Sailing course holidays guide

Halyards, helms, hitches, fo’c’sles, fenders, fathoms, bulwarks, bilges, burgees: sometimes sailing can feel like a whole new language. But don’t be daunted. The best way to learn the ropes is to get in a boat on a sailing course. You don’t need to learn many complicated terms to start feeling more comfortable on board.
Sailors don’t actually know that many knots, just a few really good ones. By the end of your first sailing skills course see if you can pass the ultimate test: tying a bowline one-handed behind your back.
A sailing course is a refreshingly different holiday. You don’t need any prior experience, and it’s a great way to pick up a new skill in a week. You’ll have fun with a new group of people, and learn a sport that’s both kind to the environment and close to the elements. If you’ve sailed before then it might only take a week’s course to earn a Day Skipper licence – great if you want to charter your own floating home. If you’re a Day Skipper or above, book a longer passage-making course to take your captain game from average to ‘Ahab’.

What does a sailing course
holiday entail?

Tall ships or fibreglass fleets

Sailing courses tend to take place on modern liveaboard boats. These are usually fibreglass, and are difficult to capsize, damage or otherwise make mischief with. You’ll stay on board in a small group, under a qualified captain – and your boat might be part of a flotilla, or on its own. Alternatively, you could learn to sail on a tall ship. Tall ships are tall-masted boats, often traditionally rigged with square sails. Many are sail training vessels, which means their purpose is to teach seamanship. They are challenging vessels to sail – often very old, with old-fashioned technology on board, and they need a lot of crew. There’s nothing that shows teamwork quite like climbing a 20m mast en masse to furl away a sail.

Where will you learn?

First of all, there are no classrooms necessary to start your sailing education – let the sea be your school, the ship your textbook. The best places for sailing courses are on coastal waters, rather than inland waterways. Sea sailing, especially in tidal waters, is the most useful skill to learn – the equivalent of learning to drive manual, rather than just automatic. If you’re more experienced you’ll be after ‘blue water’ sailing – offshore, ocean sailing, which gives even more valuable experience.

What will you learn?

Learning to sail can be as technical you want it to be. You could learn about the physics behind the sport (sails work a little bit like aeroplane wings), the science behind the weather, and the calculations needed to interpret a sextant. Or you could delve into practical skills, like putting a reef in a sail, coiling a rope, or helming (steering) a boat. Once you’ve learnt the basics, sailing becomes about getting nautical miles under your belt. Sailing courses are a great way to log a few hundred more NM, and the more you have, the more qualified you can become. As you progress you’ll also need to get experience of keeping watch on night passages.

What do I need to bring?

It depends where you’re sailing, but a relaxed sailing course in the Med doesn’t require much more than some deck shoes, summer clothes, sun protection, a swimming costume and a reusable water bottle. If you’re doing a more intensive course, you still won’t have to shell out for expensive waterproofs. Most boats provide foul-weather kit on board and lifejackets, so you just need warm layers, hat, gloves, and maybe a mid-weight jacket for light showers and wind. If this isn’t your first course, don’t forget to bring your logbook to record your trip. Sailing apps like nebo can also help you track your voyages.

Our top trip

Tall ship sailing holiday in Northern Spain

Tall ship sailing holiday in Northern Spain

Adventure sailing in Spain on a historic ship

From €740 to €980 6 days ex flights
Small group travel:
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Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Sailing course or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Types of sailing courses

Start Yachting

You don’t need to have ever previously graced a gangplank to take a sailing course. Start Yachting courses are generally open to anyone, whether they’ve boarded a boat in their life before or not. On these introductions you’ll sail with qualified skipper and a small group of around five others. You’ll soon realise that even when you’re not at the helm, there’s always hundreds of little jobs to do on board, from working the winches, to plotting the route and dropping the anchor. At the end of one of these courses you could get a Start Yachting certificate from the RYA (Royal Yachting Association), which allows you to complete your Competent Crew certificate in a shorter period of time. You’ll need to be at least 12 years old to get a Start Yachting qualification.

Competent Crew

You’ll need to be at least 12 years old to gain your Competent Crew certificate from the RYA, and it covers all sorts of aspects of sailing – watches and weather, knots, trimming sails, steering the boat and the important ‘rules of the road’. Generally you need to be sailing for five days minimum to get this certificate. Courses take place on a liveaboard vessel with other trainees and a qualified skipper. At the end of the course, hopefully you’ll stop being just ballast, and instead graduate as a proper crew member. Learning how to be a competent crew is just as fun as learning how to be skipper. Do it on any vessel – tall ship or small boat.

Day Skipper

In order to be able to charter a boat for a flotilla holiday or for bareboating you’ll need a Day Skipper qualification from the RYA. Day Skipper allows you to sail your own boat during daylight hours. You should be able to complete the practical elements of the course in a week, but you’ll need to do a little bit of homework. There’s a theory exam which you do online to accompany your practical sailing test. It’s best to do this before you go away for your course so that when you pass the practical, you’re immediately ready to sail for yourself. To qualify for your Day Skipper, you will need to have sailed approximately five days, and 100 NM, including four hours of night sailing. You will need to be at least 16 years of age. Once you get your RYA Day Skipper you can convert it into an ICC (International Certificate of Competence) which is recognised in most countries.

Passage Making

Once you’ve done your Day Skipper, oceans start opening up to you. To advance your skills further, book onto a Passage Making course – at this point you may also want to acquire some sort of jaunty nautical hat. These longer courses often run in the challenging waters around the British Isles (great if you’re UK-based and want to cut your aeroplane flights this year) or the Bay of Biscay. You’ll encounter heavy weather, lots of traffic and strong tides. You name it, the sea will throw it at you, and you’ll see your sailing coming along in leaps, bounds and boat lengths.

Best time to go on a sailing course

There’s no shame in being a fair-weather sailor. Summer is the most popular time to do a sailing course in Europe. Most sailing courses run in the summer and continue through to October, although you could steal a march (no pun intended) on the season and book onto a spring course. That way, you can sail all summer, too, using your new-found skills. The Cyclades Islands can get very high winds in high summer and by autumn, storms start to steal across the Bay of Biscay and the Bora (a strong, dry wind) is more frequent in Croatia, but then again, autumn is a surprisingly lovely time to cruise in Scotland and Norway.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Michael Henry] [Tall Ships or fibreglass fleets: Tanner Mardis] [Start Yachting: pxhere] [Best time to go: pxhere]