Despite its image as a pastime for the upper crust, sailing is not just for the wealthy. "Sailing is more accessible than most people realize," says Charlie Nobles, executive director of the American Sailing Assn., a certifying organization affiliated with more than 250 U.S. sailing schools in 36 states. Last year more than 15,000 students -- many of them baby boomers hoping to sail during retirement -- enrolled in ASA courses, which cover everything from the basics to the skills needed to sail around the world. An organization called U.S. Sailing also certifies schools, focusing mostly on racing.
Newcomers start with a basic keelboat course, which teaches the skills needed to sail a small boat in good conditions and familiar water. The next step is coastal cruising, or navigating a 20- to 30-foot boat in local water and moderate conditions. If you plan to skipper a larger boat on multiday trips, you'll need to get a third certification for bareboat chartering. Although instruction styles and prices vary from school to school, many have a bareboat certification package that takes from 40 to 80 hours to complete and runs about $1,000 to $2,000. You can spread courses over several weeks or take an intensive weeklong course. "You can go from novice to bareboat skipper over the course of a vacation," says Nobles.
Even novice sailors can try racing. Most racing is done by teams, with each person given a specific task such as helming (steering) or hauling sails. Ask about races at your sailing school, or search U.S. Sailing's Web site for a calendar of events.CHARTER MEMBERS
You don't have to own your own boat for any of this. Yes, the idea of boat ownership is romantic. The reality: It's a huge responsibility not worth the time and expense if you don't sail regularly. For most people, a better bet is to charter a boat, which you can do for $100 to $1,000 a day, depending on the size and amenities, says Nobles. Weekly rates can be even lower. "If you go with your family or another couple, you will pay less to sail for a week than you would to stay in a four-star hotel," he says. Another option is to join a sailing club, where a monthly or quarterly fee -- generally a few hundred dollars -- gives you access to a boat or even an entire fleet of boats.
For some, only their own boat will do. "I wanted a boat before I knew how to sail," says Elliott, who spent $22,000 on a 30-foot boat, a 1981 Islander he named Nino, in June, 2004. After a year of sailing instruction, he sailed 1,400 nautical miles down the coast of California, a five-month trip that took him to more than 40 different ports. Elliott's wife, Allison, 36, and daughters Sophie, 9, and Lisa, 7, joined him on weekends and during summer vacation. Elliott spent his time on the water fine-tuning a new product. Says Elliott: "It was the most productive break I've ever had." By Sarah Max