I’m standing at the helm of a 51-foot sailboat in the Caribbean Sea, approaching the island of St. Lucia, where my companions and I will anchor for the evening. As I spin the wheel slightly, the sails flutter and snap to attention. With the water beneath my feet and the wind at my back, I’ve never felt such an intoxicating blend of power, possibility and relaxation.
I also feel extraordinarily lucky to have been invited on this monthlong sailing trip, an experience that’s becoming more popular — and affordable — than you might think.
Community boating centers and inexpensive sailing opportunities abound. Deckhands of every age are learning the ropes (known on a boat as lines or sheets). And according to The Sailing Company, in Middletown, R.I., 1.6 million sailboats were used in 2006, many of them filled with first-timers on brand-new adventures.
“The reasons for sailing are as varied as the individuals and boats out there,” says Susan Peterson Gateley, who teaches sailing on Lake Ontario. “One big draw is the sense of freedom.”
And once you’re hooked, it can become a lifelong passion. “Sailing is something that gets in your blood,” says Dave McGinnis, manager and senior captain of Michigan’s Traverse Tall Ship Company. “Flying along with everything set in a perfect breeze, when the vessel comes alive in a balance of power and grace — it touches something deep in the core of your being.”
Sure, sailing takes skill, quick thinking and physical prowess. But thanks to hundreds of sailing schools and outfitters around the country, just about anyone can set sail, whether it’s for a three-hour tour — or a three-week voyage.
No Experience Necessary
Though you don’t need lessons to participate in many sailing adventures, learning to sail can be one of the most rewarding ways to get on the water. The American Sailing Association certifies more than 270 facilities around the world to teach sailing basics. Classes range from two-hour primers to longer courses in racing, cruising, navigation, and more. (Some experienced sailors enroll in refresher classes so they can “bareboat,” or charter a vessel without a crew or provisions.)
“You can learn the basics in a couple of hours,” says Steve Mink, co-owner of the Liberty Sailing School of Philadelphia and a U.S. Coast Guard–licensed captain. “And then spend the rest of your life developing those skills.”
In Liberty’s two-day “Basic Keelboat” class, students split their time between the classroom and the water. They learn key sailing knots, names of boat parts (including tiller, boom and mast), how to rig and hoist sails, terms such as “beam reach” and “close hauled,” how to turn the boat by tacking or jibing, and much more.
When Laurie Davis of Indianapolis signed up for a sailing class in Florida last June, she had no experience on a boat. All the new terminology was confusing at first, says the 60-year-old retiree, but she soon gained the confidence to steer the 26-foot sailboat on her own. “It was so exciting to take the tiller and try to find that perfect point on a beam reach where you’re just hanging over the water and going so fast.”
Typically, the only gear you need to bring to class is weather-appropriate clothing, boat shoes and personal refreshments. Handling the sheets and pushing the tiller take minimal strength, and unlike many sports, sailing has virtually no restrictions on gender, age or abilities. Most marinas, including the Geneva Lake Sailing School in Fontana, Wis., even have special programs for kids. Rhode Island’s nonprofit Shake-A-Leg organization promotes its Adaptive Sailing Program with specialized boats.
Many community boating centers — on ocean bays, lakes and rivers — offer deeply discounted programs. In Boston, for example, children pay $1 for membership in ˙ the Junior Program at Community Boating, Inc., while the adult 30-day intro to sailing and kayaking is just $90. Many instructors are thrilled to donate extra hours to teaching. “When I see people enjoying that experience for the first time, it charges my batteries,” says Mink.
Life at Sea
Don’t want to hit the classroom before hitting the water? No problem. There are plenty of other sailors who are happy to steer while you sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
Sailing adventures offer a wide range of activities: from short, relaxing cruises on a river to multiday excursions on the high seas. While the crew sails the boat, you can learn to paint, watch for whales, fish, cook, study a new language or simply kick back. Or, if you want to feel like part of the crew, they’ll let you help hoist the anchor, trim the sails and even steer.
Most companies also allow on-shore time. Maine Adventure Sails, based in Rockland, Maine, offers three- to six-day trips on its schooners Timberwind and J. & E. Riggin that include beach lobster bakes and island hiking (the eco-friendly sailors even pick up litter along the trail).
“I love feeling the wind in my face, the fog — out of which appear islands, birds and seals — the stars at night, and hearing the crew sing,” says Louisa Enright of Camden, Maine, a regular passenger on the J. & E. Riggin.
Maureen Riley has also sailed on the J. & E. Riggin — 34 times. Onboard, the 54-year-old nurse anesthetist from Royal Oak, Mich., has taken a photography seminar, seen the Northern Lights, raised the anchor, heard steel-drum bands and met friends for life, all while blissfully cut off from cell-phone calls, television and radios.
“Most weeks,” she says, “you just forget that the world is out there.”
Sarah Tuff is the coauthor of 101 Best Outdoor Towns: Unspoiled Places to Visit, Live & Play (Countryman Press, 2007); she writes from Burlington, Vt.