The Best Way to Learn to Sail

There are two Sailing Schemes provided by the RYA (Royal Yachting Association).  Both offer an entry point to sailing for beginners.  They're often referred to by several different names. 

  • National Sailing Scheme, or Dinghy Scheme, or Small Boat Scheme, or Keelboat Courses
  • Cruising Scheme, or Yachtmaster Scheme, or Competent Crew & Day Skipper Courses

Use the National Sailing Scheme to learn to sail.  Use the Cruising Scheme to learn all the other things to do with cruising on larger yachts.

Learn to sail on a small boat first
Expert sailors know the best way to learn to sail is on a small boat rather than a larger cruising yacht.  Like learning to drive a car it's much easier to learn the basics on something small.  That's what the National Sailing Scheme offers beginners.  You can choose to learn on a small dinghy,  multihull or keelboat.  However, many adult beginners find dinghy sailing a bit cramped & uncomfortable.  With a winning combination of manoeuvrability and stability, keelboats are the ideal choice for them. 

Keelboats are small yachts with a fixed keel. They provide a great hands-on feel for sailing like a dinghy but with several key advantages; keelboats are bigger with more room to move around; the rigging and control lines are similar to a cruising yacht and most importantly on Bay Sea School's yacht 'Lily' there's a weighted iron plate underneath the boat that stops it from capsizing.  This makes it a more stable and user-friendly boat for adult beginners.  You stay safely in the boat at all times so you wear normal clothes with waterproof trousers & jacket for splashes. Automatic inflation lifejackets are provided by the training centre.  For the adult beginner interested in yacht cruising, keelboat courses are a great way to start sailing.  And Bay Sea School is the only place in the north west teaching keelboat courses on the sea.  

Dinghies are small, light boats that will capsize and pitch you into the water if you're not quick enough to balance the boat during wind gusts.  It can then be a struggle to pull the boat back upright and haul yourself back into the dinghy without it capsizing again - not the most attractive option for a middle-aged beginner! Dinghies are much cheaper than keelboats.  Most sailing clubs offer dinghy courses for their members and the courses are generally taught by volunteer instructors within the Club.  Club dinghy sailing then tends to focus on racing.

RYA Keelboat Courses
Beginner Levels 1 & 2 cover all the basic skills you need to skipper & crew a small yacht yourself.  Each level is a non-residential 2-day course.  So that's two separate courses (4 days in total) to cover all the beginner topics.  At Bay Sea School we teach Level 1 & Level 2 at the same time.  If you've helmed a bit already but are still unsure about tacking & gybing, sailing efficiently on all points of sail, anchoring or reefing, our advice is to book a Level 2 course.  Most of the basic skills are introduced on Level 1 and then covered in more detail on Level 2.  The theory topics however are different.  Because of the additional skill required in sailing on the sea, people often choose to start from the beginning with Level 1 keelboat even though they already have some practical experience.  Just get in touch if you'd like to have a chat about this.  On the beginner level courses the instructor stays with you on the boat providing personalised tuition throughout your course.

Keelboat Level 1 Start Sailing
This is a short introduction to sailing for adult beginners.  By the end of the course you'll have a basic understanding of keelboat handling under sail, including practical techniques and background knowledge.  It's recommended that all participants consolidate this short introduction with Level 2 Basic Skills and then Level 3 Better Sailing.

Level 1 Syllabus includes: What to wear, inshore waters forecast, tide times, safety topics, parts of a boat, the sails & ropes, figure of 8, round turn & 2 half hitches, tying off to a cleat, rules of the road, using a winch, furling the jib, reaching, tacking, gybing, sail settings, the 5 essentials & man overboard under sail.

Keelboat Level 2 Basic Skills 
This moves on from the Level 1 Start Sailing introductory course.  Theory knowledge to Level 1 is assumed.  On completion of Level 2 you'll have a basic knowledge of sailing and be capable of sailing a small yacht in light winds as crew and helm with a skipper on board.

