Learn to sail

Sailing Norway to Scotland

Life on the ocean wave

Barbara Robertson began to learn to sail when she was 13 on the Clyde, where her family included yachtbuilders, a professional sea captain and generations of active yachtsmen.    

She is now 60 and sails on keeled boats (yachts) in Scotland for the enjoyment of cruising with friends. Barbara has raced boats from dinghies to 55 ft yachts, in Scottish waters, on the Solent and in the warmer waters of Hong Kong where she worked for years. She raced from Hong Kong to the Philippines (700 nm) and has sailed passages from Copenhagen to Gothenburg and Olso to Inverness.


Barbara and Anne in the Baltic

Why learn to sail?

Sailing is an activity open to all ages, levels of fitness and ability, and pockets. 

In Britain you are never more than 70 miles from the sea, and many lochs and lakes put sailing within reach of most people easily.    Why learn to sail? For many reasons:

  • Healthy outdoor activity;
  • Love of being on the sea;
  • As sociable as you want – or get completely away from other people on your own transport;
  • Challenge of learning and applying the skills, terminology, weather, safety  and teamwork;
  • Competitiveness of racing – at club level right up to international ocean racing;
  • Fitness – particularly ‘hiking out’ on toe straps in a fast dinghy (!)  however, many sailors are not in the first flush of youth and learn how to ‘do it smart’ without the brawn; 
  • Showing off!  If you want to spend the money, though sailing in a local club’s boats or with friends calls for only a modest investment in ‘yottie’ clothing. 

For me, nothing beats sailing at night far from land in a balmy breeze: the long regular ocean swell, the only sound  the sea , spotting occasional satellites overhead among the huge revolving constellations and moonlight glittering on the waves. Magical!

Heading to port after racing, Sound of Mull

The apres-sailing experience

If you learn to sail it’s also great fun after a day at sea to tie up in a marina with other yachts, plug in the electrics, have a hot shower aboard or ashore and settle down with the crew for sociable drinks and dinner aboard accompanied by tales of ventures past.  Whether a single kerosene burner and one-pot meals or microwave, tv and gourmet dining – the nautical galley offers sustenance for all.

Or if you learn to sail you can buy a modest dinghy and trail it on holiday, going off for a picnic and a sail whenever it suits you.   Learning racing at a local club can offer modest fun with lots of joshing in the bar afterwards.  Beware!  The sailing bug can bite hard.

When you learn to sail the joy of sailing is its flexibility and availability to almost everyone, including  the disabled.   The RYA may offer an adapted dinghy and hoist for a local club.   Or go on the Tenacious or Lord Nelson, tall ships owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust (JST), a UK charity.   Both are adapted for disabled access and dual able-bodied/ disabled crewing, in UK and round the world. 

Yes, the weather can be cold and sailing in heavy weather can be scary.   But choose your day and you can enjoy a wonderful trip on the water. And as Amundsen said “there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. “ 


Where and how to learn to sail

The Royal Yachting Association (RYA) is the main body and offers theory and practical courses from beginner (competent crew) to expert (Yachtmaster) across UK. Neilsons and others also offer warm climate beach resort holidays with good dinghies, catamarans etc., instruction and  safety gear.You receive an RYA certificate at the end of your week.     Flotilla sailing is also an excellent way to learn in company while exploring foreign coasts and cultures.

To charter a yacht, you need a relevant qualification (usually RYA Day Skipper minimum) whether in UK or favoured waters in the Med, the Caribbean or further afield.   The nautical press and Internet are full of training courses in various locations.   Just make sure to take a ‘tidal’ version if you want to sail elsewhere than the Med which has no tides.

Learn the ropes

You can have enormous fun from your first day when you learn to sail.However, I do recommend paying close attention to safety, weather (forecasts, catabatic winds etc), boat maintenance (gas bottles and pipes, sacrificial anodes, etc), loading of dinghies, pilotage, navigation, radio usage  etc.   Do pace your adventures to gaining the appropriate knowledge.    

Sailors are very generous with their knowledge (some too much and at great length!) and there is a vast amount of good info available on all aspects of boating.

The sea does not care if you did not know there was a storm coming and you are on a lee shore.  And  I know of a yacht that blew up through careless gas handling. So, like a Boy Scout, be prepared! There is huge enjoyment to be had afloat.

 Barbara Roberson


Useful websites:


Royal Yachting Association – http://www.rya.org.uk/Pages/Home.aspx


Jubilee Sailing Trust - http://www.jst.org.uk/default.aspx   Tel: 023 8044 9108.


If you enjoyed learn to sail link back to pastimes and pleasures for more ideas