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Sailing Syllabus and Courses

Go To: Sailing - Learn To Sail

Posted on 02 February 2010 18:06

Here at Caution Water we've got various articles on sailing - but up until now we've not presented them in any kind of structured format. The RYA has a very clearly defined structure of how to learn to sail, and how each skill fits into your progression through the learning process. We don't have articles for everything, but the missing ones will be following along shortly if required.

Therefore, we've decided to present our material in the same layout as the RYA programme (known as the RYA National Sailing Scheme), so if you are currently on a particular course, or are considering starting one, you can tie the material in more closely and easily to what you are doing on the water. As always, we must iterate that this is not a replacement for going on a course or receiving proper tuition, and should only be used as reference or backup material to accompany a course.

Level 1 / 2

This is the most basic course the RYA offer, Level 1 and 2 is all about initially learning to sail, and then practising until you are confident in mild wind conditions, generally no stronger than Force 2 to Force 4 wind speeds. The official course titles are Level 1 - Start Sailing and Level 2 - Basic Skills. Level 1 is all about initially learning to sail, and Level 2 is about practising and perfecting those skills, and you will generally find the two courses rolled into one. The general layout of a Level 1 and 2 course is as follows:

1. Clothing - What Should I Wear. This covers not only suitable clothing for the activity, such as waterproofs, but also shoes and protective equipment such as life jackets or buoyancy aids. Read our article on Suitable Clothing for Sailing.

2. Rig and Launch - Boat Anatomy. It'll be helpful when you learn to sail if you know what a dinghy looks like, and we can help you out with the names of the parts of them too. Get a head start by Learning your boat anatomy.

3. Joyride - You'll be taken for what's known as a joyride right at the start of the course, where usually an instructor will take you out in a boat and give you a taste of whats to come. You'll sometimes get your first go at sailing, depending on instructor and conditions. There's not much more we can say about this one!

4. Going About / Tacking - this ones' very important, particularly if you sail on a small lake, you learn how to turn the boat, as you can't sail in a straight line forever. Read the Basics of tacking.

5. Sailing Upwind - you can't sail straight head on into the wind, so how do you make your way upwind? Sailing would be a bit pointless if you could only sail downwind (plus how would you get home later?) Find out how to get upwind - our article is coming soon.

6. Five Essentials - Ask a student what the five essentials of sailing are, and there's a fair chance you'll get the sarcastic answer, boat, wind, water etc. The real five essentials of sailing are certain things to pay special attention to, so you can sail in the most efficient maner. They are centreboard, sail trim, boat trim, boat balance and course made good - read some more on the five essentials here.

7. Sailing Downwind - Sailing downwind isn't just as simple as turning the boat away from the wind and letting it go! Find out all about sailing downwind, and how direct downwind may not be the most efficient course. Our article is coming soon.

8. Gybing - Gybing is another way to turn the boat to head in a different direction - find out more about gybing.

9. Triangular Course - This is the point at which you realise you can actually sail - if you can sail around a triangular course, in good control of the boat, you're well on your way to being able to call yourself a sailor. A triangular course will usually include an upwind leg, an across wind (reaching) leg, and a downwind leg, and also a tack and a gybe - all of the main items you'll have learnt in the previous sessions.

10. Further Sessions - depending on the course, sailing conditions and time available, this could include things such as Man Overboard, Coming Alongside, Anchoringe, or Reefing. It depends very much on the course, and how well you have mastered the other material, as most of these are covered in the seamanship skills course (see further down).

11. Capsize - At some point when sailing (unless you are sailing a yacht and a REALLY unfortunate), you will capsize. It's not an if, but a when, particularly if you head towards racing or higher performance dinghies. It's important you know how to get that boat back up, and get back into it. There are varying techniques depending on the type of boat, your size, and how unfortunate you are (falling out of the boat instead of climbing on top of it, but we cover the basics in our article on capsizing.

12. Bowline - one of the staple knots, find out how to tie a bowline.

13. Round Turn and Two Half Hitches - essential for many things, including tying up your boat while you go for lunch - how to tie a round turn and two half hitches.

14. Figure 8 - an essential knot for stopping ropes disappearing through holes or cleats you don't want them to go through - how to tie a figure 8 knot.

15. Stopper Knot - Similar to the figure 8 knot, but easier to make bigger when needed - how to tie a stopper knot.

16. Clove Hitch - useful for tying up something that is moving, as it resists sideways movement - how to tie a clove hitch.

17. Other items covered in Level 1 / 2 - As part of level 1 and 2, you'll usually cover other useful items, such as how to land a dinghy in varying conditions, and before that, how to launch a dinghy in different conditions, and at different locations. This will usually be elaborated on on a seamanship skills course, and there is even more to learn if you go coastal, when tides come into play.

Please note that these are not the only items you will cover on a Level 1/2 course, and you may not cover them in the order outlined above, or in the detail we have in some of our articles - these are just indicative of the general syllabus of the course, taken from the RYA Start Sailing Beginners Handbook.

