Pink sunset off the port side of a sailboat on the Atlantic coast of the United States

How to Learn to Sail for Free (10 free ways plus a few low cost)

If you’re wondering how to learn to sail for free, these are a few of the most effective ways to learn to sail without expensive courses and some information about those courses if you need them.

Can I learn to sail for free? Yes! How to learn to sail for free…

You might be wondering how to learn to sail for free. It was a question that came up for us as we assessed our options for learning how to sail without being able to cover the higher cost courses. So, is it possible to learn to sail for free? In our experience, the answer is yes! While there are many ways to improve your skills with no cost (or very low cost), here are a few of the most effective ways to learn to sail without expensive courses. Then we’ll cover some that do have a cost associated if you still feel you need more guidance.

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Sailing in the Fall
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Swart

How can I learn to sail for free?

There are several options for learning to sail for free. Some of these options will help prepare you and give you the necessary skills in advance of actually getting on a boat.

These can be particularly helpful off season or while you arrange hands on experience. Even hands on experience is possible for free. But, if these options aren’t available to you, you can consider the low to moderate cost options discussed at the end.

Online Courses

Because the internet can teach anything…right? I mean most of us wouldn’t think of learning to hunt or play tennis using a website (or at least I certainly wouldn’t). You have to get out there to learn.

Just like with these other sports, though, you can prepare yourself for the hands on aspect by learning some of the “rules.” When considering how to learn to sail for free, don’t rule out these basic tools. It might not teach everything you need to know, but it’s a good way to get started for free. While this might involve actual rules and regulations, it can also apply to the way you do things. 

Steering, the names of parts of the boat, how to raise the sails, and even how to turn are all things that you can start to prepare for before you even get out on the water, and online courses are a wonderful and readily available way to do this free. While there are probably many available, and even more forums to learn from other sailors, two of the best known courses are NauticEd and the free ASA course.

Pink sunset off the port side of a sailboat on the Atlantic coast of the United States
Photo courtesy of Kristin Tardily

1. NauticEd

NauticEd offers two different courses, along with a few other free printables, to help you prepare for learning to sail. These cover some basic topics on a surface level but can help you get a feel for if NatuicEd is a good fit for you.

1. ASA

The American Sailing Association also offers a free course. Like the other online course, this is not particularly in-depth. It is offered by one of the most well known sailing schools in the US though. Covering the basics of how sailboats work, the terminology of sailing, and some basic knowledge of commands used on a boat, this can be particularly helpful if you’re planning to sail on someone else’s boat as a crew member.

Sailing Simulators

3. Sailaway

This game is available directly from the company on Windows and Mac OS, as well as through the Steam. At $40 it’s not free, but it’s also not expensive and gives a unique perspective on sailing that puts the results more in your hands than just watching someone else sail. It’s also a lot safer if you happen to make a mistake! While you certainly can’t jump straight from this to a 35’ yacht, it can be a fun and interesting way to add to your skillset.

4. ASA’s Sailing Challenge (learn to sail app)

This app is a lot simpler than Sailaway, but it’s an interesting addition to your tools if you’re wanting to learn how to sail for free. At $4 through the Apple App Store it’s nearly free. This is a simple app but it teaches a lot about the points of wind, what happens if you attempt something in a given wind situation (ie is it going to go well, turn the boat in the direction you wanted, etc).

It also covers some basics like Rules of the Road, sail trim, and how to dock the boat. Again, it’s not hands on practice, but it does give you an opportunity to try things and make mistakes without consequences.

“Book” Knowledge

Sailboat against blue and peach sky
Photo of S/V Wild Iris on Chesapeake Bay

5. Great Books About Sailing

These are relatively low cost options and are readily available used. You can probably request them through your local library if you don’t want to spend money.

Sailing Made Easy by The American Sailing Association (ASA) – This one is a quick easy read. It’s not overly detailed but it shows some basics and covers things like safety and boat terminology. If you’ve taken the free courses this will probably be a good refresher and add another level on top of what you’ve already learned.

