When you first start sailing, the initial thrill of doing something new and exciting can quickly be replaced by the foreboding feeling of realizing how much you have to learn before you can go out on the water independently. Some people might not be bothered by this, throwing caution to the wind and sailing off over the horizon. For others, building experience safely is the key. There are several ways you can go about this and your options will depend both on the type of boating you do and on how much you are prepared to pay. Below I talk about some of the options available and the pros and cons of each.
Go to a Sailing School
Sailing schools offer an excellent pathway to progress your skills and develop confidence on the water. A school in the UK should be affiliated with the RYA, which is the national body for sailing and motor cruising. Although sailing schools will follow a common syllabus as laid down by the RYA, there will be considerable variations in both the style of delivery and the boats available.
Some of the largest schools offer long term residential courses that can take you from no experience to Yachtmaster Ocean in 6 months (the ‘zero’ to ‘hero’ course) and will also be able to teach the RYA sailing, motor cruising and dinghy courses from one location, as well as having a large cadre of full time staff to learn from. A large school will also have a wider selection of different types of boats to choose from.
Smaller schools may specialize in a particular aspect of boating and may make greater use of freelance instructors from a variety of locations.
There are certainly merits to both approaches. I did a 4-month Yachtmaster Offshore course with UKSA when I was 18 and gained a huge amount of experience on a large number of different boats from some very good instructors in a very short period of time.
On the other hand, I have also done several courses at smaller schools including the RYA Cruising Instructor qualification at Cornish Cruising, the MCA Approved Engine Course at Emsworth School of Navigation and the MCA STCW Medical Care course at Hamble School of Yachting and found all of them to be excellent with very experienced instructors.
Whether you chose a large school or a small school will really depend on what you want to achieve. If you are looking to very quickly build experience, perhaps with an eye on a career in the leisure marine sector, then a large school may be the way to go. Be warned, 6 months of sea school is not cheap and you will not be earning while you are on the course either so this really should be viewed as an investment in your long-term future. There are other ways to go about building up a similar level of experience and qualifications without quitting your job or breaking the bank but it will take a lot longer.
If you just want to learn a particular skill then a smaller school may be more appropriate. In my experience, smaller schools are generally cheaper and there are a lot more of them bout meaning you will not have to travel as far. I also think there is a lot of merit in supporting small local businesses.
Racing is a great way to learn how to actually sail a boat, especially in a smaller boat where you feel every wave and puff of wind. You are also likely to end up being out in weather conditions that you would not go cruising in, meaning you build up experience that can be hard to find if you just cruise in fair weather. The first thing you have to do is get on a boat. Unless you own your own boat, which is unlikely if you are still building up your experience, you will need to get on someone else’s. The good news is that there are plenty of racing boats looking for crew. Often the owner is not looking for a high skill level but a committed attitude and when you start turning up regularly, you will quickly find that other crewmembers will be keen to teach you if only to make their job onboard easier.
There is a huge variety of racing organizations in the UK. Most people would start racing with their local yacht or sailing club, before progressing towards regional, national, or international events. There are also many different formats of racing, with inshore and offshore fleet racing being the most popular. Variety is the spice of life and the best way to build experience is to try lots of different types of racing. If you can do this on the same boat with the same crew, rather than having to jump about then so much the better.
One of the great things about racing in the UK is that you can match your skills against some of the best professional sailors in the world, and if you are really good beat them.
It is worth thinking about what skills you are actually learning when you are racing. On a smaller boat, especially if you are doublehanding you will probably learn very quickly how to do everything from trimming sails to navigation. On a boat with a larger crew where everyone has well-defined roles you may find that you are only actually learning a very narrow skillset. To overcome this, you can either start pushing for a different role onboard, sail on boats with a smaller crew or start doing longer offshore races where you will be expected to do more while on ‘watch’ because around half the crew will be sleeping down below at any one time.
It is also worth thinking about the cost of racing. If you are the owner, boat ownership and racing will likely be an expensive pastime, depending on what boat you own and what racing you do. As a crew member, racing can be very economical especially if you have a generous owner who absorbs all the costs such as food and entry fees. You might find you want to upgrade your waterproofs and sailing boots if you are doing a lot of racing in the autumn, winter and spring, which can be quite costly. Ultimately you get what you pay for and having spent a lot of time sat on the rail in cheap waterproofs, I would definitely recommend spending a bit of money to buy something decent.
Sign up as Delivery Crew
When you are trying to build experience, it can be tempting to sign up for delivery work as an unpaid crew member. Think carefully before taking up this opportunity and understand what the costs to yourself will be. Often food onboard and travel to and from the yacht are covered but nothing else. You will also want to check the credentials of whoever is organizing the delivery. If this is a well-established delivery company of which there are a few, this should not be a problem. If this is a freelance delivery skipper it might be somewhat harder, even if the skipper is well qualified with plenty of experience. Whoever is organizing the delivery should have adequate third-party liability insurance and employers’ liability insurance in place.
Join a Club
Yacht and sailing clubs often have courses for club members to learn new skills and gain qualifications. These are likely to follow the RYA syllabus, especially if the club is RYA affiliated. These courses may be cheaper than the equivalent course through a sailing school, although when you take into account the membership fees any cost savings are likely to disappear! The value of a club should not necessarily be measured in pounds and pence, rather it is in the connections you make with people who can help you gain experience. If you find an owner who is doing the sailing that you like, stick to them like glue. Offer to come down to the boat and help with the difficult jobs like antifouling the bottom or varnishing the woodwork. After a day on the water, volunteer to scrub the decks and clean the toilet, it won’t go unnoticed. Show an owner commitment and a willingness to learn and you shall be rewarded.
There are a huge number of forums on social media and the wider internet dedicated to connecting crew who want a boat with boats who want crew. Often sites will have a particular focus such as racing or delivery work and will be connected to a particular race organizer or business. JOG has an excellent crew and boat finder page on their website helping owners and crew get together. As with delivery work, make sure you know what you are signing up for. It is probably best to do a test weekend with someone after meeting them online before committing to a full campaign or long passage.
Pay to Sail
Pay to sail has become an increasingly popular option in the racing scene, despite the availability of non-paying positions on race boats. Often people choose this route when time off from work is short and they cannot afford to go through the process of finding a decent boat doing the sort of racing they want to do, coupled with the very good quality of some race skippers working in the pay to sail scene. On top of this, pay to sail also offers the chance to do races beyond the reach of most sailors such as Antigua Race Week or the chance to race on a high-performance boat such as the Volvo 70. Perhaps the best-known pay to sail event is the Clipper Round the World Race run by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. As always, make sure you know what is and is not included in the package.
Just go Sailing
There are no shortcuts to gaining sailing experience and whatever route you choose there will be tradeoffs, often between time and money. Be heartened by the fact that you have so many options to choose from. The more you get out on the water the more people you will meet who may provide the opportunity to build up your experience further. Whether you decide that sailing is the career for you or that you would rather just go for a cruise on a sunny afternoon, you will have spent your time well.