Seamanship Skills

Once you have passed your Level 2, and practised your sailing ability for a while, you way want to carry on your learning. Part of the advanced syllabus, seamanship skills concerns boat handling skills, in all conditions, and sailing in a seamanship like manner. It should ultimately end up in you being confident in stronger conditions, possibly including coastal and tidal areas (if you do a coastal seamanship skills course), and generally a better sailor. It's a good idea to go on this course before progressing to other modules in the advanced syllabus, as much of the seamanship skills syllabus is picked up on or generally important in other modules, such as Day Sailing or Performance Sailing.

1. Reefing Afloat - if it gets breezier while you're out there, and the wind is more than you are comfortable with or capable of dealing with, then you need to be able to reef afloat. Start by heaving to, and then reef your sail. Once you've done that, you're ready to Reef Afloat.

2. Man Overboard - it's not common, but entirely possible for someone to fall out of the boat you are in - it could be the helm or the crew. Learn how to get hold of the boat and rescue your escapee using the man overboard technique.

3. Mooring - picking up a mooring, coming alongside and man overboard all use fairly similar techniques. Our article is coming soon.

4. Leeward Shore and Landing - you'll usually pick up more on launching and landing in seamanship skills, including tidal scenarios.

5. Sailing Backwards - Why would sailing backwards be important? It's a handy skill to use when moving away from a jetty or an object you have moored to, or sometimes when anchoring. It's pretty easy to do - learn how to sail backwards..

6. Rudderless Sailing - Sailing without a rudder? That's impossible! Actually it's not - it's actually pretty easy when you master it, and is all about using boat balance (heeling the boat side to side) and different sail settings (the balance between the main and the jib). It's important to know how to do this in case you lose your rudder (possible during a capsize), it becomes damaged, or if you want to become an instructor, it's an optional part of the pre-entry test for the assistant or dinghy instructor qualification. We have a couple of articles, Rudderless Sailing Pt 1 and Rudderless Sailing Pt 2.

7. Towing - Sometimes things don't always go to plan - you may need rescuing, or you may need to rescue someone else. This may involve towing or being towed - it's important you know how to tow a boat, and how to be towed, as there are several different ways, and different things to remember for each one. See some of the techniques used in towing.

8. Centreboardless Sailing - Just like with rudderless sailing, things can break, centreboards can jam, so it's good to know how to sail without one. This is easier than rudderless - find out how to sail without a centreboard.

9. Anchoring - not particularly useful if you're racing, but if you're going to move onto courses like day sailing, anchoring is an essential technique. Learn how to Anchor a Dinghy.

Other Courses

Start Racing

There are three parts to the RYA racing syllabus - start racing, intermediate racing, and advanced racing. Only the start racing is a commonly found course in centres across the country, you tend to find the Intermediate and Advanced courses run at the club level, or by the regional RYA staff. We have some racing content up already, with more to come - we'll fit it into the Start Racing syllabus soon.

Sailing with Spinnakers

The sailing with spinnakers is a bit different in that you can get it twice - as it can be run on symmetric or asymmetric spinnakers, and there are significantly different techniques for each. We've got a series of articles on spinnakers, which covers most of the detail of the syllabus.

Day Sailing

If you want to buy a bigger dinghy or a small keel boat, and wile away the days cruising up and down the rivers, estuaries and coastal areas of the country, the Day Sailing course is ideal. We don't have any content up to support this course yet - if we get requests for it we'll see what we can do.

Performance Sailing

Performance sailing has probably the smallest syllabus of all the courses - as it relies of experience and practise above all else. It's all centred around improving your technique in bigger, faster boats, particularly higher performance dinghies such as the faster Laser or many of the RS dinghies available. There's also some backup material on metereology, but otherwise it makes it pretty hard for us to write articles on it!

Multi-Hull Sailing

If you're interested in sailing catamarans, then it's best to learn to sail in dinghies first - the techniques and method for sailing is identical, there are just subtle differences here and there. If you can sail a dinghy, you shouldn't have trouble transferring to cats (other than getting over the speed increase). We'll be coming up with some articles on cat sailing soon, just as soon as we get time! There are no specific courses for sailing catamarans, but some of the sailing courses discussed above also have catamaran endorsements.

Keelboat Sailing

Again, this is similar to multi-hull sailing. Sailing a keel boat uses the same techniques as dinghies, although you'll commonly find wheels instead of tillers, and winches instead of ropes to pull in (unless you sail a Laser SB3 where everything is the same just with bigger pulley blocks). If you can sail a dinghy - you should be able to transfer to a keel boat without difficulty - just remember to keep out of shallow water! Again, similar to multi-hull sailing, some of the courses above have keel boat endorsments also.


So by now you should have a pretty good understanding of what each of the RYA sailing courses entail. This is not all of the courses - after these come instructor courses if you are interested, or for bigger boats there are Day Skipper and Yacht Master courses, and let's not forget power boat courses too.

For more information on the above courses, or to find RYA training centres which may provide these courses, head to either google and search for sailing courses, or check out the RYA website.

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