Fast Track to Sailing: Learning to Sail in Three Days by Steve and Doris Colgate – This book is also pretty short and easy to understand. The thing I liked about this particular choice is that it literally sets you up to sail in 3 days, with the book following a timeline for which tasks to complete and skills to learn on day 1, day 2, and day 3. This assumes you’re going to be sailing a small single handed boat, so it’s perfect for learning on your own.

Sailing for Dummies by JJ Fetter and Peter Isler (with Mary Isler) – If you’re a fun of the “for dummies” books, then you’ll know what to expect with this one. It’s a little harder to follow than the first two just because it’s a tiny bit more text heavy than the others. That said it goes into a LOT more detail and there are many available used on various sites. I love the reminder features and safety warnings in this particular book. 

Complete Sailing Manual (from DK Manuals) by Steve Sleight – This is my personal top choice for a beginner sailing book. It’s only $18 for a hardcopy at the time of writing this and it’s a significant book! With lots of color pictures and graphics (in typical DK fashion) this provides a ton of information packed into a quality little book (well, if you can call 400+ pages “little”). It even covers basic navigation, boat care, and causes of weather and how they might affect land (and thus you when you’re out in it).

Bright orange sunset over the water.
Photo courtesy of Kristin Tarditi

YouTube (sailing videos online)

6. Carpe Diem Sailing

Carpe Diem Sailing has everything from single handed sailing tips to discussion of safety gear. They even have a few awesome series on navigation (map reading for boats) and understanding lights and rules of the road (which boat has right of way). Honestly one of the more understandable set of video courses I’ve seen, they really show things in a hands on way.

7. Offshore Sailiing School

Offshore Sailing School has a series of videos that are a basic learn to sail course, along with a couple hundred other videos going back a decade. They discuss sailing in certain waters and give more in-depth tips for certain tasks. I’d say these videos are helpful even once you’ve gained more experience.

Hands on Experience (get out on the water)

After you’ve learned all you can from books, videos, games, and online courses, it’s time to actually get out on the water. As much as it’s possible to learn a lot of technical things from these sources, and have some idea of what to do in the moment, you actually have to actually do it physically to truly learn. More importantly, you want to practice as often as you can while learning. I mean, you didn’t just do the book work for learning to drive and call it a day, right? So what are the options for getting out there and gaining hands on experience?

Sailboat anchored in front of pink and blue sunset.
Photo courtesy of Dana Guide

8. Getting Yourself on a Boat

This could be as simple as riding along with a friend. Even if you aren’t doing any of the tasks yourself you get the option to see first hand how things are done. They might even ask you to hand them something or complete some small task (Yay for vocab practice). 

Don’t have that awesome friend? Surrounded by land lubbers? Go hang out at the marina…literally! I’ve known people who just hung out and were offered rides on other people’s boats, which brings us to the next option;

9. Crew on a Boat

No, you don’t actually have to have knowledge to crew on other people’s boats! In fact, this seems to be the most common suggestion thrown out in forums. General consensus is that if you’re willing to show up on time, dress appropriately, and do what you’re told when you’re told it’s pretty easy to find crew opportunities. 

Lucky for you, you’ve already read the books and taken the free courses, so you know exactly what they’re talking about when they tell you to “Let out the sails.”

While hanging around the marina is also a way to find opportunities to crew on a boat, there are others. Join a yacht club, look for notices posted on marina or sailing club bulletin boards, offer yourself for local sailing races. While some might want more experience, you never know who might let you sign on. You probably won’t be doing anything advanced at first, but any experience is still…well, experience. Am I right?

A great example of the types of programs you can find at yacht clubs is one found at Kelowna Yacht Club. They have races, including one that has an instructional component for newer female racers, youth sailing camps, safety training, and even adult sailing programs. While some of these programs are not free, they are typically cheaper than other sailing lessons, ranging from $100-300 in the case of Kelowna Yacht Club.

Two sailboats racing in a regatta.
Photo courtesy of Kerri Hardisty. Women’s sailing Spring program at Kelowna Yacht Club that ends with a regatta in July.

Don’t forget sites like Find a Crew, Crew Seekers, and Crew Bay, which all let you sign up and look for yachts requiring the help of crew members and offer your services!

