Learning to Sail: Should I Start with a Smaller Boat?

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Learning to Sail: Should I Start with a Smaller Boat?

I have been in the boating business, in one form or another, for the past 7 or so years. During that time, I have been approached by many people wanting to learn to sail. One of the questions asked, “Is it better to start and learn on a small boat or a large boat?” Here is my answer.

The bottom line … larger boats are easier, in many ways, to handle and learn on. BUT… When I say larger, I am talking about boats that are 30-38 foot range. BUT… One of the hardest aspects, for me as an instructor, in teaching a person to sail or handle a boat, is getting it into and out of a slip. Frankly, once out on the water handling a boat is not that difficult or that complicated. BUT… I am also speaking in relative terms…. more about that later.

Getting a boat out of or back into a slip is not something you teach on a chalk board (do they still have chalk boards? Yikes, I am showing my age). Handling boats in close quarters is complicated by wind; current, tides, other boats, as well as each particular boats handling characteristics. First, boats don’t steer like a car by turning the front wheels. Boats turn by the swinging of the back or stern reacting to the rudder. Boats drift sideways.

Boat don’t have brakes. Boats, particularly sail boats or boats with just one engine/propeller have what is called prop-walk (without being technical you have a propeller turning, which can cause the boat to want to go in one direction propelled by the torque created by the propeller – not always in the same direction you want to turn). So what does all this mean? It is all about touch and feel. Yes, you can read about it; you can watch me while I pull in and out, but in the end, every time you bring a boat in or out, it is a bit different and your brain’s computer needs to recall all that experience and calculate that day’s wind, speed, tide, and other factors in real time.

Now getting back to “does size matter”. Many years ago I asked a friend what are the advantages of a wheel vs a tiller. His answer was that wheels come with a bigger boat. Wheels are easier to grasp in that you turn them the direction you want to turn, like a car, versus using a tiller which you push in the direction opposite that which you want to go. A big factor in size is weight. If you can even get close to a dock on a 22′ boat you can pull it in. Not so much with a 42′ boat. Which gets me back to why I said 30-38 feet. Boats of those lengths are still able to be man handled fairly easily.

Another factor is the engine. In general 22 foot boats are going to have a relatively small outboard motor sitting on a bracket off the stern of the boat. As silly as it may seem, shifting that outboard from forward to reverse may mean actually spinning it around, or leaning over the stern and shifting, all the while steering; and then having to quickly go back into forward, then reverse, etc. Larger boats are more likely to have an inboard engine; and newer boats will have an all in one handle at the helm that is both a throttle and a gear shift. So your ability to keep your eyes on the road, so to speak, is much more natural.

The key, to some extent, is what type of sailing will you be doing once you learn? If you are going to be a day sailor, mostly on small boats, then that is probably what you should learn on. That said, a 35-36 foot boat, I find, is large enough to give you a sense of stability – it doesn’t bounce around as much; it is not as sensitive to which side you are sitting on. Also, larger boats are more likely to have more sophisticated equipment: self-tailing winches, chart plotters, travelers, etc. They are more forgiving so when you are out and suddenly find the wind increasing, you are going to be much more comfortable with a larger platform under your feet. AND even at 36 feet, the boat is still pretty easily man-handled when getting into the slip i.e. someone can jump off and pull it by hand to finish off the docking process.

The fact is that a 22 foot boat is sailed more or less exactly like a 45 foot boat. More likely than not they both will have a jib and a mainsail. The concept of trimming sails is the same. The basic maneuvering, tacking and jibing, are the same.

And let’s face it, a picture of you standing behind a wheel of a boat is really cool.

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