10 Mistakes New Sailors Make
OVER-THINKING—Look, this is a sport. It’s not rocket science. Many of my students had bad experiences on a sailboat as a child or with their dad or first husband. That was then. Now you have another chance. Clear your mind of preconditions and take one step at a time. Read a beginners book like “Sailing for Dummies” to realize how much you already know. For example: Once clear of the marina, keep the engine on low speed and raise the sail while pointing into the wind (see video above).
OVER-CONFIDENCE—Men who own motorboats are the worst because they assume a sailboat isn’t much different. Way different, beginning with the stability curve. While a keel sailboat won’t tip over, a centerboard sailboat will easily flip. Motorboat dudes fail to realize how dangerous the boom can be when it tacks around, or worse—gybes.
ASSUMING SAFETY—The most dangerous thing about any boat is the water you risk falling into. In early spring when the weather warms up, river and lake water is still frigid and can lead to death-defying hypothermia in less than 15 minutes. Therefore…
Always wear a life preserver.
Tether to the boat if sailing solo.
Fasten the tether up the middle of the boat so you can’t fall off.
Dress for cold weather.
Learn which lines to release first and last when departing the dock. Practice docking and departing (see video below).
SAILING TOO FAR—It’s easy to sail out into the water on a close reach, only to find out that it takes longer to get back. Unless you have a competent engine, don’t go too far. Learn the range of how far to go on certain winds before having to turn around. Take a marine radio with you to summon help on the water. A cell phone won’t connect you to that nearby rescue boat.
BUYING TOO QUICKLY—People get so enthusiastic that they sometimes fall in love with the first boat they have excelled on. Take your time and test different sizes and lengths. The American Sailing Association offers 22-foot and 36-foot keel boats to test the extremes. ASA has a membership component that precludes buying any boat. The website getmyboat.com offers myriad sailboats of all sizes to rent on nearby bodies of water. Think of it as Uber for boats.
FLYING SPINNAKER—This looks fancy but requires a certain skill and experience. Choose asymmetrical over symmetrical because the latter requires more crew. Buy a chute for the asymmetrical to raise and douse the sail easily. Be sure to keep all the spin lines outside the boat. Learn the spinnaker from a buddy or a teacher before trying it yourself. Never fly it solo.
BUYING TOO SMALL—Some new owners develop buyer’s remorse for having bought too small. Two rules of thumb:
(a) Think distance instead of speed or comfort. If you plan on going out on a Saturday morning to sail across the water to a mooring overnight, you want at least 25 feet of boat. But if you’re taking a week’s cruise, think 30 feet. If you’re just enjoying an afternoon, 22 feet works fine. (b) Whatever length you decide, add two feet and buy bigger even if you think you can’t afford it. Otherwise within a year you’ll be selling the short boat at a comparative loss.
8. OVER-REACHING—The Close Reach is the optimum point of sail for speed, but the boat shouldn’t tilt or heel more than 15%. Anything beyond that is uncomfortable and won’t increase speed. Be prepared to ease the mainsheet or release the traveler. Watch the water for approaching gusts so you can turn instantly to a Beam Reach that will flatten out the boat.
GADGETS—Sailboats come with plenty of challenges without adding complexity to things. Learn to read paper charts before investing in a chart plotter. Take the time to read the wind before installing a wind-direction meter. Learn to steer in any condition before converting to auto-pilot.
OVERBOARD—The fatal flaw to boating. Respect the water. And don’t fall off the dock, which looks ridiculous.