Is Sailing Difficult Or Hard? An Honest Answer (For Beginners)

So you are looking at taking up the wonderful sport of sailing. Great!

There is a lot to learn and many skills that you will have to accrue.

Let’s look into the easy and difficult parts of sailing:

Here’s How Difficult Sailing Is:

Different types of sailing will change the difficulty. Day cruising is easy, but world trips are hard. Competing in races will require much more skill than basic leisure sailing. Helping on a boat is much easier than captaining the whole craft. Depending on your needs, sailing can be hard or easy.

How Long Does it Take to Learn the Basics of Sailing?

It is easy and quick to learn the basics of sailing.

You can understand and apply the basics in a single afternoon on the water with an experienced instructor.

In fact, you can go into your first lesson with a pretty good knowledge base, thanks to the internet and this very website. By doing some basic research, you will be equipped with a general knowledge of the essentials before you ever set foot on a sailboat.

The basics of sailing consist of just a few things: to know how to steer the boat, know where the wind is coming from, and trim the sails relative to the wind direction to go in the direction you wish to go.

All of these skills can be acquired and demonstrated in a single afternoon of instruction on the water. This will usually suffice so that you can sail a small dinghy on a river or bay or other protected waters any time you want to, as long as the weather is fair.

Sailing in heavy weather is a little more complicated, and this skill is usually acquired from direct experience. You can learn and be taught how to sail in high winds and large waves, but until you actually do it, you won’t really have the skills to handle the boat under that kind of pressure.

That being said, again, a single afternoon of supervised sailing under these conditions will teach you what you need to know about how to handle them.

Keelboats are larger and a little more complex than dinghies, so a few more basics are to be learned. These include docking and rudimentary navigation – understanding channel buoys and what they mean and avoiding running aground.

These basics can also be taught in an afternoon of intensive instruction. Still, like those sanctioned by the American Sailing Association or US Sailing, most adult sailing classes run two or three days over one weekend or consecutive weekday nights.

While there are several adult sailing classes hosted at different places sanctioned by either the ASA or US Sailing, these schools teach their own courses and charge different amounts of money. The commonality is the skills that they impart. At the end of any of these sanctioned courses, you will receive a certificate signifying that you have learned all the basics required for handling a sailboat.

While these sanctioned classes are comprehensive, many sailors do not go that route. They learn from family and friends and then their own experiences.

So, to reiterate, you can learn the basics in an afternoon on the water or a more comprehensive understanding of the sailing essentials over about two days in a sanctioned class.

How Many People Quit Before they Learn How to Sail?

Many people quit before they learn how to sail, even after receiving instruction in the basics.

There are differing reasons for this. Some people find sailing to be boring – they want to go faster! They find the romance of cruising the sea under sail to be overblown.

Others can’t grasp the basics. This is not an indictment on that person’s intelligence; it is just the simple fact that we all have different aptitudes. Not everyone will take to it.

Others will be put off by the cost of owning a boat or the maintenance required to keep it in decent shape. The marinas are filled with boats whose owners got into sailing and regretted their purchase before fully learning how to sail their boats.

Other people quit because they or a family member got sick and required attention, meaning that their potential lives as sailors had to fall by the wayside.

There are many reasons why people quit before they become proficient at sailing, and it is impossible to know exactly how many such people there are. There are no databases kept on those who quit before they learn how to sail.

It is estimated that roughly one out of every three people who show some degree of interest drop out of sailing before learning how. The most common lament of the casual sailboat racer is the difficulty in finding and keeping a crew.

However, more common than people quitting before they learn how to sail are the people who quit after sailing for a few years. While there is usually a solid core of hardcore sailors in any given area, others come and go over the years.

Again, there are many different reasons for this. Some wealthy guys get into it for a few years before moving onto their next venture. Others, including many young people, got into it because of family members and then moved on as they got older.

Others, who constitute the majority of club racers, get tired of the same guys winning the races all of the time. As the saying goes, “Unless you are the lead dog, the view never changes.”

The bottom line here is that there is a constant overturning of people who are involved in any given local sailing scene. New and experienced sailors come and go all the time.

Is Sailing Physically Demanding?

If you have a dinghy, you will probably find it more physically demanding than a keelboat.