Level 2 Syllabus includes: clothing, calling for help, safety advice, how to read a synoptic chart, implications of weather forecast on sailing location, sailing in tides, neaps & springs, speed over the ground, sailing on transits, 5 essentials, tacking, gybing, all points of sail, how a sail works, how a sailing boat moves, man overboard, reefing the mainsail, sailing off/onto a mooring with & without tide, anchoring, bowline, clove hitch, reef knot, using a winch, engine checks, racing & the triangular course. 

Cruising Courses 
You live aboard the yacht sailing to different places every day to log about 100 miles during the 5 days.  Competent Crew & Day Skipper courses are taught at the same time on the yacht.  Every time you change direction on a sailing boat you need to adjust the sails.  It's very physical work on a large cruising yacht.  The crew soon become exhausted grinding the winches and filling & spilling the huge mainsail.  So opportunities to practise tacking & gybing are limited!  And depending on the wind direction, the boat might only change direction a few times during the day's passage to the next marina.  This doesn't provide enough practise at the sailing basics for beginners.  Cruising courses are not available on the North West coast.  We suggest you just choose a place you'd like to go cruising.  Perhaps somewhere warm or somewhere beautiful like Scotland?

RYA Competent Crew Course
This is a beginner level course that introduces you to yacht cruising and how to be a competent member of the crew.  The course lasts 5 days.  You experience many things about life aboard a larger yacht which of course includes sailing.  However, the course syllabus and objectives are very different to a beginner keelboat course. Many people expect a competent crew course to teach them how to sail.  It doesn't! That's not the specific focus of the RYA cruising scheme.

Keelboat Courses
In contrast to cruising, your time on the water is spent practising all the sailing basics like tacking, gybing & sail settings. The sails are smaller and more easily handled so you can repeat all the important techniques many times without tiring the crew. This is simply not practical on a larger cruising yacht!  It's also much easier to understand all the tasks when you're on a keelboat because everything is like a cruising yacht but on a smaller scale.  Keelboat courses are available on the northwest coast in Morecambe from April to September.  They run during the day and you don't stay on the boat overnight. 

"I've learnt more in 2 days of sailing with Bay Sea School than on all 10 days of my Competent Crew & Day Skipper courses" Dave 2017.

Best Advice
If you want to learn how to sail, start with Keelboat Levels 1 & 2, and level 3 if possible.  If you just want to be a useful member of the crew, a 5-day Competent Crew course will provide that experience & knowledge for you.  Many topics are obviously duplicated on the various RYA sailing courses (keelboat or cruising).  But the nub of the issue is, if you want to be skipper of a yacht you need to learn how to sail first.  And the best way to do that is using the Keelboat Beginner Courses - Levels 1 & 2. 

Keelboat Level 3 Better Sailing assumes you already have the sailing skills up to Basic Skills.  It's aim is to help you become a better sailor so there's no limit to the number of times you can book the course. We adapt the coaching to your individual needs so you can work on different skills each time you come until you're ready for the advanced level course called Seamanship Skills. If in doubt about whether Level 3 is right for you can book a Level 2 course first or just have a chat with us about your goals. There's plenty to learn every time you go sailing on the sea!


Day Skipper to Yachtmaster

Congratulations on your Day Skipper success! You might have used your new ICC qualification on a flotilla holiday or bare-boat charter in the Med. but if you want to charter or cruise your own yacht here in the UK you'll need to know more about navigation. Developing your sailing skills will also be a wise move since you'll be out there on your own much more. Knowing more about sailing in adverse weather conditions is an important part of becoming a Yachtmaster. Wouldn't it be great to spend the night tucked up in a secret anchorage away from the crowds? That's what these more advanced courses will teach you.

The following pathway is a guide to using the RYA courses to take your sailing skills beyond the basic level of a Day Skipper. Again the steps to Yachtmaster can be a bit confusing so we'll try and clarify things for you.

