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Getting Started: Selecting a Good Dinghy

and Learning Sailing, Rowing, and Boat Handling

By Stuart Wier

Photo © by Lionel Hill

You want to have your own adventures in boats, and enjoy the pleasures of boating. You need a good boat, the right boat for your needs, and you need to learn to use it properly. This web page describes the basics of selecting a really good small boat for rowing and sailing, and the principles of learning to row and sail. No one should consider themselves a boatman until rowing and boat handling is mastered, along with sailing, as well as use of power. The best boaters invariably begin by thoroughly learning to handle small boats in all conditions.

Selecting the Right Boat for You

Boats vary a great deal in performance and use. The right boat for you, the one you will enjoy the most, take most pleasure in, and find most useful, may not be anything like what you see on one trip to the waterfront. Be sure to choose a boat that matches your needs and that provide the most value to you. Extra time spent finding the right boat will pay for itself many many times over.

The choice of boat will be an important factor in the pleasure of your outings on the water. You don't need an exact replica of the Swallow, or the same kind of boat that won a yacht racing trophy last year to carry you or your children to adventures. In fact, those may be a poor boat for your needs. If you are starting boating, be sure to consider a general purpose dinghy, similar to the Swallow or Amazon in intended use, one that can be rowed as well as sailed, one that can carry two or three persons, and some supplies--in short, a good, all-around boat.

There are many good traditional boat designs that are a pleasure to row and sail, and that can be used for a variety of purposes, for boaters whose skill ranges from beginner to advanced. Unfortunately many sailboats made new today are strictly racing boats, not general purpose dinghies or skiffs. These new designs have lots of complicated fittings to make the boat go a little faster. They cannot be rowed, or carry much in the way of extra supplies; often they are rather uncomfortable, suitable only for racing.

Do a little investigation on your own to get past the marketing blizzard and the racing mentality to find the boat you need. You may spend a couple of months reading, and looking at boats. Write to all the boat builders who interest you; try as many boat types and sizes as possible. Don't buy whatever turns up first no matter how well recommended. Even if you come back to that first offer later you will do so with real confidence.

There are hundreds of sailboat designs, new and old. Some are traditional, and some are more recent designs, and there are some production boats that would do very well. You can buy a new or used boat, or have one made, or modify an existing boat, or make a new boat yourself. In most cases you can find a good used boat that will meet your needs if you cannot afford a new one.

Every country has several suitable designs, whether it be called dinghy or skiff or trailer sailer or something else. You will be looking for stability, capacity, simplicity of rig, facility of rowing and sculling, and proper size.

Do not overlook the importance of size. Generally a length between 11 feet (3.3 m) and 16 feet (4.8 m) is best to start boating. Under 11 feet and the boat will be too small for real use by two adults; over 16 feet and it may be too much to handle easily by beginners or children. Some long slender designs may be satisfactory over 16 feet, especially for pure rowing. An 11 and a half feet long boat is usually just barely large enough for two adults in any kind of wind or wave, while some large capacity 14-footers (beam over 5 feet) can carry three adults, two children, a dog, and a modest pile of picnic baskets and gear in complete confidence. The difference in length at first might seem trivial, but in fact the two boats are very different.

A good boat can have a centerboard or daggerboard or keel. It can be made of wood or fiberglass. It can be lug-rigged or sprit-rigged or gaff-rigged or Bermudan or Marconi or lanteen. (The lug or sprit are simplest.) It can be a traditional design or brand new. Any combination can be used to make a good boat, or a bad boat. No single feature is critical. It is the complete design that matters. You can spend $250 or $12500 and get a good boat, depending on luck and your finances.

Remember to look for a stable boat that can carry a good deal. Sit in it at the dock, out by the side of the boat. It should not tip alarmingly. A good boat for these purposes is a boat you can sit inside of, rather than only on the side decks or rail, and one that is clearly big enough for at least two adults and gear, if not more. The simpler the rigging the better - one sail is enough for beginners, and for good boat performance. You should be able to row the boat; rowing is fun and adds versatility. With oars you can go fishing and you can go out in calm weather. You can row off the dock and away from other boats before running up the sail. You can row if the wind stops. A boat that rows and sails is a far more useful than either alone. Hence the popularity of sailing dinghies and skiffs in the harbors of seafaring communities.

Ask yourself, "What are my real boating needs?" Remember a seemingly small change in size can make a big change in boat behavior or usefulness. Consider carefully how many (and how few) friends might go boating with you. If you wish to sail occasionally by yourself, do not buy a boat that requires two or more persons to launch or sail it. Consider what water is available, and how you will get the boat there, or keep it there. Is your water shallow or deep; does it often have rough waves, or winds near a calm? Will you launch from a beach or a ramp, or keep your boat on a dock or a mooring (in full sun and weather) or use a trailer? Most of all make a good match between your sailing and boating abilities and the boat. Some small boats are handfuls to sail; some larger ones are comfortable safe and easy and useful.

