheme offers beginners.  You can choose to learn on a small dinghy,  multihull or keelboat.  However, many adult beginners find dinghy sailing a bit cramped & uncomfortable.  With a winning combination of manoeuvrability and stability, keelboats are the ideal choice for them. 

Keelboats are small yachts with a fixed keel. They provide a great hands-on feel for sailing like a dinghy but with several key advantages; keelboats are bigger with more room to move around; the rigging and control lines are similar to a cruising yacht and most importantly on Bay Sea School's yacht 'Lily' there's a weighted iron plate underneath the boat that stops it from capsizing.  This makes it a more stable and user-friendly boat for adult beginners.  You stay safely in the boat at all times so you wear normal clothes with waterproof trousers & jacket for splashes. Automatic inflation lifejackets are provided by the training centre.  For the adult beginner interested in yacht cruising, keelboat courses are a great way to start sailing.  And Bay Sea School is the only place in the north west teaching keelboat courses on the sea.  

Dinghies are small, light boats that will capsize and pitch you into the water if you're not quick enough to balance the boat during wind gusts.  It can then be a struggle to pull the boat back upright and haul yourself back into the dinghy without it capsizing again - not the most attractive option for a middle-aged beginner! Dinghies are much cheaper than keelboats.  Most sailing clubs offer dinghy courses for their members and the courses are generally taught by volunteer instructors within the Club.  Club dinghy sailing then tends to focus on racing.

RYA Keelboat Courses
Beginner Levels 1 & 2 cover all the basic skills you need to skipper & crew a small yacht yourself.  Each level is a non-residential 2-day course.  So that's two separate courses (4 days in total) to cover all the beginner topics.  At Bay Sea School we teach Level 1 & Level 2 at the same time.  If you've helmed a bit already but are still unsure about tacking & gybing, sailing efficiently on all points of sail, anchoring or reefing, our advice is to book a Level 2 course.  Most of the basic skills are introduced on Level 1 and then covered in more detail on Level 2.  The theory topics however are different.  Because of the additional skill required in sailing on the sea, people often choose to start from the beginning with Level 1 keelboat even though they already have some practical experience.  Just get in touch if you'd like to have a chat about this.  On the beginner level courses the instructor stays with you on the boat providing personalised tuition throughout your course.

Keelboat Level 1 Start Sailing
This is a short introduction to sailing for adult beginners.  By the end of the course you'll have a basic understanding of keelboat handling under sail, including practical techniques and background knowledge.  It's recommended that all participants consolidate this short introduction with Level 2 Basic Skills and then Level 3 Better Sailing.

Level 1 Syllabus includes: What to wear, inshore waters forecast, tide times, safety topics, parts of a boat, the sails & ropes, figure of 8, round turn & 2 half hitches, tying off to a cleat, rules of the road, using a winch, furling the jib, reaching, tacking, gybing, sail settings, the 5 essentials & man overboard under sail.

Keelboat Level 2 Basic Skills 
This moves on from the Level 1 Start Sailing introductory course.  Theory knowledge to Level 1 is assumed.  On completion of Level 2 you'll have a basic knowledge of sailing and be capable of sailing a small yacht in light winds as crew and helm with a skipper on board.

Level 2 Syllabus includes: clothing, calling for help, safety advice, how to read a synoptic chart, implications of weather forecast on sailing location, sailing in tides, neaps & springs, speed over the ground, sailing on transits, 5 essentials, tacking, gybing, all points of sail, how a sail works, how a sailing boat moves, man overboard, reefing the mainsail, sailing off/onto a mooring with & without tide, anchoring, bowline, clove hitch, reef knot, using a winch, engine checks, racing & the triangular course. 

Cruising Courses 
You live aboard the yacht sailing to different places every day to log about 100 miles during the 5 days.  Competent Crew & Day Skipper courses are taught at the same time on the yacht.  Every time you change direction on a sailing boat you need to adjust the sails.  It's very physical work on a large cruising yacht.  The crew soon become exhausted grinding the winches and filling & spilling the huge mainsail.  So opportunities to practise tacking & gybing are limited!  And depending on the wind direction, the boat might only change direction a few times during the day's passage to the next marina.  This doesn't provide enough practise at the sailing basics for beginners.  Cruising courses are not available on the North West coast.  We suggest you just choose a place you'd like to go cruising.  Perhaps somewhere warm or somewhere beautiful like Scotland?

RYA Competent Crew Course
This is a beginner level course that introduces you to yacht cruising and how to be a competent member of the crew.  The course lasts 5 days.  You experience many things about life aboard a larger yacht which of course includes sailing.  However, the course syllabus and objectives are very different to a beginner keelboat course. Many people expect a competent crew course to teach them how to sail.  It doesn't! That's not the specific focus of the RYA cruising scheme.

Keelboat Courses
In contrast to cruising, your time on the water is spent practising all the sailing basics like tacking, gybing & sail settings. The sails are smaller and more easily handled so you can repeat all the important techniques many times without tiring the crew. This is simply not practical on a larger cruising yacht!  It's also much easier to understand all the tasks when you're on a keelboat because everything is like a cruising yacht but on a smaller scale.  Keelboat courses are available on the northwest coast in Morecambe from April to September.  They run during the day and you don't stay on the boat overnight. 

"I've learnt more in 2 days of sailing with Bay Sea School than on all 10 days of my Competent Crew & Day Skipper courses" Dave 2017.

Best Advice
If you want to learn how to sail, start with Keelboat Levels 1 & 2, and level 3 if possible.  If you just want to be a useful member of the crew, a 5-day Competent Crew course will provide that experience & knowledge for you.  Many topics are obviously duplicated on the various RYA sailing courses (keelboat or cruising).  But the nub of the issue is, if you want to be skipper of a yacht you need to learn how to sail first.  And the best way to do that is using the Keelboat Beginner Courses - Levels 1 & 2. 

Keelboat Level 3 Better Sailing assumes you already have the sailing skills up to Basic Skills.  It's aim is to help you become a better sailor so there's no limit to the number of times you can book the course. We adapt the coaching to your individual needs so you can work on different skills each time you come until you're ready for the advanced level course called Seamanship Skills. If in doubt about whether Level 3 is right for you can book a Level 2 course first or just have a chat with us about your goals. There's plenty to learn every time you go sailing on the sea!