Do I Need Sailing Lessons?

Do I Need Sailing Lessons?

Do I need sailing lessons? That is one of the questions I get asked a lot, and probably know the answer best. A little back story to clarify, almost three years ago I bought a sailboat down in Seattle, Washington. The problem with this, I live in Sitka, Alaska, and the only boating experience I had at the time was motoring around on my ten foot inflatable. Long story short, all my plans went out the window and I ended up sailing her up on my own. If you want the full story, here is the link to the videos. After spending two years learning how to sail myself, I decided to take sailing classes.

So, back to the question at hand, do I need sailing lessons? The short answer to this question is no, you don’t need them; but, you’d be foolish to not take them. Let me explain why.

Why did I decide to take sailing classes?

Do I need sailing lessons

So after two years sailing, why did I decided to take sailing classes? Alright, a little more of the back story, that isn’t on the videos, before I continue. I had every intention of taking sailing lessons when I bought my first boat, which never saw the water.

This boat, pictured above, was a cheap fixer-upper. I bought it with the intent that I would fix it up and learn to sail on it. Ultimately, I procrastinated on fixing it up and it never happened. I couldn’t imagine myself ever being in a position to sail around the world like I dreamed about growing up. A year later I received a promotion at work which transferred me to Sitka. My boat became little more than a moving van when I moved down. She never saw the water and was eventually sold to someone else who had the same dream.

After selling the boat, I bought my liveaboard sailboat and decided to start pursuing my dream. As I said, I sailed her up from Seattle and spent the next two years learning to sail by reading books and going out with a few friends along the way.

All was going well, and then I meet this girl. We got to know each other and the more I got to know her, the more I felt I really wanted to have a life with her in it. There was only one problem; she wasn’t interested in living on a boat and sailing the world. It was at that point I decided to take the classes, because I wanted to be able to charter boats and still take trips if it worked out with us. That was the plan anyway, till it didn’t work out.

But the surprising part, and what this is all about, is I learned a lot by taking the sailing lessons. You really don’t know how much you don’t know, until you know. Additionally, I found there are a lot of benefits to being “officially” certified.

The advantages of taking sailing classes

Do I need sailing lessons

You might wonder, if you already know how to sail, why take sailing lessons? If you don’t need certification, what are the advantages of taking sailing lessons? There is surprisingly a lot. The biggest reasons are safety, insurance, skills, and the opportunities it provides. Keep reading for more on this.


The biggest reason, and the reason everyone should take sailing lessons, is safety.  Let’s face it, I live in Alaska, ending up in the water, especially solo sailing is potentially deadly. With over six hundred deaths and over two-thousand five-hundred injuries every year, regardless of where you live, safety should be your number one priority when out on the water.

There is so much to consider when it comes to safety; everything from rules of the road to how not to pitch-pole the boat. Weather, safety gear, even just your safety brief to new or returning passengers has to be considered. Safety checks of the boat, making sure you are in compliance with the laws and regulations where you are sailing, and what to do in an emergency are also things you will learn taking sailing lessons.

This is how bad it can get and why it’s important. Our class was sailing along and putting away gear heading back to the home port. Suddenly there is a man overboard. Instructor calls “man overboard”. The spotters, starts pointing and I, at the helm, conduct a near flawless maneuver to recover. We luff the sails a little too early and drift too far out to reach. We power up the sails and again do a near flawless maneuver, but are unable to find the man overboard. Thinking we just missed our mark, we do a search grid. In the end, the man overboard was lost at sea.

Luckily, the man overboard was just a pair of carelessly tossed sail ties that went overboard and not a person. As we reviewed the process and talked about it, we discovered the obvious, why didn’t we start the engine to complete the first attempt. Had that been in unconscious person, they would have drowned.

I can honestly say, had it been a person, someone would have dove in to get them. Regardless, the fact that we didn’t think about something so simple, says it all. Things happen fast on the water, faster during an emergency. You can’t rely on “Just don’t hit other boats” as your safety rule (true story, it was my “safety” brief to anyone taking the helm).

I could go on and on about safety, it is just that big of a topic, and one your life and the lives of others depends on.

Do I need sailing lessons


Let’s talk about insurance. When I was in the process of purchasing my boat, the first question I was asked by insurance companies, was what certifications I had. I had none at the time and the underwriters weren’t going to insure me. That said, the bank wouldn’t give me a loan, and the harbors I needed to leave it at till spring required it.

Obviously I did finally get insurance, but it was at a premium rate. Without sailing lessons it was like getting car insurance with multiple DUIs. I guess it makes sense, they are promising to cover potentially tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of boats and damages caused by collision.

I did get a reduction after a year of ownership without incident, but having sailing lessons under my belt even further reduced the cost. Over time, this reduction will in itself pay for what I spent on the lessons.

Expand sailing opportunities

I spoke of this earlier, when asking “do I need sailing lessons?” you also have to consider future opportunities. Had things worked out with said girl, I would have likely not been able to just toss off the lines and sail the world. Not that she is opposed to sailing, just the idea of living on a boat for more than a short trip.

Perhaps you are in the same boat, so to speak. Or maybe you would like to sail the world, but can’t or don’t want to do it full time. By taking sailing lessons, you have a lot of opportunities. With the certifications, you can charter boats. Think about sailing around the Caribbean on a chartered sailboat with your significant other, instead of island hopping in puddle jumpers and paying for hotels. Sounds appealing, right?

If you read my blog post about planning to sail around the world, you know that there is also the opportunity to crew on sailboats. If you have a certification in sailing, you are much more likely to get hired then if you are “self-taught”.

Worst case scenario, your state or the federal government changes the laws on needing a license. Imagine how hard it will be, and likely how expensive it will be, to take sailing classes and get certified if it becomes a requirement for operating a boat.