Try the boat before you buy it; the owner ought to take you sailing. If you have little boating experience it is especially important that you try several different boats, and try them under conditions similar to where you will use it,

If we started all new sailors in a good boat with a simple rig, more people would keep sailing once they began. Some beginning sailors are put off sailing by an unpleasant initial experience involving unnecessarily complicated rigging and terminology, sudden and seemingly inexplicable changes in boat behavior, capsizing, and cold water. Of course, there will always be people who must have the latest and fastest boats. Fine. But competitive athletes are not the only ones who enjoy sailing, nor is winning races the only reason to be on the water. A good simple boat, with only a sheet and tiller to mind, is a very good way to start more folks sailing, and a good way to keep them sailing.

Buying or Building a Sailing Dinghy

Here are some North American boat builders that offer the good qualities needed in a sensible sailing dinghy. Also check the ads in WoodenBoat and Messing About in Boats magazines in the U.S., and Classic Boat and Watercraft in the U.K.

Also see this web site: The Boats of Swallows and Amazons, for more about building or buying a good dinghy.


In Wood

Learning Sailing and Rowing

Here is an excellent description of learning boat handling and sailing, by John Leather, from his article "The Magic of a Dinghy". (I have an old photocopy with no source. It might be an issue of "Classic Boat" before 1992. If you know the publication please send me word.) John Leather is a British ship designer who also has written books on boat building, boat designs, and rigging, some of them in print for over 20 years they are so well regarded. You would be hard pressed to name a better authority on use of boats.

"When intending to sail or go afloat in a small boat, the first essential is to learn to row properly, with a decent pair of spruce or ash oars having well formed blades and properly balanced looms. The art should be practiced in rough as well as smooth water as the want of this basic skill is the cause of many boating mishaps and some fatal accidents. The next skill which should be mastered is to scull with one oar over the transom: a vital ability, as propulsion ans control of a boat is still possible if one oar is lost or broken and in ordinary use a small boat can be very efficiently propelled this way. In a dinghy of the type we are considering, both skills can be learned and used. They are much more important afloat than merely obtaining a certificate in sailing and learning to shout "starboard" louder than those around you. All small boat instructors should be fully profiocient in rowing and sculling and capable of instructing others to that standard, before a sail is hoisted.

"Early lessons in small boat sailing should be held in smooth waters with clear winds over them, if possible, with no interference from trees, buildings, or large anchored vessels. Reefing and unreefing should be practiced in winds of varying strengths and the usual sailing manoeuvres, such as coming alongside smartly, should be learned to ensure they can be carried out quickly and with certainty.

"There is much to learn and a general purpose dinghy is the best boat in which to start. When the dinghy sailor has accomplished these things well, then is the time to try handling the boat in a tideway and attempting to master a beat to windward against wind and tide in a narrow channel. Quick handling and judgement will be sharpened, to be further honed when sailing amongst moored craft.

"No longer a raw beginner, one can then try the boat in more open waters and amongst waves of modest size, sailing her close-hauled, meeting the waves with the cheek of the bow if possible, so as not to loose way, easing the sheet when necessary and sailing the boat a little fuller than in smooth waters. There is an art in handling a small sailing boat in such conditions which cannot be fully described but which can be learned by practice by those with apptitude. It cannot be completely taught.

That is a fine outline for learning how to handle a small sailing dinghy. It is not, alas, easy to find such training today, unless you live near a good bit of water and there are talented instructors available. If you are sensible and diligent you can learn this yourself, beginning with a rowing in quiet water until you are confident. And there are more good sailing schools now than a decade ago! Several have fine week long classes on elements of sail and boat handling. The "Elements of Seamanship" class in the WoodenBoat School of Brooklin Maine is an excellent example.

Look for classes that are not trying to teach racing, and that discuss rowing, knots, coming along side docks and boats, and other basics of boat handling as well as sailing. None of this need be difficult, given a little time! A traditional sailing dinghy is the best sort of boat to use in learning good boating.

Here are two excellent books about learning to sail, and two on oars. Both the first two are in print in the U.S. The first is very suitable for complete beginners and is much shorter; the second is much more complete. Both have excellent illustrations, one might say works of art. Both deal with sailing as a topic much wider than merely winning races in modern lightweight centerboarders, a flaw of some learn-to-sail books. Neither unfortunately discusses use of oars (perhaps because so few factory boats made today can be rowed) but the two books on oars will mend that deficiency.


The Craft of Sail, by Jan Adkins. Walker & Company, NY. 1973.

The Complete Sailor: Learning the Art of Sailing. by David Seidman. International Marine, 1994. Early editions were titled On the Wind and you might find an older copy named that.


Oars for Pleasure Rowing: Their Design and Use. Andrew Steever. Mystic Seaport, 1993.

Boats, Oars and Rowing. Pete Culler. International Marine 1978. He has oar plans and wonderful discussions of rowing and small boats.

Trust the Kids and Don't be Afraid of Fear

Kids have wonderful abilities and imaginations. Give them a fine piece of water and a good simple boat they can go out in, and good training, and then set them off on their own. They will be delighted. Let them learn responsibility and how to handle moderate risk. Too much safety can be harmful to your mental health.

If you know of some good books about learning boat handling, please send me word and I will add them here.

Related web sites: Home Page: The Boats of Swallows and Amazons - -

Copyright © 1999 - 2003 Stuart K. Wier.
Retransmission and commercial reproduction prohibited. Limited reproduction for free public distribution permitted when in complete and unaltered form when with full citation.

Email to swier   at earthlink . net