Pocket school ships

The O’pen Skiff is a boat that kids worldwide love to sail. This regatta, in France, is in light air. Photo courtesy LVRA/Wikipedia

By Martha Blanchfield
For Points East

Hundreds of brands and designs of sailboats are on the market. And while a person can learn to sail on just about any of them, the best way to truly get a feel for the concept and sport, and start accumulating disciplines and skills, is to do so aboard a dinghy, a sailboard-like design (e.g., Laser, Sunfish), or a small keelboat.

Yacht clubs, youth programs, coaches and sail instructors agree that the best learn-to-sail boats of any size are often ones with tiller steering, have only one sail, and do not have winches but have cams or cleats. Rotomolded craft tend to inflict less damage on objects they contact than do fiberglass or wood ones.

Dinghies, prams & sailboards

Start small. Learn to sail with dinghies and board-hulled vessels like the iconic Sailfish, Sunfish and Lasers. They are stripped down and basic, with articulated tillers with extensions. And they usually have just one sail that can be easily moved across the boat – through the wind – when tacking.

These little craft come in various shapes and versions; most are eight to 14 feet in length. While able to accommodate one or two, students may ride solo or with an instructor onboard. The best learn-to-sail boats are typically made of roto-molded plastic – which is inexpensive, sturdy and lightweight – or fiberglass, and older models may be built of plywood. Hard bilges (flattish bottoms – round or ones with a slight deadrise or V-shape) provide a more stable learning platform.

Being lightweight, though, demands mastering a skill not mandatory for keelboat learners: re-righting an overturned dinghy. Instructors know that flipping and taking a dunk are part of the learning process on a dinghy. Swim basics and getting a boat upright are usually reviewed in lesson one, two or three of a formal sailing course.

Solo-sailing a dinghy gives instant feedback, most noticeably when there is a shift of weight in the boat. Small dinghies also react quickly to environmental conditions, plus changes in sail position. The tiller steering on all of these small boats gives the helmsman an immediate and precise feel for how the boat is handling. Connected directly to the rudder, the tiller provides insight into boat speed, direction, and pressures exerted by wind and water.

Some top learn-to-sail dinghies include the Pico (an 11’ 6” rotomolded Laser brand with mainsail and jib), Laser (13’ 11”, one sail), Optimist (7’ 9” pram, one sail), International 420 (13’ 9”, main and headsails), Sunfish (13’ 9”, one sail), Sabot (7’ 2”, single-sail pram with leeboards), Hartley 10 (single sail), RS Quba (11’ 7”, multiple rig options). Topper Xenon (14’ 8”) and Topper Topaz (12’ 7”) are popular larger training dinghies, with headsail and spinnaker capability. For details and specifications for any of these boats, simply commit the model name to your search engine.

The Laser is ideal for singlehanding, and a top choice for those with regatta competition in their futures. This design is available in three different rigs: 4.7 (51-square-foot sail area), Radial (62-square-foot sail area), and Standard (76-square-foot sail area). Laser models weigh 130 pounds at most. Developed in 1969 by Canadians Bruce Kirby and Ian Bruce, the Laser is oft-cited as a solid investment with decent resale value.

A step up in learn-to-sail boats is the larger sloop, which can fly a headsail in addition to a mainsail. Some of these can accommodate up to four passengers. Cleats, not winches, are often present for securing the sails. Sloop-rigged boats, like the Rhodes 19, may or may not have a keel.

Advantages of keelboats

Among her various responsibilities with US Sailing (ussailing.org), champion sailor Betsy Alison is adult sailing director. She also has dedicated much of her life to disabled sailing, and was the paralympic coach for the US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider. She was honored twice as USOC Coach of the Year. In 2011, she was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame. She knows learn-to-sail boats that will accommodate the needs of students of all ages and abilities.

While discussing learning to sail in keelboats, Betsy points to Community Boating (communityboating.com), in Boston, where “students can take lessons on a Mercury, then progress to sail J/80s.” She adds that the non-profit operation Courageous Sailing Center (courageoussailing.org), operating in Boston Harbor out of Charlestown, uses fixed-keel Sonars, which permit an instructor to sit beside two or three students.

For some adults and individuals with mobility issues or other limitations, a keelboat is a more suitable platform; its ballasted keel provides stability and minimizes the chances of capsize. Keelboats are bigger and often have a more open cockpit, which make it easier for sailors to move about. Compared to a dinghy, the keelboat platform permits instructors to direct additional onboard skills training – such as sail reefing, heaving-to, man-overboard drills, teamwork, plus rotation through stations.

