March 8, 2011

Learn faster in a dinghy

NOW AND THEN somebody asks me, “What’s the best way to learn to sail?” I always tell them to start in a small sailing dinghy, something about 14 or 18 feet in length. But they mostly don’t listen to me. They get seduced by the sailing schools who want to teach them on 35-footers so that they’ll come back to charter the same boats next summer.

Nevertheless, it’s my contention that if you learn to master a dinghy, you’re three-quarters of the way to mastering any deep-sea boat. Maybe more.

Even if you have already learned to sail a fixed-keeler, you might like to go back and start from scratch on a dinghy. Take as long as you need, months if necessary, because this part of the learning process is vital. It will teach you how to balance a hull under sail, something that will stand you in good stead all your sailing life.

In your dinghy, do everything under sail. Beat to windward in restricted channels. Luff up to jetties and buoys to see how much way she carries. Steer without touching the tiller while running and beating. Yes, you can, once you know how.

Use telltales on your shrouds to judge wind direction, and use telltales on your sails so you know what happens when you tension the luff, trim a sheet, or move the lead blocks on the genoa track.

Sail her backwards. It’s fun, and it will teach you why you shouldn’t let a bigger yacht make sternway in a gale. Feel how suddenly and drastically the pressure on the tiller changes when you let it get the slightest bit off-center.

Practice anchoring in your dinghy, anchoring from the bows and anchoring from the stern. Try making the anchor rode fast at different points along the gunwale and see how she lies in respect to the wind, or the swells. And then sail off the anchor.

See how the sail balance, leeway, and steering characteristics change when you raise the centerboard partially, and, above all, learn to heave to. Most dinghies will do it quite gracefully. I once used the technique to scoot sideways along the start line in a very competitive field of racers. With the jib backed and the mainsail flapping, they thought I was out of control and kindly kept clear. It wasn’t until the gun went and I got off to a great start by pulling the jib around and trimming the main, that they realized they’d been had. But I knew better than to try a second time.

One very useful aid to learning to sail is to pace yourself against another identical one-design dinghy. One boat sails normally, the other constantly makes adjustments to everything that can be moved, and usually starts to get ahead. Then the one behind starts making the adjustments, and so on, until both of you are going much faster.

On a seagoing yacht of 35 or 40 feet, the principles of handling and seamanship are almost exactly the same as those of a sloop-rigged dinghy, with these modifications:

► Changes of direction will take longer.

► The bigger boat will carry her way much farther.

► The chances of capsize are greatly reduced.

► The food will be a lot better.

Seamanship is largely a matter of keeping the boat under firm control all the time. It consists of your being in charge of the boat, rather than having the boat take charge of you. You can learn these things on a 35-footer through long and hard experience but a dinghy will bring you enlightenment in a fraction of the time, at minimal cost, and twice the fun.

Today’s Thought
Often ornateness goes with greatness;
Oftener felicity comes of simplicity.
— William Watson, Art Maxims

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #169
Although most rudders will stall when angled more than about 35 degrees to the water flow, many light displacement boats will accept a greater angle after the stern has started to swing. But that doesn’t mean the angle of incidence has exceeded 35 degrees, of course. The swinging stern has simply changed the angle of attack.

“What have I got, Doc?”
“I’m afraid your disease is hereditary.”
“Great. Send the bill to my grandfather.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Aaron Headly said...


This is exactly what sailors need to think about, and I can't recall reading it anywhere else. Even Uffa Fox only made a tenuous connection between his canoe successes and, say, Dorade. (Yeah, I read a lot.)

I live 60 miles away from my slip, yet I drive by an awesome dinghy lake every time I drive to work or back home. I want to buy an old 4.70 and sail that lake, but I worry that time spent on that will keep me away from S/V Centennial. You have reminded me that sailing is sailing.

You might have just written a book proposal without realizing it.

Ben said...

Hi john, Good idea, of course I am abit biased, because I starting out on dingys, but it sure teaches the fundamentals very fast... either you learn quickly or you get wet! I Couldn't resist A bit of a trip down memory lane, See

Micky-T said...

Great post!
I was fortunate at 35 years old to start my very first sailing in a little Sea Snark that fit stuffed into the back of my VW van. After work from building the 50' schooner Mary Harrigan back in the woods of NH, I'd make the 5 min drive to my childhood lake. Lazy summer afternoons and cold beer.

Before the summer was over I found a rotten old flat bottom skiff, rebuilt her and spent the next whole summer sailing that lake every chance I got. By that fall I had a haul-out mooring on the Piscatiqua River near Portsmouth, NH. What fun and a challenge to navigate in a 4 to 6 knot tidal river. After two seasons there on the river, fortune, not fame, brought me to the Caribbean where I bought my first "real" boat, Caprifol, a 30' cutter, and eventually sailed her back to that same river.

I'd feel a lot safer out there if I knew everybody had to learn on a small boat first.

Hajo said...

True. Teaching someone how to sail typically would take me about 30 minutes of effort. Explain in theory how the wind works; tacking, jibing and watch your head. I then would stick them two or three people at a time in a dinghy (mirror). after a few hours they would be able to essentially sail. After that it becomes a matter of just doing it a lot to get experience.
FWIW: my hero Moitessier advocates the same system of teaching.

Bill Ray said...

Great advice! There is nothing like the instant visceral feedback of a small dinghy. The feel stays with you with larger boats because your senses know what to expect.

I still fondly remember learning to sail a Sabot, an 8' pram, in Newport CA as a teenager. Fondly even includes an embarassing lesson in patience on how to sail when "there is no wind".

Lezlie's World said...

I totally agree. The first year I sailed on a 41 foot ketch. I then built an 8' PDRacer, s/v iDuck. I learned more and faster on this little boat.


Matt said...

I started on keelboats and got involved in one-design dingy racing. Now I'm frostbiting a Laser with a local sailing club and having a ball.

I love the feedback on dinghies and the rush of hiking out a foot off the water. Club racing is a wonderful way to practice a lot of the skills you talk about and provides the motivation to keep doing it,

Tim said...

I totally agree. I learned to sail at WWU aboard International 420s. Quick and responsive, if you make a mistake you know about it immediately. Dinghy sailors make the best sailors!

Don P said...

I enjoy your blog but I especially love entries like these. I learned on a laser. It was a one day "try it" course offered by the local university. The feeling of a rudder in one hand, sheet in the other and your body as balast was magic. Even messing up and going in the drink was fun. These days I sail a 25 foot fin keel boat because I like to go inside to eat,sleep and s--- but I also have a little Snark for the kids to mess around in. Start small but sail 'em all!

Ralph said...

Hi John. Great blog. I've been dinghy sailing for a few years and am planning to move onto something bigger. I have always wondered how much different sailing a larger boat would be so its good to hear my dinghy sailing skills should stand me in good stead.

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