Can You Teach Yourself to Sail? (Yes, but it depends)

Sailing is an activity that many want to get involved in, but are not sure how. Maneuvering a large vessel can be difficult unless you have education and experience. While having access to a boat and getting others involved on the boat is crucial for sailing success, there are strategies and things you can learn off the boat that will prepare you to sail.

Can you teach yourself to sail? Yes. While it is best to learn to sail from an expert in person, you can teach yourself to sail by understanding the proper techniques and vocabulary, learning your way around a boat, and learning the procedures associated with different sailing situations. This includes launching, sailing, anchoring, and following safety procedures. Sailing involves on shore education as well as on-boat experience.

If your question is whether you can learn to sail on your own then my answer is yes, but generally sailing is learned from experienced sailors, sometimes it is passed down through generation. However you can still learn to sail on a sailboat or a dingy all by yourself in a controlled environment such as an recreational sailing lake. But my main concern here is your safety.

The safest and the best way to learn how to sail is either by having a mentor who has a few years under his/her built or by taking lessons at a local sailing club near you. Some find it even easier to take online classes.

Regardless which strategy you will choose, this article will guide you through the process of learning how to sail, which includes the pre-sailing education and knowledge you can gain as well as the importance of spending time practicing in real-life situations.

What Things Can You Learn On Your Own

In the following sections we will discuss and explain some key points you can start to teach yourself without being physically onboard a sailboat. The terms and phrases discussed below are crucial to know as a beginner.

Sailing Terms You Need to Know

Sailing terms and vocabulary are closely associated with the parts of a boat. Understanding these terms makes it much easier to make your way around the boat and is especially useful when sailing with others, so you are both on the same page for instruction.

Parts of the Boat:

Port: When looking forward on a boat, the ‘port’ is your left side. You will use this term instead of saying ‘left.’

Starboard: This is the opposite of port, referring to anything that is on the right.

Bow: This is the front of a boat, and it is what dictates which side is the port and the starboard.

Stern: This is the back of the boat. You can also use the terms ‘aft’ or ‘astern.’

Mast: Also known as a spar, this vertical pole is what the sail attaches to along with the boom to create the often triangle shaped sail that can move through the wind.

Boom: If you look at a sail, you will see a long horizontal pole that runs the length of the sail. This is known as the boom, and its direction and position will dictate how well the wind will move the boat.

Helm: This is what is used to control the rudder on a boat, which is used to steer. It may look like a big wheel on some boats, while others use a tiller (looks like a long stick).

Rudder: A fin-like piece of wood, metal, or fiberglass aft of the boat underneath, it is responsible for steering the direction of the sailboat.

Lines: To manipulate the sails and their direction, ropes are used. These are referred to as lines. A ‘sheet’ is a specific line used to open and close your sails.

Keel: This is a long fin on the bottom of the boat that provides extra stability while sailing. It prevents sailboats from capsizing.

Mainsail: This is the large sail you see on a boat that is responsible for most of the movement of the boat.

Jib: This is the smaller triangular sail that helps to complement the mainsail. It aims to give more sail area and increase aerodynamics.

Sailing Terms: Actions

Point of Sail: This is the direction in which your sail is facing compared to the wind. There are multiple points of sail you should be familiar with:

Point of SailDefinition
No Go Zone (in irons)You cannot sail in these conditions, and your sailboat will come to a stop.  This is when you try to go directly at the wind.
Close HauledThis is as close you can go to the wind without reaching the no-go zone. Your sails should be pulled tightly.
Close ReachLess wind than close hauled, and you can loosen your sails gradually.
Beam ReachSails should be out halfway as the wind runs to the side of the boat.
Broad ReachStarting to head downwind. Sails should be opened more than halfway.
RunWith wind directly at your back, sails should be opened to catch wind, or a large sail should be used.

Leeward: This term references the direction opposite that the wind is blowing. If you are heading against the wind, you are facing leeward, or ‘lee’ for short.

Windward: This is the direction that the wind is blowing and is helpful when wanting to move your sailboat with the wind.

Tacking: This technique in sailing entails turning the bow so that the wind shifts to change the direction of the boat.  

Jibing: This sailing technique requires the use of the stern through the wind to change the boat direction. This is the opposite of tacking. You will choose the technique based on where the wind is and if anything is around you.