Do I need sailing lessons

Learn new techniques/skills

I said it before and I’ll say it again; you don’t know what you don’t know, until you know. I thought I know how to sail when I entered the class, but I only knew the basics. Things like sail trim, effective handling, proper reefing, even proper maneuvering are much more expansive when you are not just reading the basic book.

I used to have to rely on my tell-tails to know if my sail was efficient. I’m so glad I don’t anymore. This summer I tore my genoa and had to put up the original jib that came with the boat. It has no tell-tails.  Good thing I took the class, I can tell by how the sail looks and how the boat is acting to see if it is set properly now.

I also learned better line handling and more effective ways of performing tacks and jibes solo sailing and without the assistance of autopilot. If you have watched my videos or have followed me for any time has been a recurring issue in my journey.

I can’t say enough about how much more you can learn from an experienced instructor then by reading it or watching YouTube videos and just winging it on your own. This alone is well worth putting the money into taking sailing lessons.

Where do I get sailing lessons?

Now that we discussed the reasons you should take sailing lessons, the next obvious question is, “where do I get them?” To answer that question, I can only tell you where I took my sailing lessons and what to look for when you look at the ten thousand schools a Google search will give you.

I took my classes at Reef Runner Sailing. They have classes out of both Panama City and Key Largo, Florida. I took the classes through Panama City, mostly because they are a bit cheaper than their Key Largo counterpart. Our instructor was Capt. Jeremy Elwell.

Do I Need Sailing Lessons

Weeks after booking classes, Panama City was hit by Hurricane Michael, which was a category 5 force storm. Reef Runner’s entire fleet of boats was wiped out, but that didn’t prevent them from rebuilding and having boats available to teach classes on.

I was met at the airport, given a quick tour of the town, and dropped off at the boat for the night. I signed up for the ASA 101,103, and 104 class combination. The instruction was outstanding and other then me picking the coldest week they had all winter, it was absolutely a blast. I highly recommend them if you are looking for sailing classes.

Disclaimer, this is not a sponsored or affiliate review. In fact I only contacted them and asked if I could reference my experience in my blog; they said yes. I expected to get a lot of question as to the content, but they do such a great job, apparently they don’t worry about it.

What to think about when selecting sailing schools

Do I need sailing lessons

Here is a list of what to look for when choosing a sailing class:

Are they ASA certified?

This should go without saying, but I would say if they are not, don’t bother spending your money there. ASA is the American Sailing Association and is basically the gold standard. Their certification is accepted worldwide.

Do they offer the class in the season you are looking at?

Living in Alaska, I needed a break from the winter anyway. I wanted to attend a winter class somewhere it would be warm. Unfortunately, Florida though I would miss Alaska too much that week. Many schools have timeframes they take breaks or don’t have classes for various reasons, so you will want to look at this.

Do they allow you to stay on the boat the whole class?

Most classes will only let you stay on the boat during the “at sea” parts of the class. Staying on the boat really cuts costs if you can do it for the whole class, especially if you are traveling. Additionally, this will give you a lot of experience as to what it’s like to live on a sailboat. You can find out what you like and don’t like, especially if you are still in the process of looking for a boat to buy. Reef Runner offers this for all of their longer courses.

Do they provide pick up and drop off service at the airport?

It’s a little thing, but nothing is nicer then getting picked up when you get somewhere. Not having to take a cab or share a ride helps reduce costs and really shows how invested the school is in taking care of you. Additionally, I was able to meet the instructor and lean about the local eateries before being dropped off.

What kind of reviews can you find about the school?

Take the time to read through the reviews, good and bad. Everyone has a few bad reviews and those trolls that just can’t be satisfied. Take note though if they all say the same thing, there might be something to that. *TIP* The best reviews to read are almost always the longest ones.

Are they willing to tailor the instruction to your experience level?

Again, if you are investing your money, they should be willing to work with you at your level. Don’t get me wrong, it will take a day or so for them to be sure you didn’t just read the book. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can work on certain skills if there is time in the class, good instructors will make the time. Also be cognitive that other students may be behind you in their skill level. Finally, accept there is often more than one way to do things. I still don’t back the boat the way I was taught, but all of my lines are now stowed how I was taught.

How responsive are they when answering your emails/calls?

Again, a little thing, but if your business is important to them, they will be on top of getting back to you in a reasonable amount of time. Let’s put it this way; Reef Runner Sailing was wiped out by a hurricane and still made sure to keep in touch and answer the questions and concerns I had. They found a way with limited power and internet. I would accept nothing short of that from a company that is fully functioning.

Wrapping it up

Do I need sailing lessons

In wrapping this all up, I understand that I managed to sail almost 1000 NM without knowing much beyond “don’t hit other boats”.  Would I recommend that as a plan for anyone else, NO! I probably should have listened to my sister-in-law and not gone, but don’t tell her I said that.

This article is all about the question “do I need sailing lessons?” Like I stated before, no it’s not a must have, but it is a should have. You will learn the right way to do thing, how to handle when things go bad, and be far ahead of the curve in learning by taking sailing lessons. It will also increase your confidence and make being out on the water more enjoyable.

Think of how much frustration you will save and how much more fun you will have if you know what you are doing. Think of how much more confident you and your guests will be. And think of the endless opportunities you will have when certified. If nothing else, think of all the money it will save you when that insurance bill shows up.

Hope this helps you out in deciding if you need sailing lessons. If you are interested in Reef Runner, click on the links provided in the texts and visit their website. Regardless of where you take sailing lessons, just do it so you can have a long happy life, living the dream that can only be had when the sails are up and the engine is off.

If you want to know anything more in depth, comment below and I will make sure to get back with you.

Happy Sails!

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