Dinghy sailing: why it’s great for beginners and keelboat sailors

Yachting World

Dinghy sailing helps improve your understanding of a wide variety of skills, whether you are just starting out or a seasoned keelboat sailor, sailing a dinghy is a hugely rewarding pastime

Dinghy sailing – whether racing or as a leisure activity – is one of the best ways to improve your skill level whether you’ve no experience of sailing, race 50ft yachts offshore or cruise the coast in a 30ft bilge-keeler.

It is no coincidence that some of the world’s top sailors either started out dinghy sailing or continue to dinghy sail as a pastime. But many sailors, particularly those who come to the sport of sailing as an adult will only have limited dinghy sailing experience.

Though keelboat sailing and dinghy sailing are ostensibly the same sport, the two have a number of small differences, which transfer from one to the other to make you a better sailor generally.

However, this does also mean that no matter how good a keelboat sailor you are, jumping straight into a dinghy may come as something of a shock and vice versa.

What is a dinghy?

The difference between a dinghy and a keelboat can be difficult to define simply. Typically a sailing dinghy does not have a weighted keel in order to keep it upright.

However, there are boats many would consider to be a dinghy that do have a weighted keel, so this is not a strict definition.

Dinghies are also typically under 20ft and are not designed to sail in ocean going conditions. This, alongside the lack of a keel, typically means dinghies are much more manoeuvrable, faster to accelerate and more responsive to body position.

It’s these traits that make dinghy sailing such a boon in terms of improving your understanding of sailing when on a keelboat.

Sit in the wrong place on a dinghy at the wrong time and you might well capsize. Do the same on a keelboat and the effect will be negative but not in quite so stark a manner – in fact, it can often be an almost imperceptible reduction in performance.

The same is true of sail trim, accelerating and slowing down and a whole raft of other boat handling and sail handling skills that are vital to understanding how best to control a boat.

Finally, in terms of the difference between the two, dinghies usually only have one or two sailors onboard, meaning that all the jobs need to be either undertaken by one person or shared equally between two. This, in turn, means that a day out sailing a dinghy provides more opportunity to practise a wider variety of skills as compared to being one of a wider number of crew on a keelboat.

Laser/ILCA dinghies in Antigua racing as part of Bart’s Bash, the worldwide sailing charity race, raising funds for sailing communities affected by the 2017 hurricanes

Where to go dinghy sailing

In theory you can sail a dinghy on almost any publicly accessible piece of water, but publicly owned launching facilities tend to be few and far between.

Given their lack of communication equipment and their relative lack of self-sufficiency as compared to a keelboat, it’s advisable to have some sort of safety cover available should you get into trouble.

For this reason, the traditional way to go dinghy sailing is to join your nearest sailing club on an annual or trial membership and borrow a club boat (if they are available) to start sailing regularly.

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It’s not the most flexible system in the world and, increasingly, clubs are offering memberships on a pay-to-play basis.

Queen Mary Sailing Club in the UK based just west of London is one such club, which offers a gym-style membership of a monthly subscription which allows you to sail a wide variety of boats as often as you like (subject to booking etc.).

This can be a great way to go dinghy sailing or to try out dinghy sailing before making the commitment to an annual membership at a sailing club, or committing to the purchase of a boat.

A typical dinghy sailing club in the UK. Photo: David George / Getty Images

Although this is a growing area and there are plenty of sailing clubs offering a gym-style membership, it’s a long way from ubiquity, so the annual membership model is likely to be the best option for most.

It’s worth looking around you and seeing what options are available in the local area. In the UK, you will usually be living within easy access of a number of clubs, so you will be able to pick the club that is right for you.

If you are dinghy sailing in the USA, then your options will be limited, with sailing clubs being relatively fewer and further between.

What dinghy to buy

The first and easiest question to ask yourself is whether you plan on sailing alone or with another person and thus whether you are looking for a single or doublehanded boat (or something that can do both).

Ideally before taking the plunge and buying a dinghy you will have the chance to sail a variety of types of dinghy at a club you have joined, which should help you make your choice.

Most dinghies have an optimum weight so your size is a factor, but this is less of an issue if you are not planning on racing your dinghy.

Construction of the boat is a key consideration. Wood was the traditional dinghy material but this requires significant maintenance and is susceptible to rot if not well-kept – but it does look nice and is repairable with some simple wood-working skills.

Fibreglass and foam sandwich builds offer stiffness and are great for racing, but can become easily scratched or damaged and require a working knowledge of resin and glass fibre work to fix damage – or get a local boat builder to do it for you.

In the last 20 years, many beginner dinghies have been built from polyurethane or polyethylene and are rotomoulded. This process involves pouring liquid ‘plastic’ into a mould and rotating it while it sets to get an even distribution of the material, which forms the boats hull once cooled and released from the mould.

learn-to-sail-rya-level-1-tack

The Laser Pico is a rotomoulded boat, popular with sailing schools and beginners

Rotomoulding is not exactly new, so there are plenty of second hand examples on the market. These boats are very resistant to damage and are typically seen as ideal for the rental or beginner market.

Globally speaking, the Laser (recently being sold under the name ILCA) and the Sunfish are two of the most popular singlehanded dinghies. Both are fibreglass, but crucially wherever you are in the world there are likely to be plenty on the market at a variety of price points – the Sunfish being much more popular in the USA than Europe and the Laser/ILCA having a slightly more global presence.

Both these boats will also hold their second hand value reasonably well, so are good options for taking the plunge.

Catamarans are faster and more inherently stable than monohull dinghies, so can often be a good option for the starter sailor. It should be noted, however, that multihull sailing is, a slightly different skill to monohull sailing, so if you are looking to improve your skills on a monohull it might not be the very best option.

Catamarans lined up on the banks of the Swan River in Perth, Australia. Photo: lkonya / Getty Images

If you are considering racing, then the best advice would be to see what boats are being sailed at your local club. It might be that a slightly obscure boat is popular near where you live and sailing alongside others in the same type of boat is usually more fun than sailing around alone.

Sailing alongside others in the same type of boat can be more rewarding than sailing alone. Photo: Tim Platt / Getty Images

Dinghy Sailing Kit

Dinghy sailing is a pretty wet sport, with launching and retrieval usually seeing sailors in the water, regular soaking from waves and the possibility of capsizing all factors.

As such, particularly for those not blessed with warm warters and balmy breezes, buying a wetsuit is a pretty important thing to do.

You can go dinghy sailing in old trainers and a pair of trousers that you don’t mind getting wet, but these will be uncomfortable over an extended period of time on the water and will not keep you warm.

A buoyancy aid is also absolutely essential to help you float in the water should you fall out or capsize. Buoyancy aids are better than lifejackets for dinghy sailing as it’s entirely possible that you will be in the water more than once in a dinghy sailing session, so a manually inflating lifejacket will get in the wat after it has been set off once, and an automatically inflating one is likely to go off while you are in the boat itself if there is enough spray.

While a wetsuit and lifejackets are, in my opinion, must have items, trainers will be fine for a while – though you will probably want to invest in a pair of wetboots after not too long, which will be comfort and much warmer.


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