How and Where to Practice Sailing: The Essential Guide

Sailing is more than just nice beaches, hammocks, and sunshine. It is an intellectual and physical sport with a lot of changing variables. In order to learn to sail, you must learn to adapt and think on your feet. If you are just starting out, you may not want to unleash yourself out into the open ocean, either. There are certain places and sailboats that are better for beginners because they provide a safer experience to learn in. 

How and where to practice sailing? There’s a lot of book learning before you actually see any water time when you are learning to sail. You must first educate yourself on sailing terms and techniques along with how to recover if things go wrong and you capsize. When you finally get in the water, though, it’s safest to choose a location without a lot of traffic that is still relatively close to land.

Aside from learning the basic sailing lingo and the best places to practice as a beginning sailor, there are many other things that go along with the sport. You will need to figure out what sailboat is the best for you as you are learning. Not only this, but what you wear is even important. There are many changing variables in sailing, and educating yourself on all the common possible outcomes will help you progress quicker all-around. 

How Do Beginners Practice Sailing?

When it comes to learning to sail, you can try a number of different methods. Either jumping straight into a sailboat and giving it your best go, attending a school or training course, or being a crew member on someone else’s boat and gaining experience that way. No matter what, though, there are some key basics you must learn first before it is recommended that you face open waters by yourself or even as a crew member. 

You must take the time to put in the effort to learn the basics of sailing. If you do not do this, you will find yourself out on a boat in the middle of a body of water with little know-how of how to recover your capsized boat. Because if we are being honest, if you go out sailing without having done your homework prior, you are bound to capsize. 

Not only this, but you would probably also find yourself out on the water without the proper licensing or the proper safety equipment. Doing so could land you in some trouble if you were to need help from some officials at any point. However, if you follow these steps, you should find that you are more than ready to embark on your dreams of sailing on your own with little to no problems. 

The first steps to sailing

Learning the basic sailing terms

Learning the language of the sea is one of the first things any beginning sailor needs to become familiar with. It may feel intimidating at first, but as you learn the basics, the language will come more naturally to you as well. Along with basic sailing terms, will come learning the terms for the parts of the boat. You will need to do more than learn the words, though. It is important for your safety to know the parts of your boat inside and out. 

Tying knots

This may be a great way to pass the time while you are on the water, but it is also a key part of sailing. You will need to learn at least a few of the basic sailing knots to be able to sail at all. Learning to tie these specific types of knots is one of the more fun parts of learning how to sail on your own. Try not to let yourself get overwhelmed by all the information, and instead use this time to relax and get lost in a new hobby. 

Reading the weather

You may not need to try at memorizing basic sailing terms, as these will start to come naturally to you as you learn the tricks of the trace, but you will need to look up and memorize the Beaufort Scale. It is the international scale that gives the wind and water conditions for an area in a Force of 1 to 12. It will give you an upper hand on being able to look out at the water and tell if the wind is increasing or not. 

It doesn’t stop at the Beaufort Scale, though. Learning the local weather idiosyncrasies is great to know because if the wind usually picks up or dies down at a certain time every day, you will want to anticipate this. Consulting a local sailing club is the best way to get this information. Talk to people that are used to sailing in that area and ask them what the weather is usually like. 

Normally, when you aren’t sailing, and you want to know what the weather is going to be like, you look at the land forecast for that day or the coming days. When you are sailing, you are dealing with water weather, so studying the sailing-specific forecasts is your best bet. It would be wise of you to pay attention to these forecasters even when you aren’t sailing so you can get a better understanding. 

Especially because when you finally do go out on the water, you will be looking at the weather that is thousands of miles away to anticipate your next moves and direction. The clouds will also be your best friend on and off the water. If you are planning a trip or already on the water, look up at the sky. The clouds will tell you a lot about the weather to come. 

Reading the water

First and foremost, it is important to understand the difference between sailing in saltwater and sailing in freshwater. This may seem self-explanatory, but when it comes to your boat and equipment, you may not realize the difference at first. Saltwater will corrode and seize your equipment, boat parts, and even clothes. Your sailboat and equipment will require a lot more consistent maintenance if you are always sailing in salt water. 

Freshwater, on the other hand, is a lot more forgiving. No matter what, though, sailboats are constant maintenance. The better care you take of it, the longer it’ll last. Understanding tides and learning your local currents are also vital factors in a successful sailing expedition. Tides are tricky and can range from 30 feet to just one inch. You will need to anticipate everything in between. 

When it comes to currents, you generally don’t want to be sailing against the current. No matter what body of water you are sailing in, you will experience some sort of current, unless it is a pond. That said, you will want to learn all your local currents, but keep in mind that they can and do change directions at certain points in the day. You also don’t want to be traveling on a tide that is going in the opposite direction of the wind. 