Heeling: This is when the sail is leaning over the water, and you are picking up speed as your sails fill.

How Sails Work: Manipulating and Rigging

You must know how the sails work and the procedures needed for properly learning how to sailing!

Know Your Sails

Let’s first look at the sails on a sailboat and how they work. The two sails you will be using are a mainsail and a headsail. The mainsail is attached to the mast and takes on the majority of the force of the wind. A headsail sits in front of the mainsail at the “head” of the boat and supports additional wind force. More sails are typically used for larger boats and windier conditions.

The most common types of headsails include:

Jib: One of the most common headsails that is triangular shaped and aids in aerodynamics.

Spinnaker: A large sail that sits at the bow of the bow and fills when going downwind.

Genoa: This is a larger jib sail that overlaps with the mast and mainsail

The sails complement one another to provide enough sail space to move the boat once they interact with the wind. When the wind blows against a sail, one side of the sail is building large amounts of pressure and low pressure in front of the sail. This low pressure allows the boat to enter this area and pulls the boat forward.

How to Rig a Boat

When we refer to rigging, we are talking about preparing a boat to sail. There are some steps you should follow to properly rig a boat:

1.      Insert the Rudder: Rudders are very important on a sailboat because they control the steering. This is removed after sailing so that it is not damaged when left in the water. This means you will need to reinstall it when you start to sail. If it doesn’t get removed, just make sure it is still intact. You will place pins attached to the rudder into larger rings to secure it to the boat.

2.      Check the Tiller: On smaller boats, the tiller is the bar that controls steering. It is connected to the rudder and may also be removed after use. Make sure you reattach or check its security.

3.      Attaching the Sails: To prevent sails from wearing out, you can remove them after use or at least cover them. If you are reattaching, you should use lines called ‘halyards’ to hoist the sails to their correct positions. You should make sure the sails are oriented correctly for proper placement. Once hoisted, attach the bottom corners firmly to ensure security.

4.      Check for Security: Once you pull the sails to their ideal location, you’ll want to double check that all corners of the sail are secured, both at the top of the mast and to the boom below. Keep your lines untangled and organized so you can easily trim (adjust) the sails when needed.

How to Adjust Sails

Based on the direction you are sailing, which we have detailed in the different points of sail, you will want to adjust the sails to maximize performance in all situations. One of the major adjustments you can make to change the direction of the boat involves moving the boom to either side. This will allow wind to make direct contact and turn in your desired direction.

When you sail toward the wind, you will want the sails to be brought in (or made smaller) and when downwind, you will let the sails out. This is done by using a line called a sheet. Another word for adjusting the sails is ‘trimming.’ It is done to provide optimal pressure to move the boat forward.

To trim the sails, you should:

1.      Determine your point of sail: If you are heading into the wind, your sails will be pulled tighter while downwind will be let out.

2.      Let out the mainsail: You want to open up the sail until the mainsheet starts to shake or flap. Once this happens, trim the sail by pulling it in until this flapping stops. Too much flapping will not allow for optimal performance, but pulling in the sail too tightly may also cause too much heeling. This is a delicate balance.

3.      Trim the jib: Similarly, you will want to let out the jib until it flaps or shakes. Then tighten it until it stops.


Sailing Techniques and Maneuvers

There are multiple things you will need to know how to do from launching to bringing it back to the dock and in between. We’ve detailed each of those procedures here.

Launching A Sailboat

There are many locations you can launch a sailboat from, but it is most common to launch from the beach or a dock. These can be a bit more challenging for beginners, so make sure you are with someone experienced and follow proper protocol. Here are two common launching strategies:

Beach Launch: Your procedure will be dependent on weather and wind conditions. You should launch in favorable conditions and check tide times. The bow should be facing the wind. Your sails should have complete slack, and you will want to roll the trailer into the water until the boat floats. For a cross shore wind, the boat should be parallel to shoreline to keep bow to the wind. Offshore winds should put stern into the water first.

Dock Launch: This can be difficult if the wind is pushing you into a dock. You will use your dock lines to reposition the boat so that the stern is facing the open water. You will move the boat to the edge of the dock and raise the mainsail so that it is caught in the headwind. This will allow you to easily sail off. If the wind is pushing you away from the dock, make sure you are ready to steer and that there are no boats around you.

