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.

Cruising Yachts are larger boats with accommodation, toilets and cooking facilities onboard. You live aboard the yacht and cruise to different places each day.

The RYA National Sailing Scheme

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 

Start Sailing Level 1 is an excellent introduction to sailing for beginners. The course includes background knowledge presented in our unique online modules as well as practical sailing experience on the sea on 'Lily,' our 22ft keelboat. 

After level 1, we recommend you complete the beginners sailing courses with Level 2 Basic Skills, another 2-day course.

Level 1 Syllabus includes: What to wear & buoyancy, checking the inshore waters forecast, tide times & heights, safety topics, names for parts of a boat, sails & ropes, figure of 8, round turn & 2 half hitches, tying off to a cleat, rules of the road, 5 essentials, using a winch, furling the jib, reaching, sailing upwind & downwind, how to tack & gybe, sail settings & man overboard under sail.

Keelboat Level 2 Basic Skills

Theory knowledge to Level 1 is assumed as this course moves on with new theory topics.

Level 2 Syllabus includes: clothing & buoyancy, 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, more detail on 5 essentials, improving your tacking & gybing, sail settings for all points of sail, how a sail works, how a sailing boat moves, refining your man overboard under sail, 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.  

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.

The RYA Cruising Scheme

Cruising Courses 
You log about 100 miles during the 5 days onboard.  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?

"I've got my day skipper now and learnt a lot about doing passages but knowing what to do with each of the ropes when sailing is what I want to get out of the beginner keelboat course" Roy 2022.

Competent Crew
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.

"I've done my Competent Crew course. We gybed once on the first day but honestly it's a complete mystery to me!" Nicole 2022 Level 1 keelboat client.

Day Skipper Practical 
This course is intended to introduce you to how to skipper a cruising yacht on short trips in familiar waters. You'll have the opportunity to act as the skipper, organising the navigation, pilotage, parking the boat, anchoring or picking up a mooring as well as telling the crew how to adjust the sails. You combine everything you learnt on your day skipper theory course with your basic sailing skills (taught on the National Sailing Scheme). It's not compulsory to do any of these courses but you do need that level of skill and knowledge, as the bare minimum, to be a safe skipper.

"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.

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. 


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. 


Better Sailing - Keelboat Level 3 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!