This is a potentially dangerous situation, especially when the wind is strong. It can cause all sorts of problems like real nasty chops and even large standing waves. Tides are predictable, though, and this can be avoided if you are simply paying attention to the tide timetables surrounding you. The color of the water can even give you indications of troubles ahead, like shallow reefs, submerged rocks, and even wrecks. Be on the lookout for all the subtle changes in the water. 

Learning rules of the water

Just like the laws of the road, there are rules of the water. These guidelines are in place to help keep everyone safe and avoid collisions. Firstly, you must know the right of way rules. Reading the international collision regulations will teach you all you need to know on this subject. However, individual harbors and ports may have extra rules for right of way, so pay attention to those too. 

Make sure you have working navigation lights too. The last place you want to be is on the water in the dark without any lights. This is just asking for trouble. Just like your car, check these lights before each time you go sailing. That way, you know when one is about to go out. 

Looking out for floating objects in the water is highly recommended because hitting a floating object can be dangerous. You don’t want a net getting stuck in your propeller without you being aware of a sudden change in feeling of how your boat is handing. Alongside this, you also want to pay attention to potential sandbanks and shallow ground. Handling a grounding is bound to happen at some point, and knowing what to do will save you a lot of embarrassment later. 

Sailing courses

Joining a boat club and online sailing courses are great ways to gather all the knowledge you need before venturing out onto the water for the first time. Most boat clubs actually offer sailing courses. These courses will teach you more about your boat and how it works, along with other vital information all sailors need to know. It is also one of the safest ways to learn how to sail because you are under the supervision of an experienced sailor. 

Another thing clubs offer is called a crewing membership. If you can, sign up for one. Being on the crew of an experienced sailor will give you some hands-on experience you can apply to your own sailing later. There isn’t a much better way to learn than by watching someone else do it. By doing so, you will also be opening yourself up to different real-life circumstances that happen while out on the water. 


Boat licensing is important and makes sure you are legal before you first start sailing. This is very important because not only is it not safe to sail without a proper license, and you can also get in trouble for it. Licensing depends on your state as well as where and what you will be sailing. Lake sailing has different licenses and regulations than coastal sailing. You will also most likely need a VHF radio license. 

Pick out your boat

After you have learned all you can from books, the internet, and talking with people in the community, you may feel it is time to purchase your own boat and get the show on the road once and for all. There are many different types of sailboats, all ranging in sizes from dinghies to yachts. For beginners, though, a dinghy is recommended. This is the smallest type of sailboat and the easiest to maneuver. 

Your skills learned in a dinghy are transferrable to a yacht sized boat, later on, so you won’t need to worry about that. You may want to start by renting a dinghy before deciding to invest in one. Renting is usually fairly cheap and is worth it in the long run. You will learn more about the brands available to you and which one you like the best. That way, you are investing in a boat you don’t like. 

Proper sailing attire

Part of your safety requirements as a sailor is to make sure you are dressed appropriately. The weather is a lot different on the water than it is on land. In fact, you are better off going by the temperature of the water rather than the land forecast for the day. Being on the water is a lot cooler than land. Not only this, but if the clouds decide to cover the sun, you may be surprised at how cold it can get. 

There are some staple clothing pieces that you don’t want to find yourself without. These staple pieces are:

  • A comfy sweater
  • A nice raincoat
  • A sun hat
  • Warm socks
  • Warm pants
  • Waterproof boots

The temperatures can fluctuate throughout the day and night, so depending on how long you plan on being on the water, you may need to pack a change of clothes. Protective sun wear is always a must, but when the sun hides or sets for the day, you will want those warm pants and socks. A raincoat and pair of waterproof boots will be your most valuable investments as far as attire goes. Don’t take the cheap route on these two items. 

Gortex is a great fabric that a lot of different companies are pairing with and using for their products. If you can find a Gortex raincoat, it will not only last you for years to come, but you’ll soon realize after wearing that it was worth every penny. The same goes for your rain boots; there is no need to sell yourself short in the rainboot department, especially if you plan on sailing for a few years or longer. 

The last thing you want to be is wet, and it starts to get cold outside. Investing in a proper raincoat and boots will keep you dry, warm, and sailing longer. 

You are now ready to sail

Safety first

The first and most important thing to learn and be aware of is safety! This cannot be stressed enough. There is a lot that is required of you as a sailor, whether you are the captain or starting out as a crewmember. Your full attention is needed constantly. As a crew member, you are really only responsible for yourself and your personal floatation device. You also need to be paying attention, though, just in case the captain needs you. 

As the captain of your own boat, however, you will be responsible for everyone on board, as well as all the required safety equipment. The law requires you to have a personal floatation device and bailer, which could range anywhere from a bucket to a pump. Depending on the size of your boat, it may have its own pump already installed. You will also need a throwing line that floats, a line to be towed with, a whistle, paddle, and a few other things. 

