Children have an amazing ability to learn quickly especially if it involves something they enjoy. Most children in the past learned sailing either from parents or friends but these days it is common to go on a training course, either at a commercial sailing school or a club's junior programme.
Sailing instructors receive training that enables them to take a student systematically through the basic skills without recognizing the whole activity is supposed to be fun.
When a child is ready to begin learning to sail depends on the individual's ability to concentrate on a new task for a reasonable length of time and must also have developed sufficient strength and agility to handle a small boat successfully.
We seem to think that the best way to learn from an instructor is sitting opposite him in the same boat but this is incorrect for young children who learn best by example. They have a tendency to switch off to what adults are telling them and it has been found children learn best while sailing on their own in a supervised group.
In 1947 in Tampa, Florida, boat builder Clark Mills was requested to build a simple dinghy for the 'The Optimists' youth so they could go sailing in Tampa Bay. He designed a small square type hull of 7 feet (2.3 m) in length with a short pole mast and sprit that held out the top corner of a rectangular sail. Along with a short plywood 'dagger board' centre board a basic rudder was fixed to the transom.
With refinement, it turned into the International Optimist dinghy now used throughout the world as a first trainer and racing boat for children. Unfortunately, with the pressure of racing, the Optimist has become a sophisticated machine with a composite construction hull, aluminium spars, scientifically-shaped foils and a top-quality sail putting the boat out of the reach of many families.
Although the Optimist is the most popular international one-person junior boat, there are other designs that serve a similar function. Examples are the New Zealand P-Class, and the Sabot, which has a following on the West Coast of the USA. This pram dinghy does not even have a daggerboard but instead a hinged leeboard fitted to either side of the boat.
Teenagers are more likely to take their first sail in a Topper, which is larger and faster than the Optimist and has an appeal to sailing schools, being nearly indestructible. This is because the hull is made from solid polypropylene rather than glass fibre, and Toppers shrug off starting line bumps and bangs that are part of learning.
Although not designed as a trainer, the Sunfish often gives people their first experience of sailing as it is often to be found on holiday beaches. An ultra simple 'sailing surfboard', the Sunfish is the ‘wettest boat’ made and to be avoided unless the water is warm.
The Hobie 14 catamaran which has the same wet characteristics was cleverly designed without centreboards enabling it to sail straight up the beach without damage. Also found on holiday beaches, the Hobie range provides great fun for a teenager who has already done some basic training and is looking for something more exciting. The Hobie 14 in a strong breeze, provides the 'thrills and spills' having the reputation of being able to capsize in any of four directions.
A vital part of safety training is being able to right a capsized boat. Although single handed beginners must be accompanied by a safety boat, it is imperative to teach them the techniques of 'self-rescue' as soon as possible.
As dinghies are stable the right way up, such as the Optimist, they also tend to be just as stable upside down, unlike like a Topper, which rolls over and can be righted easily.
The vital point to remember with beginners is that they must wear personal buoyancy at all times when afloat, and dressed in good-quality clothing, preferably a wetsuit or drysuit.