More forgiving centerboard and keelboats that are prevalent throughout New England include the Rhodes 19, Ideal 18, Sonar, Cape Cod Mercury, and small fleets of Herreshoff 12 1/2s and Cape Cod Knockabouts.

The most stable of all learn-to-sail vessel type is the catamaran. Meg Myles is the executive director of the Conanicut Island Sailing Foundation (jamestownsailing.org), of Jamestown, R.I., an operation that relies on Hobie Wave catamarans. A top attraction is the free Wednesday night community boating experiences with these small multihulls. “No prior experience is needed to join, Meg says. “There will be an instructor on each boat.” During summer 2019, some 270 zealots took advantage of this offer.

Sailing leads to great things

Between June 2010 and September 2013 Erica Lush was lead instructor at Jamestown’s Conanicut Yacht Club (conanicutyachtclub.org), where she taught sailing to both children and adults in dinghies and keelboats. Today, Erica serves as a boat captain aboard 12 Meter vessels in the America’s Cup Charters fleet (www.americascupcharters.com), in Newport, R.I. This native of Jamestown, R.I., says she was introduced to boats and the water while an infant on her parents’ C&C 29.

Her mother, an avid mariner, and father, a renowned solo sailor, did a fine job of introducing their offspring to sailing. Lush recalls the many times she and her brother would set off on their favorite small boat, which had a hull suitable for either rowing or sailing. “It was quite wide for its length, had only one sail, and was steered by a tiller,” she says. “There was a thwart, or seat, you’d sit on if you were rowing. The seat had a hole in the middle, through which the mast was placed. My brother would always steer. I would trim.” She says that her parents would tie a long line to the bow. “If we got stuck in irons, they could pull us back to the beach.”

Last year, Lush crewed aboard Maiden, a 58-foot former Whitbread Round the World Race boat (www.themaidenfactor.org). Even while crossing the Indian Ocean, witnessing extreme conditions, she felt confident. “I drew from faith in my own capabilities, born of early sail training, and those of my teammates, that we would prevail. I never felt nervous about our well-being.”

With so many boat types conducive to sailing instruction available, which ones are best? “The world’s most popular youth-training boat continues to be the Optimist Dinghy,” says Bob Adam, vice president of sales and marketing for Zim Sailing, a supplier of one-design sailboats, parts, accessories, in Newport, R.I. “From learning to sail to the highest levels of youth racing for sailors under the age of 16, the Opti preserves a stronghold on the market.”

Zim Sailing alone sells no fewer than 130 Optis per year to programs and individuals throughout the U.S. “Once kids graduate from the Opti, the traditional favorite is the C420,” says Bob Adam. “Program coordinators love the durability, and kids love the performance. Like the Opti Class, the C420 Class is well-organized and holds many large regattas across the country. Young sailors often choose the C420 as a perfect platform to hone their skills for collegiate sailing. The trapeze and spinnaker are added thrills for junior sailors.”

For the keelboat crowd, two excellent sail-training boats are the J/22 and J/24, from J/Boats in Newport. Erica Lush favors the J/22. One reason, she says, is that this model is readily available to charter through community programs such as Sail Newport (sailnewport.org). Boston’s Community Boating rents Rhodes 19s. “Rhodes 19s are super simple, with a main and a jib,” she says. You can even start with just the main if you’re truly a beginner. The boom height is higher than a dinghy, so you’re less likely to hit your head.”

Competitive sailor Molly MacMillan White is a diehard fan of the J/24. It is popular and offers flexibility for use in both serious and social settings. “The configuration can be easily adapted, and adjusting the rigging is not difficult,” she says. “A genoa or a jib may be used, as can a spinnaker.”

Providing more cockpit space than a dinghy, the boats work well for adults, and young sailors can grow up on this vessel. White, president of the U.S. J/24 Class Association, says the model is suitable for crew looking to fly a spinnaker or crew hankering to gunkhole. “The J/24 is relatively inexpensive, plus, it’s not very difficult to tune an older one and make it competitive,” she says. “We are seeing more young people buy J/24s so that they can start racing.”

White, who lives in Portland, Maine, says that, by age 18, she got serious about sailing when a friend who participated in Falmouth, Maine, Wednesday night racing invited her to join. “He called me, but really wanted me to bring a gal-pal he was interested in,” she admits. Eventually, White’s own boyfriend, to whom she is now married, joined up. In years since, the crew has qualified three times to compete at the J/24 Worlds.