There are other various requirements based on the size of your boat and if you have a motor or not. 

Speaking of captains and crew members, another important safety measure is to be clear on who is in charge. Things can get dangerous quickly if there are too many voices trying to take charge of a conversation. You can also expect to be extra hungry and thirsty after sailing for an hour or two. Sailing is hard work, and it takes a lot of your energy. It is crucial to pack high energy snacks that are easy to store, along with extra water. 

When you finally get on the water and are sailing for the first time, don’t make the rookie mistake of forgetting about the boom. It swings around when the wind changes or the boat turns or gybes. Don’t forget about this, as it could potentially throw you overboard if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. 


Many people will suggest for beginning sailors to capsize on purpose to learn from experience. When the time comes, and it will, you want to be able to handle this as smoothly and calmly as possible. Smaller sailboats tend to tip over a lot easier than other boats. Since your first-time sailing will probably be done in a smaller boat, learning how to recover from a capsize is crucial. If you want to learn more about this topic check our detailed articles here and here.

Rigging your boat

If you have purchased a new boat rather than renting one, you will need to make sure all the ropes, cables, and chains are all rigged up. The standing rigging, which includes the shrouds and stays, will also need to be done to ensure the boat can adjust its position on the water. The so called running rigging, which includes the vangs, sheets, halyards and braces will also need to be done. 

It is probably best to get some help from an experienced sailor in the community or just running up to the local sailing club. If this is your first time rigging a boat, it is best to have an expert in the field alongside you. Besides, they may have some pointers you couldn’t learn otherwise. 

Hitting the open water

So, you have gone through all the motions. You joined a club or sailing school; you talked with locals, studied the weather patterns for the day, and your boat is rigged and packed with all the safety equipment needed. 

What’s next? 

Do it. Make your departure from land and open yourself to the water. You can only do so much preparation before it is time to head out on the water finally. Most of your training and learning will come from your time on the water by yourself anyway. Don’t be surprised if you capsize your first trip out either, because this is completely normal. 

Where Do Beginners Practice Sailing?

If you are sailing for the first time, chances are you aren’t going to be flying to a different country to check out the perfect sailing spots that Google says are must-visits for first time sailors. Chances are you will be in your hometown or the nearest town with an appropriate body of water. 

The main thing to consider is how much traffic is on the water that day. If it is your first day sailing entirely alone, it is best to choose a place and day when the waters are relatively open. You want to avoid crashing into someone at all costs. That said, don’t wait for the day that you are the only person on the water because this simply isn’t realistic. With this mentally, you will never get on the water. 

There is some fear and anxiety your first time sailing alone, but just remember that this is sure to disappear the moment you leave land and gather yourself along the water. There isn’t a feeling like it in the world. 

Recommended sailing locations

It is said that it is more difficult to learn to sail off a dock or beach. Mainly because if the boat is blown sideways against the dock, it is almost impossible to get started. However, one of the best ways to learn to sail is, in fact, on a large body of water. This almost ensures a beach or dock setting. The reason large bodies are best for beginners is because the winds tend to be more consistent in this atmosphere. 

Not only this, but the sailing areas are large enough to accommodate many different sailors at once without the worry of them running out of space or going aground. There are some sailing schools around the country that do not have access to ocean waters and are forced to teach their sailors in harbors or rivers and lakes. The winds are a bit shiftier in these areas, but they are ideal for smaller boats. 

If you are near mountains or tall buildings, the winds can be even worse. If you are located in an area like this, it is best to go out with an experienced instructor or sailor a few times before embarking alone. Just to make sure you have it down. That said, learning in this environment will set you up for success when you finally get to sail in a large body of water. You will feel as though you have all the room in the world. 

When Is the Best Time to Learn to Sail?

As far as age is concerned, you can never be too old. Any time is the best time. The time of year, though, depending on where you live, can have a lot to do with how often you are able to sail. Places like Florida have sailing schools that are open all year round. Most of the vacation locations are, in fact, sailing friendly for most, if not all, of the year. 

Spring and Fall usually have the best climate and winds for sailing. Even in the mornings and early afternoons in the Summer can be ideal for sailing. This is when the breeze coming off warm shores begins to kick in. When you are deciding on if you are able to sail on any given day, it is best to look at the local sailor’s forecast. You want to keep an eye on the winds and what they are said to do throughout that day.

In the end, saying on top of the weather will really tell you when you are able to sail and when it is best just to stay home. 

Making the decision to start sailing, at any age, is a big task. There is a lot of information you must learn even before you get on the water for the first time. It is a skill you will never regret learning, though, and when you have put all the hard work it takes into learning the craft, you will surely feel a strong sense of pride and gratitude for all you’ve accomplished.


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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