For a dinghy, it would be best if you controlled the helm and the sail. Even two-person dinghies require a lot of physical effort.

They are smaller platforms and closer to the water and more likely to capsize, so you have to work to keep them going.

Catamarans are more demanding. Compared to the lesser platform of the hulls, the forces generated by the sails mean a lot more muscle has to be applied to control the sails and keep the boat upright, particularly as gusts hit.

Whether you are racing a dinghy or just cruising around in it, you will usually be working harder than you will be on a keelboat.

Keelboats are usually less demanding, as the boat is basically more stable, and there are more people to divide the jobs among. This is particularly true for casual cruisers out to enjoy a day on the water.

Racing a keelboat is different, though. It requires more physical effort for your boat to function at its peak and operate as efficiently as possible when going around the racecourse.

This is particularly true of the foredeck crew, who are changing sails and gybing the spinnaker pole. Sail trimmers get a workout as well, as hauling in sheets attached to sail under load requires muscle power, even with the assistance of winches.

This is even more extreme at the upper levels of the sport. If you have seen any America’s Cup races in the last decades, you have seen crew members working over massive winch assemblies, adjusting sails or centerboard trim or other structures under great loads.

Failure to perform the physical task at any of these points means losing ground at a minimum. It can also lead to significant gear failure or capsizing at this level of the sport.

So, it depends on how you are doing and how physically demanding the sailing will be. Day sailing in a light breeze won’t require much physical effort, besides making sandwiches and passing out drinks. Going windward on a catamaran as you try to round the mark in first will be much more demanding.

Do You Have to be Fit to Sail?

The casual cruiser will not have much reason to be physically fit, as they have minimal physical demands.

As long as they can pull or push the tiller or the wheel and tweak the sails to maintain their course, they can do everything they need to.

Keelboat racing is more physically demanding, but not everyone on the boat has to be fit to do their jobs. While working the foredeck or trimming the sails can be hard work, the labor generally comes in bursts, and there are opportunities for each crew member to catch their breaths over the course of the race.

Those at the top of their keelboat fleets tend to push their crews harder, though, and the best crews are in better physical shape than those that do not consistently finish at the top of their fleet.

Dinghies are generally more work than keelboats, but if you take your Sunfish out for a casual afternoon on the water in light or moderate air, you do not have to be particularly fit to sail it.

Likewise, even larger or more complex dinghies do not require a particular degree of fitness if you are puttering about a river or bay for a fun day of sailing.

If you are racing dinghies, however, it is a different story. To control your boat as efficiently as possible around the racecourse, you will be tacking quickly, hauling in your sail(s), fighting your helm as waves pull at it, and hiking out to keep your boat flat.

All of this is done in a compressed amount of time around the course.

In this case, you will quickly get tired if you are not physically fit. Many competitors are not fit, and they are at the back of the fleet.

If you want to compete in dinghies at the top of the class, you must be fit enough to do what needs to be done on the boat to make it perform optimally.

This is more the case for catamarans, as they are even more physically demanding to operate at peak efficiency. Distance catamaran racing is particularly grueling, where the crew is hiking in trapezes for hour after hour.

And sailors who compete in the Olympics, of course, take it all to the next level. They have daily physical regimens to maintain their peak physicality for competing in the most extreme conditions.

The same is true for the upper levels of big boat racing, such as America’s Cup.

The bottom line here is no, if you are casually cruising, and yes, racing. If you are racing, less so for most keelboat fleets, more so for dinghy or the most competitive fleets.

How Hard is it Compared to Other Sports?

As with every section of this article, the answer varies with the kind of sailing you are doing.

Also, in this case, it will vary with the particular sport you are comparing it to.

Casual cruising will be easy compared to other sports. If you are trimming a genoa on a friend’s boat for an afternoon after five minutes of instruction, you are good to go.

Similarly, if you take your sunfish out on the river, you are ready to sail once you know how to steer the tiller, trim the sail, and identify the wind direction.

This is far easier than single-man coverage or zone-blitzing in your local flag football league.

The turning point is when you are using your sailboat to compete. While you may have mastered the basics, learning about boat speed and local knowledge are always things, like wind shift patterns.

