How to Learn to Sail Dinghies in the United States

Posted on December 7, 2015 by Richard Shrubb under Dinghy Sailing, Sailing Courses Comments Off on How to Learn to Sail Dinghies in the United States


If you want to learn to sail a yacht in the USA it is fairly easy. There are a large number of yachting courses that are approved by authorities ranging from the American Sailing Association (ASA) via the US Coastguard to state approved boating safety courses.

Through The Boating Hub we have focused almost exclusively on the ASA as it replicates similar sailing courses in other countries, such as the Royal Yachting Association in the UK and Sail Canada’s sailing programmes.

Where you need a few bucks in your pocket to go yachting, you need a far thinner billfold to start dinghy sailing. Many people get more out of a kick out of dinghy sailing than they do from yachting – cruising on a yacht isn’t unlike sitting on a bus for the dinghy sailor when they’re used to driving a sports car!

This piece will try shine a light on the rather opaque and complex systems that teach you how to sail dinghies in the USA. Let’s start with the ASA and then dig deeper.

ASA Dinghy Courses

The American Sailing Association offers the ASA110 Small Boat Sailing Course. Essentially this teaches you how to launch, sail and recover a small boat.  The course summary states that the sailor will be, “Able to skipper a non-ballasted centerboard/daggerboard monohull or multihull sailboat of approximately 8 to 20 feet in length by day in light to moderate winds (up to 15 knots) and sea conditions.”

After that apparently, you’re on your own. Sailing yachts is about navigation and seamanship, and even on the most extreme oceanic yachts you will never have to handle an asymmetric spinnaker from a trapeze! This is where the ASA system has a problem in that it doesn’t develop the dinghy sailor.

Dinghy Courses with US Sailing

US Sailing manages the Team USA Olympic sailing team and helps develop sailors to elite level in the country. Team USA isn’t a team to be feared on the world stage, unlike Team Australia, Team New Zealand or Team GB, and looking at the way dinghy sailing is taught across the States, you start to see a reason this might be the case.

US Sailing has no specific course syllabus for dinghy sailing. It only has a teaching course for instructors, and the instructors will develop their students in different ways according to the demands of their club or state legislation requires.

The Northwest Youth Sailing website shows how disorganised dinghy sailing is even in Oregon and Washington.  It suggests that in the two states, “There are about fifty different organizations that teach small boat sailing classes in Washington and Oregon. Sailing classes are taught by a variety of different organizations. Some are entirely volunteer based, while others employ year-round professional staff. Historically yacht clubs were the hub of youth sailing activities. That’s shifting however with community based sailing programs now being offered through parks and rec departments, local independent sailing centers, or as extensions of larger non-profits.”

You could be taught in 20 different ways according to what the sailing club or community based sailing programme wishes to teach! If you want to instruct however, US Sailing do run pretty thorough instructors courses that can be seen here.

One cannot doubt that the instructors come away with some advanced skills and what they can teach is up there among the best in the world. The main problem is that there is no national syllabus to get the kid who wants to develop from a good sailor to one who can compete at a regional or national level, unless of course he or she goes to the right university!

The UK and Australia in comparison

In Rio 2016 it is quite likely we will see Team Australia go home with a fist full of medals and Team GB get at least a couple. These countries have dedicated and structured dinghy sail training programmes. Have a look at the RYA beginner, intermediate and expert level programmes.

Even with an Advanced Racing certificate you could have your butt kicked on the water by someone with a lot more experience and lower qualifications than you. This emphatically doesn’t make you a Jimmy Spithill or a Ben Ainslie. However it will guide you in the right direction, learning to trim your sails, and handle a fast boat in challenging conditions, and with a little investment over the years could get you up there among the big boys on the water.

The US has no such centrally developed and organised sailing certification system. Could a better developed sail training scheme change things? Could a centralised dinghy sail training scheme ultimately make Team US Sperry Topsider a force to be reckoned with on the world stage?

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