Understanding the direction of the wind and orienting your sails accordingly will make this process much simpler. Ensure that there are no distractions or boats around when you launch is very important.

Tying Knots for Sailing

Being able to tie knots is particularly important in sailing to ensure that your lines are properly secured. There are a significant number of sailing knots you can do in many situations, but we have pulled together the most important ones in learning how to sail.

You should learn how to tie these knots when you sail:

Bowline: This is the most important sailing knot and allows you to make a loop. It is useful in many applications, including fastening to poles, other lines, putting a halyard on a sail, and hanging pretty much anything. It stays intact under pressure, allowing for weight without untying.

Clove Hitch: While it is not as secure as the bowline, it is a super quick knot to tie and untie. You will use this to hang things easily that do not require heavy pressure or large weight constraints.

Cleat Hitch: You will use this often to secure lines to a cleat, which is the metal mechanism on the edges of the boat that are designed to securely hold your lines. They are used often during docking, towing, and in certain rigging situations. This is a useful knot to know for easy securing.

You can find photo instructions on how to tie each of these knots on the American Sailing Association website.


If you plan to spend many hours or days on the water, you will probably want to take a break. This will require anchoring a sailboat. Proper anchoring is important so that the boat does not drift in severe weather conditions. You will need to be aware of conditions in choosing when and where to anchor. Ideally, you should anchor in areas that are slightly protected from the wind.

There are charts that will show you good areas to anchor on a map. You will want to anchor into sand and mud for the best holds. You want to make sure that when you do drop the anchor into the water that it is fully free and that you are aware of the length that is being dropped into the water.

You will want to slow down as you approach the desired spot, making sure that there are no boats around you and that the depth is at the desired level. Lower the anchor slowly so that it will properly sit in the water. Once it is set, determine the scope in which you want your boat to sit from the anchor. This will determine how the length of the rode (chain) you let out.

You should always check on the anchor to make sure no movement or changes have occurred for safety. Check your GPS!


In order to safely dock the boat, come into the dock slowly and with the bow into the wind. Your fenders (buoys used to protect the boat from the dock) should be in place as you approach. As you approach the dock slowly, you should be able to easily step onto the dock holding the dock lines. Someone on the dock can help you move the boat into the desired location on the dock.

You will then want to secure the dock, especially with the chance of winds and intense currents. Tie the bow and stern lines first and make sure all lines are properly knotted. You will want to keep fenders secure, so they can protect the boat from the dock. 

Techniques While Sailing

While we gave you general definitions, let’s dive a bit deeper into the two major sailing techniques: tacking and jibing. Both techniques are used to change direction.

In tacking, you will turn the boat by turning into the wind. You will want to tighten your sails and increase speed so it can make it through the wind resistance. The boat will heel one way and quickly shift, so you will need to reposition your body weight quickly. You shouldn’t have to adjust the mainsheet.

In jibing, you are turning the boat away from the wind. You will still need to move your weight, and the sails will shift sides. This crossing of the mainsail happens very quickly, and you must be aware of the boom so that you don’t get hit! You must trim the jib sheet as your point of sail changes.

These techniques are best taught by practicing on the water in different conditions. Starting in a smaller sailboat is the best way to learn.

Safety Procedures For Sailing

There are some general safety procedures you should follow while sailing:

  •       Wear proper personal floatation devices.
  •       Attach a tether to yourself in unsafe sailing conditions in case you are thrown from the boat.
  •       Pay attention to sails in different weather conditions.
  •       Avoid dangerous areas that may damage the boat.
  •       Make sure you are well-versed in boating techniques and skills for safe sailing.
  •       Maintain a safe distance from shore and other boats.
  •       Stay vigilant in calm waters as most mistakes happen when you are not paying attention.

Recovering From Capsize

In the event of a capsize, you should use the “scoop method.” One person will put their weight on the centerboard (center of boat) to help it lift upright. You are scooping the other crew members back into the boat. Using the heaviest person is the one on the centerboard. You will lean back to shift your weight for recovery. You can use the jib sheet to hold onto.

This is the easiest recovery method and is typically used in smaller boats.


While you can follow these guidelines to teach yourself how to sail, the best way to learn is to experience sailing in person. We recommend taking lessons or sailing with experienced individuals who can show you the ropes. Reading as much of you can will give you the proper knowledge, but hands-on experience will allow you to master the art of sailing! 


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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