Now you are staring down a potential rabbit hole as you uncover more layers of knowledge to perfect your racing craft.

At this point, it becomes as hard or harder than many other sports. While you are probably not approaching the difficulty of, say, professional baseball, you are certainly facing as much difficulty, if not more, than your average local amateur baseball league.

We’re certainly comparing apples and oranges here, but the bottom line is that the better you want to become and compete in sailboat racing, the harder it becomes.

In that aspect, it is as hard as any other sport on the planet.

But if you want to enjoy a day on the water, it’s easy – as long as you have a bat to sail in!

Do I Need Any Certificates to Sail on my Own?

If you are taking your dinghy out for cruising or racing, you will not need any certification.

Nor do you require certification to own a boat and sail it on the bay or even offshore.

But if you are going to take passengers across a body of water or charter a boat at home or abroad, you will need at least some basic certification.

As mentioned above, the American Sailing Association offers many courses, starting with ASA 101, Basic Keelboat Sailing. The cost and time required for this course vary by the location it is taught in, but most schools take one or two days and cost $250-$500.

In conclusion, you receive a certification in keelboats 20-27 in length and have a solid grasp of terminology, basic navigation, sail trim, seamanship, and safety.

This certification is usually enough to allow you to charter boats in the USA or most locations such as the Bahamas. You will also be able to charter boats in a few parts of the world. However, many countries require a different certification, such as the International Certificate of Competence, obtained by the UK-based Royal Yachting Association.

To acquire the ICC, you must be extensively evaluated by a qualified RYA instructor or go through a 5-day class taught by them. It is difficult for most US-based sailors to get this certification, so the ASA has developed a similar certificate accepted in some other nations, called the International Proficiency Certificate.

To obtain the IPC, you must complete the ASA 101 course, ASA 103 (Basic Coastal Cruising), and ASA 104 (Bareboat Cruising) courses.

Then you must complete an IPC application.

These courses vary in time and cost by the school at which they are offered, but three or four days each and $500-$1000 each is what you may expect. Some schools combine these two courses in an intense week-long session.

When you have completed ASA 101, ASA 103, and ASA 104, you may apply for the IPC.

Not all countries recognize the IPC, but it is becoming increasingly accepted in the world. Almost all countries will accept the ICC to charter a boat.

But again, keep in mind that if you are sailing your keelboat locally or even racing, you do not require any certification.

The ASA 101 course is a good idea if you want to be serious about sailing, as there is a broad range of nautical skills that you learn, but it is not essential to sail your own boat.

3 Tips that Make it Easier to Learn to Sail:

There are several things you can do that will make it easier to learn how to sail:

Do Research Online

There are many resources on the internet for sailing, including some on this website. Still, the number of visual aids, such as wind direction, sails, knots, safety, and navigation, is nearly endless.

If you go into your first lesson with some knowledge of how the helm works, what to do with your sails, and how to determine wind direction and the relevant points of sail, you will be ahead of the curve.

Talk to Sailors

While some people are reluctant to share their hard-earned knowledge, most sailors will be glad to pass on a few sea stories over a beer or shot of rum.

Every sailor has had a mishap or two, or laughing about it with a new sailor is a time-honored among most old salts.

Even if what they say is a bit technical for your stage of learning, there will be seeds of wisdom.

Look at Some Sailboats

Go down to some public docks and look at some sailboats of all sizes.

See the equipment they have, how they run their lines, and maintenance the owners might be performing. You will form some questions in your mind that you may not answer for a while, but your mind will start to contemplate how things work.

You might stumble upon a discovery that some old salt learned the hard way that your instructor would never dream of.

If you do these things before your first lesson, you will build a solid knowledge base.

This will facilitate the things you learn and place them in context.

Final Thoughts

Sailing is easy to start, assuming you have access to a boat but difficult to master.

How hard it is, depends on what you are trying to do and whether you have a natural aptitude (which will help you learn) for the sport.

The most important thing you can do initially is persevering.

Things may not make sense right off the bat, but at some point, if you stick with it, you will have your “Eureka!” moment, and things will start to make sense, and then, with some experience, you can start to teach others your hard-earned wisdom!


Sailing Is Hard But Worth It – GoDownsize

American Sailing Association – Certifications

Why People Quit Sailing

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