10. Borrow (or Buy) a Sailing Dinghy

My personal favorite free option, borrow a sailing dinghy. These small sailboats, typically 16 foot or under, offer you a chance to learn the way most lifelong sailors did when they were kids. This method involves going out on the water in the little boat, dumping yourself in the water, rinse and repeat until you can manage to sail it without ending up in the water.

If you’re REALLY lucky and scour Facebook Marketplace or your local classifieds you might even find someone begging you to just get one out of their yard. If you’re going for a free dinghy, do yourself a favor a read up on surveying boats or be prepared to do some repairs on that little darling. There’s a post about buying a boat on a budget here!

Small older sailboat on a trailer, our chosen method of figuring out how to learn to sail for free
Our Rebel 16 sailing dinghy the day we brought it home.

If you have a few bucks put aside that you’re willing to invest (especially considering all the money you saved on the learning curve), you have another option. I did the scouring on Marketplace and in the classifieds and found one that was ready for the water for only $200. It came with a trailer and was small enough to be pulled by our minivan! Not a bad investment for something that can be used for years.

With any of these “dinghy” option (cue old joke about old sailors who don’t die they just get a little dinghy), you’ll almost certainly want to upscale at some point. I mean, maybe not, maybe getting out on the little lake near your house is the ultimate goal…and then you’re all set. If, however, you’re hoping to travel or spend longer periods on your boat, then you’ll eventually want to get something larger.

In this case, you’ve gained valuable information about how to handle a sailboat and given yourself some experience to make you feel more confident as you slowly scale up to day sailors and larger yachts.

Small sailboat in front of cloud covered mountains in Greenland
Sailing dinghies aren’t just for learning on. They can be used for day sailing in interesting locations, like this small boat being sailed off the coast of Greenland!
Photo courtesy of DrakeParagon at

Private Lesson

This is the option that we went with for stage 2 (after the dinghy). Quotes for this option tend to range from $500-1000 in our area for a full days lesson. Travel time and gas for the instructor is usually added on, but that’s still a great deal. Even better, unlike courses which charge by the student, this option allow for multiple people to be learning for the same price. For us that was perfect, as it allows all three of us to learn for $500 a day, rather than the thousands we would have spent on courses.

If you’re in the Great Lakes area, check out U.P. Sailing Company for private lessons!

Not only is there a savings over courses, but if you happen to have your own boat, like we do, it allows you to get real hands on experience with YOUR boat instead of learning on something else and trying to transfer the skills. Have I mentioned that it seems like every boat on the planet is slightly different, and if you’re highly skilled or great at random application of knowledge that might not be a problem for you. For me, it was huge! I prefer to know EXACTLY what I need to do, in which places, and in what method until I’m very familiar with the task at hand.

If you don’t have your own boat, and don’t have an awesome friend willing to loan you one for a day, most instructors will allow you to rent one or have a set price for private lessons on their boat. If you’re a couple (or even a family of 3 or 4) all wanting to learn this could still be significantly cheaper than full courses.

Full Lesson with Certification

Instructor teaching new sailors to read nautical charts.
Instructor Marla Hedman photographs the Navigation Live Aboard sailing course at Nanaimo Yacht Charters in Britsh Columbia, Canada

The ASA sailing course is considered one of the most and most popular in the US. It’s also offered at various locations in 20 countries around the world. Like their online sailing course, it gives you a chance to improve your skills and knowledge of sailing terms but with the added benefit of being able to learn hands on.

Other countries have similar programs such as the Royal Yacht Association (RYA) in the UK. There are even small private schools like Nanaimo Yacht Charters and Sailing School. The cost for the courses range from $1200-$2500 depending on which course, or set of courses, you want to take. They involve a combination of coursework from a textbook and actually time on the boat with other students. If you want, there’s even an overnight option for some of the courses where you sleep on the boat. Sort of like a mini-vacation only cheaper and you walk away at the end with sailing certifications!

Is learning to sail worth it?

Sailboat sailing in front of mountains with a rainbow over it.
Is it worth it to learn to sail? Judge for yourself! Photo courtesy of Heather Lazano

Sailing is an enjoyable sport for those that love being near the water. While only you can decide if it’s a skill worth learning, if you feel the call of the wind and waves these free and low cost options should make learning to sail a possibility for you.

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