Lifelong cruiser Brewster Kahle was taught to sail in New England waters by his family, but mostly by his father. He believes that this is the best way to go. His first vessel was an Ensign, next came a Vanguard – both stable boats with keels. At age 10, Brewster’s parents purchased a Luders 36.

While comfortable sailing with a group, he found it to be a major hurdle to personally gain confidence to take the boat out on his own. “Being a mate is quite different from being a captain,” he says. “I was not comfortable risking the boat while my father was alive. It took several years, numerous close calls, plus a tolerant family to learn how to cruise, even in Cape Cod waters.”

His early sailing years brought newfound freedoms and many challenges. Fifteen years ago, Kahle’s father passed on. “He gave the boat to me, and I have been able to share the experience with my family ever since.” Now 59, Kahle cherishes their adventures. “The connection to family, particularly with boats, is very strong. Sailing together, cruising the New England coast, two to four weeks at a time, was pure magic.”

Best bets for DIY learners

Sometimes the best boat on which to learn is whatever is available . . . plus a dream. Sailing zealot Matt Gillam grew up in Belfast, Maine, and spent summers at an inland lake. With no access to a traditional sailboat, he invented novel ways to learn how to harness the wind. At 10 years of age, along with his cousins, he tried to convert an old wooden skiff into a sailing vessel by stretching a towel between two oars tied off, port and starboard, to the gunwales. Unfortunately, he says, “We’d often have to take the rig down and row back home upwind.”

Gillam eventually took sailing instructions, and followed with a first career of driving tankers in the merchant marines. One of his first true sailboats was a Sunfish.

Today, he and his wife reside in Portland, Maine, and have owned boats for ocean sailing. But they opted to teach their son how to sail at the family’s lakeside property. He loves his Precision P15 and named it Boatie. “We chose that vessel so the three of us could fit in and stay mostly dry. We can extend the season and trailer it elsewhere when our son is ready for more adventure.”

An industrious breed, many sailors eventually heed some sort of call to vessel innovation. In fact, there are competitions that celebrate this urge: for example, Jamestown’s Fools’ Rules Regatta (https://jyc.org/wordpress/?page_id=42). On race morning, participants assemble their makeshift boats on the beach (no marine materials allowed). When boats are . . . er, completed, contestants then wade out to the starting line for a straight downwind run. Erica Lush recalls five years in a row when she and her brother cleaned up with a design that called for a lightweight picnic table, a few long two-by-fours, a tarp, a picnic cloth, and some sort of makeshift rudder. “Despite having gone off-course one year – I think it was the year a snow shovel served as rudder – we had a podium finish most years,” she says.

No matter the venue – no matter the age, skill level and physical ability of the learner – program coordinators want boats that are safe, durable and fun, says Zim Sailing’s Adam. It’s hard to beat a vintage wooden sloop or skiff, but new models continue to appear, he adds. “The RS Tera (4’ 0”) is earning its place in the youth market, with more than 300 sold into the U.S. market in the past four years. Sailing programs favor its durability (polyethylene hull), and kids love it for the fun factor. It performs well on all points of sail, and the self-bailing feature is a bonus,” he adds. It is recognized by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) as an international class.

Cousin models, the two-person RS Feva (12’ 0”), RS Zest (11’ 10”) and the multiple-crew RS Quest (14” 1”) are trending too. “The RS Feva has been adopted by the Junior Sailing Academy of Long Island Sound, and US Sailing uses it in the Siebel Sailors Program,” Adam says. “The boat gets nice performance from its asymmetrical spinnaker. The RS Zest is a modern replacement for the Sunfish, and the RS Quest can hold an instructor and up to four kids.”

Starting at age seven, Erica Lush began filling a reservoir of disciplines and rich memories from her time spent in sailing prams and dinghies, and this is likely why she brings so much empathy and understanding when helping students learn to sail. With the help of her parents and her sailing schools, she mastered how to work the wind on small, stable, easily rigged and sailed dinghies. We hope this article provides food-for-thought and inspiration during your quest for the ideal learning platform.

Martha Blanchfield is a racer/writer/photographer with a keen interest in San Francisco Bay regattas. As editor and founder of the digital magazine RenegadeSailing.com, she profiles the international waterside lifestyle and occasionally pokes fun at the loves and lives of sailors. Her photography and copy appear in “Nautique” (Netherlands publication), the “Panerai Classic Yachts Regatta” annual, “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Latitude 38,” “J/Boat” newsletter, “Points East,” “Classic Yacht,” “Adventure Sports Journal” and “Classic Boat UK.”