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Why Sailor's Need More Education Than Powerboaters – Or Do They?

By Wayne Spivak, ADSO-CS 1SR
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

Let’s face the facts. To pilot a powerboat, all you need to do is put it in gear and steer. But to properly pilot a sailboat, it takes a far greater amount of skill, training and education.

Navigation, weather, sail trim, currents and their set and drift, are all elements that make sailing what it is – a great historical and traditional pastime. But, it takes training, education and practice.

At least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe for years. To be a sailor, you need to be a better sailor, than a powerboater. Everyone knows this, so it must be the case. But, is it really the case?

Granted, there are more tangibles involved with sailing. Again, you have wind, current, sail, trim, and tacking. But a powerboat also has wind, current, sail to some degree, and trim. Navigation for a sailor is more complex, only because a sailboat tacks.

What’s tacking and why do it? Sailboats can’t sail directly into the wind, so they need to take routes that are at least 45? off the direction of the wind. This causes the sailboat to take one or more legs to reach a waypoint, should that waypoint be to windward. As we all know, the closest route between two points is a straight line (except when the distances are large, then great circles are shorter, but that’s another story).

Since a sailboat needs to tack many times, it is actually traveling farther then a powerboat that just has to deal with set and drift or the direction and speed of a current. Typically, it used to refer only to the water current, but wind plays an important part in determining set and drift. In fact, this is a major factor when the Coast Guard is performing a Search and Rescue mission and trying to locate a lost vessel based on sketchy or old information as to the last known position.

If you’re a new boater or sailor and you realize that you didn’t really understand many of the terms that have been used (and or defined), maybe you should consider undertaking some boating education. Boating is fun, sailing is fun, but they do require more information than just jumping behind the wheel or tiller and starting an engine.

Boating and sailing can also be dangerous, since they are a sport that relies on Mother Nature. The seas can be affected by weather patterns hundred’s of miles away. The weather can change dramatically in just a few minutes. Coast lines, shoals, rocks, submerged objects can take a leisurely afternoon and turn it into either a 6 to 12 hour wait, or even worse if you happen to hit bottom (called grounding).

In the final analysis, all boaters, regardless of whether piloting a personal watercraft (PWC), a skiff, a rowboat, a cabin cruiser or a sailboat, need to understand and appreciate what boating/sailing is all about.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary has been providing public boating and navigation courses for sixty-three (63) years. It provides basic boating safety courses, basic and advanced navigation courses, as well as an on-the-water program where you can put into practice some of the information you’ve learned with trained members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

To find out more information, and to locate a course near you, contact either your local Coast Guard Station or visit the Auxiliary on the web at