  • RYA 2-day Improver Keelboat Courses
    1. Level 3 - Better Sailing (a flexible course which can be repeated to suit your individual needs) 
    2. Seamanship Skills (advanced sailing course)
    3. Day Sailing (advanced course)


  • Own Boat Tuition - Sailing Tips & Personalised Coaching 
    What would you like to get better at? Berthing? Sail trim? Keeping the crew happy? Book John, our friendly award-winning Yachtmaster Instructor & Examiner for some private tuition on your own boat. The RYA courses can't cover everything there is to know about sailing and some tailor-made tuition can be very helpful.


  • Become a Yachtmaster
    1. Coastal Skipper / Yachtmaster Offshore - Navigation course focusing on sailing longer passages.
    2. Coastal Skipper practical course - 5-days on a cruising yacht - course completion certificate awarded
    3. Yachtmaster Coastal Exam - 6 to 10 hour practical exam
    4. Yachtmaster Offshore Exam - 8 to 12 hour practical exam
    5. Yachtmaster Ocean - Celestial navigation course 
    6. Yachtmaster Ocean Exam - 600 mile passage navigating using a sextant plus oral exam afterwards


  • 1-day Supporting Courses
    1. First Aid - for all boaters (needs updating every 3 years)
    2. Diesel Engine Maintenance - beginners introduction to looking after a boat's engine
    3. Radar - use it for navigation too
    4. VHF Radio - international operators licence 

Check our website for available courses. John is a Yachtmaster Instructor in all the cruising courses but works for other training centres. The cruising courses ie Competent Crew, Day Skipper practical, Coastal Skipper practical and Yachtmaster exams are not available in Morecambe Bay or the North West coast.

Beginner to Day Skipper Level

There are many ways to enjoy sailing.  In this country if you just sail your own boat you don't need any formal qualifications.  But if you want to charter a yacht on the sea most companies in U.K. require a minimum level of Coastal Skipper PRACTICAL course completion certificate. 

In the Mediterranean all you need is an ICC (International Certificate of Competence).  The easiest way to get an ICC is to successfully complete a 5-day Day Skipper practical course.  But before you can do that there are three separate skill sets to master.  The following provides a good pathway to Day Skipper & ICC using the various RYA courses available.

Skill 1 - Learn to Sail on 2-day RYA Courses

  • Level 1 - Start Sailing - beginners
  • Level 2 - Basic Skills - improvers
  • Level 3 - Better Sailing - improvers

Skill 2 - Learn to Navigate

  • Essential Navigation & Seamanship for beginners - short online introduction
  • Day Skipper THEORY - a 40-hour course (mostly taught during winter) - more comprehensive course for beginners
  • VHF Radio operators licence - online or 1-day course - an international legal requirement

Skill 3 - Learn to Cruise (5-day courses living aboard a larger yacht)

  • Competent Crew - introduction to cruising for beginners
  • Day Skipper PRACTICAL - combine sailing & navigation skills learning to skipper a larger cruising yacht
  • Apply for your ICC (International Certificate of Competence)

You can start learning all three skills straight away on the beginner level of each one.  Then after learning to sail and completing the Day Skipper theory course you combine these two skill sets on a 5-day, Day Skipper practical course on a larger cruising yacht. This is where you learn to be a skipper, taking responsibility for the boat & crew and planning short passages. 

After gaining a Day Skipper Practical course completion certificate, you apply to the RYA for an International Certificate of Competence (ICC).  A few flotilla companies still allow you to charter with no qualifications, very little experience or a crash course. But we don't recommend it.  You're more likely to keep your family & crew happy if you've some idea how to keep them safe at sea!  

None of the courses (apart from VHF radio) are compulsory.  They just cover all the things you should know to successfully complete a day skipper practical course.  Do bear in mind that a Day Skipper practical course completion certificate is just the start of learning to be a safe skipper.  There's a lot more to learn particularly if you're sailing in tidal waters like here in U.K.  The Coastal/Yachtmaster theory course is a must if you you want to cruise over night on longer passages in tidal waters. 

