Learning how to maneuver a 25 foot (7.5 meters) or larger object that’s somehow supposed to use the wind to power it forward in the water at first feels like a very difficult undertaking. But even learning how to sail a smaller object, like a dinghy, can be intimidating and isn’t so clear on the level of difficulty you’ll face.
So how difficult is it to learn to sail? Learning to sail at a basic level is not difficult, but learning to sail well enough to be ready for nature’s many challenges requires a more seasoned skipper. Understanding the practical and theoretical aspects of sailing can take as little as 10 days of continuous practice, but becoming a Yachtmaster can take years.
Learning anything new can seem difficult before you’ve even tried it out and sailing is no different. How difficult it is to learn to sail really depends on your affinity to sailing, which can be said for practically anything. If you have the interest and drive to learn to sail, nothing should stop you from doing so.
Now, it might seem difficult when you consider the massive responsibility of keeping your crew and sailboat safe from danger. Sure, that responsibility exists, but figuring out the fundamentals of sailing and building up your skills from that point over time will instill a healthy confidence that’ll propel you forward to becoming a prime sailor.
How Difficult It Is to Learn to Sail
The level of difficulty when it comes to learning to sail ultimately depends on how much you’re willing to put in the work in terms of studying and practice. Like anything else in life, it takes a ton of practice to feel confident in any activity before becoming comfortable you’ve got the hang of things.
One of the most difficult parts of learning to sail is being able to remember the vast amount of nautical terms. To be honest, sometimes I think the people who came of with some of the most popular sailing terminology were trying to play a confusing game with newcomers. Maybe even create a barrier into the sailing market. Either way, this is one of the barriers you’ll need to overcome, but you can definitely learn.
Another difficult aspect of learning to sail for some people is learning and executing the man overboard procedure. When I started learning how to sail, this took me many tries before even getting close to executing it effectively. Being able to perform the man overboard procedure is very important if someone falls out of the sailboat and needs to be recovered immediately.
Difficult aspects of learning to sail, I believe, mostly have to do with the safety procedures since not knowing how to execute them correctly has the biggest negative effect. One that might be difficult for some people to learn properly is how to properly call for help when in an emergency. This could require knowing how to properly use signal flares, sound signals, lights, a VHF radio, or a PLB.
Something else that appears to pose a certain level of difficulty when learning to sail is knowing how to plan a course while taking into consideration expected weather conditions. While it’s fairly predictable when tides change, it’s not so much whether or not the winds will. This difficulty is really based on uncertainty, which simply requires good planning, flexibility, and awareness of the present situation.
While difficulties learning to sail aren’t going anywhere, there are some parts of learning to sail that can be picked up quick and easy for many. For instance, learning how to properly tack and jibe (i.e., turn) a sailboat is an essential skill for every crew member and can be learned in an afternoon. Once you learn how to tack and jibe, trust me when I say that you’ll feel empowered.
Another fairly straightforward aspect of learning to sail is being able to trim a sail. Trimming a sail means to reduce the surface area of the sail exposed to the wind resulting in a reduction of power. As you might imagine, this is a rather important skill to have when sailing when the winds start to kick into high gear.
One of the arts associated with sailing is being able to catch the wind on the mainsail and jib just right. While it’s certainly easy to catch the wind in your sails, it’s almost impossible to not get even a tiny bit of critique from a sailing instructor when they look at your point of sail and the amount of luffing going on. In essence, easy to catch the wind, but an art getting it just right.
To be honest, there just no limit to the number of useful things you can learn while operating a sailboat since an infinite number of situations could occur over time. Being able to respond to an issue calmly and rationally will be your biggest asset when confronting something going wrong, which is probably the most difficult part about learning to sail.
Is Sailing Physically Demanding?
Safely operating a sailboat can certainly be demanding, but it really depends on the situation and what is considered by most as demanding. If you’re a crewing a sailboat at the Volvo Ocean Race, I’d imagine it would be incredibly physically demanding. If you’re going out on a short day cruise with 8-10 knots of wind, the limits of your physicality might not be an issue.
When it comes to the physical demand of sailing, there are things to consider that do require a few physical exurtions. For one, changing out a sail because the one that’s up broke will require a relatively high level of physical fortitude. Also, if you need to swap out your anchor for another one because the one you’re using won’t work well enough for the current sea bed, you’ll need to carry a potentially heavy weight.
If you plan on going sailing solo, including learning to sail solo, be sure you can take on these types of tasks on your own. However, I suggest having a mate with you regardless so you’ve got the help you need if it’s ever required. Either way, most adults should be able to handle the physical demands of sailing.
How Long It Can Take to Learn to Sail
One of the more difficult parts about learning to sail is how long it can take for some. Depending on where you live and how much time you have, it can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of months. Learning how to sail well does take a longer time, but getting down the basics so you can be an effective crew member or skipper a small sailboat shouldn’t take too long.
The amount of time it takes to learn to sail also depends on how difficult of an environment you want to sail in. There’s a massive difference in the degree of difficulty if you were to compare dinghy sailing on an isolated lake to sailing a blue water vessel across the Atlantic. One takes an afternoon and another can take years.
Getting a sailing certificate from one of the most trusted sailing organizations is a good way to go if you’re interested in learning to sail. In as little as 10 full days of sailing in the theoretical and practical sense, you’ll be able to attain an international sailing certificate with a moderate level of difficulty.
Is sailing dangerous? Sailing can be dangerous without the proper level of training and while operating a vessel that’s larger than you’re able to handle. The larger, and generally older, the sailboat, the more dangerous it can be to sail. To reduce the danger of sailing, learn as much as you can and only operate sailboats at a size you feel comfortable with.
Is sailing a sport? Sailing is both a sport and a recreational activity. When it comes to sailing as a sport, many people enjoy participating in various sailing races, including fleet racing, match racing, team racing, regattas, and more. Sailing is also becoming an increasingly popular sport in the Olympics and Paralympics.