Further Information

Learning to Sail
The RYA dinghy & keelboat courses are the best way to learn to sail.  These courses are designed specifically to teach you all the basic sailing skills.  Levels 1 & 2 are for beginners & improvers.  Level 3 is for improvers.  It's a flexible course which you can use as many times as you like to gain more experience & develop different aspects of your sailing.

Learning to Navigate
The theory courses are covered in the classroom or online.  Essential Navigation & Seamanship is a popular introduction to navigation which works really well as a short online course.  It goes well with the beginner keelboat levels 1 & 2.  Day Skipper theory is a much more comprehensive course involving 40 hours of tuition.  We recommend the 'live teaching' version of this theory course to our clients because nationally the completion rate is very low for the self-study distance learning versions of the Day Skipper theory course.  Generally we teach one course before Christmas and another in the New Year.  We have been teaching this very successfully via zoom through Covid and hope to continue this option.

Putting it all together on a Day Skipper Practical Course
The cruising courses are all 5-days (or three weekends) living aboard a larger cruising yacht.  If you have no experience on a cruising yacht, we recommend a Competent Crew course as a gentle introduction.  As crew for the day skipper students you'll gain valuable experience of life aboard without the added pressure of taking charge of the yacht as skipper!  

VHF radio 
It's the best way to stay in touch out at sea. Legally you need to be qualified to use a marine band VHF radio, or be under the guidance of a qualified operator.  You're probably going to need your operators licence at some point.  Some charter companies now require this qualification so check the small print!  You can do this course at any stage but around the pre-day skipper stage may fit well with the pathway.  It's available online or as a 1-day classroom course.

How long does it take?
If you start learning to sail this summer you could be booking your first yacht charter next summer!  Start with Keelboat Levels 1 & 2.  Then if there's time, move straight on with Level 3 or do a Competent Crew course on a larger yacht.  You can do the online Essential Navigation & Seamanship course right now before the winter Day Skipper theory course.  

The following spring/summer a refresher sailing course would be a good idea. That could be a Level 2 or 3 keelboat course or a Competent Crew course.  By then you should be ready for your 5-day, Day Skipper practical course.  If you need more sailing practice, use Keelboat Level 3 again or look for 'mile-builders' on cruising yachts. 

In summary: 

  • Skill 1 - Learn to SAIL
    RYA 2-day Keelboat Courses:
    1. Keelboat Level 1 - Start Sailing Certificate
    2. Keelboat Level 2 - Basic Skills Certificate
    3. Keelboat Level 3 - Better Sailing Certificate


  • Skill 2 - Learn to NAVIGATE
    RYA Theory Courses:
    1. Essential Navigation & Seamanship - optional introductory online course for beginners 
    2. Day Skipper Theory - 40 hours tuition, classroom course recommended
    3. VHF Radio - international requirement, licence valid for life


  • Combine Sailing & Navigating Skills
    1. RYA Competent Crew - an optional extra 
    2. RYA Day Skipper Practical Course - 5 days learning to skipper a larger cruising yacht 


The ICC is free if you're a member of the RYA. Ask us about how to join.

Remember, this is just the first stage to becoming a good skipper.  If you're sailing in the tidal seas around the UK you need to take your skills a stage further.  Read more about how to Become a Yachtmaster here.




Keelboat 10

Improver 2

2-day RYA Improver Sailing Courses

Girl sailing a yacht close to the wind

Develop your sailing with these more advanced RYA yacht sailing courses on the sea

So you've got your Level 1 & 2 certificates and you're hooked on sailing. Now, what's next?

The RYA provide 3 more options for you. As a first step we would recommend the Level 3 Better Sailing course. For more details see below.

Other options are Seamanship Skills and Day Sailing.