Some Instructional Concepts

Teaching sailing requires the instructor to have a good understanding of a variety of concepts and techniques. There are no set answers about how to run a course or teach a particular part of the syllabus because the situations and student's requirements are infinitely variable.

A good, experienced instructor will have a range of approaches in their took box that they can utilise as they are called for.

If ever you reach the stage where courses are all the same, you should start to experiment and try something new at least once a week. If you can do this, not only will you learn a lot as an instructor, but your courses will be fresh and fun for your students.


Stands for: Safety, Enjoyment then Learning. Whatever we do, safety is of prime importance. This means balancing the risks of the situation against your and the crew's experience and abilities.

When students are enjoying what they are doing they will learn with very little effort, the job of the instructor is to keep the tasks challenging at the correct level for the student. They must also feel that they are progressing. If you focus on students enjoying themselves and the tasks they are set, you will find it easy to help them learn.


Stands for: Explanation, Demonstration, Imitation, Correction, Testing or Training. This is the normal teaching approach. However, not all subjects lend themselves to this method.

A good example is teaching boat handling, if you explain the task, then give a good demonstration the students will have a clear picture of what they should perform. If your demonstration is not exactly what you intended, do not by afraid of admitting it. Then re-demonstrate it correctly!

Ideally, students should have at least three attempts at a task. If they get it right first time, it may be luck! If you do not give them several attempts, it would be like learning to play darts by only throwing a dart once a day-it would take a long time! In practice this has to be balanced against the time available, and keeping the task interesting.

When you offer correction, remember that most of what the student did was probably correct. Offer help in positive ways. An example is: The line you took was perfect, let's try it again a little slower/faster. Another approach is to ask them how they felt about their performance, they usually know what went well and what did not, and they do not need it pointed out in front of everyone else on board!

Only correct one aspect at a time. When they have a second attempt, only offer advice on that aspect. Avoid suddenly changing the focus on to some other element. An example could be when a person is not stopping at a mooring buoy correctly because they approaching it too fast, when they get the speed correct but not the direction-praise the correct speed-that is where their focus should have been!

At the end of this you may decide that they need more training or that the student is ready to be tested. The best approach to doing this is to set a task that uses the skills they have been practising. Giving the student full command whilst entering an actual berth at the end of the day, is a good example.


Stands for: Keep It Simple and Stupid. What is the minimum I can say, to get my point across? More information does not mean more learning!


One of the most common problems when you first start teaching is knowing when to stop. You should not be trying to pass on all your knowledge that took years to gain, in one week. It is far better to teach the minimum that the students need, then add extras on at a later date.

An example is teaching how to take and plot a three point fix. All the students need is some time handling a hand bearing compass, some plotting of bearings on a chart and the concept that they are on each position line. Variation can be explained very simply as a correction that they must apply each time, they do not need to know much more about it at first.


After 30 minutes teaching you will lose your effectiveness. Students will learn more from several short lessons. Try breaking up teaching sessions with a tea break (try heaving too), or go for a sail and give them a chance to absorb the information.


Before every activity brief the students on what will happen, if they are skippering, cover what you expect of them. Pay special attention to any likely difficulties. The briefing should include any special problems you think they may encounter.

An example may be entering Portsmouth Harbour; the trainee skipper should have been prepared for the ferry traffic and the local regulations. They must have some idea of the tactics they could be employing before they get in to a situation where they need to act decisively.


After every activity debrief on what occurred. Good points, weaker areas and other approaches if relevant.

This debriefing is probably the most important part of training, especially when a student is struggling. It must be done in a positive way so that the student has a clear picture of what they should be doing to perform better next time.

Often the best debriefing approach is to ask the student how they think they performed, then ask leading questions if they do not raise the points you consider important. This could be by asking them how they would deal with a particular situation if they had to do it again.

Ideally a debrief should be done individually and in private, especially if there may be any negative aspects. However, some parts of training lend themselves to group debriefs.

An example is when the skipper is not communication or controlling the crew effectively. Try asking the crew about how they experienced the particular exercise, could they hear any orders? Did they know what they were supposed to do? A group debrief needs very careful handling, it could quickly degenerate in to an argument, the instructor must control the session and ideally inject a little humour.


No one will perform perfectly, be prepared to accept a good try, and then build on that. Praise the best parts of their actions, give them some advice on where to focus their attention and then give them another go at some time.

If they could do things first time-they would not need an instructor to guide them!


If a student cannot do a task there is a reason: They may not be experienced enough-Chose a different task. They may not understand-Find a different explanation! This may mean drawing the situation; this is ideal with boat manoeuvres. Remember they are there because they cannot yet do the tasks they have come to learn!


Stands for: Perception, Emotion, and Technique. When correcting weaknesses. Check students Perception of the task, do they understand it the same way you do? The best means of checking this is to ask them to describe the task to you, as if you do not know anything about it.

Consider their emotional state, when people are very nervous they do not perform well. Imagine entering Cowes marina on a busy Saturday afternoon for the first time. A novice skipper will probably think that everyone is watching them, this in itself can cause them to not act effectively. If this is a problem-try reducing the stress by practising the manoeuvre first in a simple situation where there is no audience.

Once you are sure that the student understands the task and is not under undue pressure, it is safe to offer correction to technical elements.


Cushion correction between two pieces of praise. An example might be; "That was great, your approach speed was perfect, now let's try stopping the boat a little sooner, and let's see you do it that well again".

By using this approach there are 2 positive statements for every piece of correction.


Concentrate on praising the attempt, rather than focusing on the negative. It is very easy to come across to students as always criticising their performance. If you praise their attempts and focus their attention on those part that are done well, the weaker area often improve on their own.


Our views of people tend to be self-fulfilling; if you think negative thoughts about your students you will find lots of things to criticise, and vice-versa! People will rise to your expectations-or sink to them! Give them a reputation to live up to.

An example is to say something like-"You are always very good at briefing the crew before a passage."

Frequently they remember that you think they are good at it, and then find they have to live up to how you think of them.


Asking questions, which lead students in the right direction, can aid the retention of information. People remember much better when they have thought a subject through for themselves, than if you spoon-feed them everything.

An example is when learning to spring a boat off a pontoon. Try asking them how to do it rather than telling them. Provided that boat will not be damaged, it is worth letting them try incorrect approaches occasionally. The contrast with a better technique will then be very obvious.


Getting the student to describe what they are about to do can help then clarify the best sequence of events. This is especially important when the action is complicated. A crew overboard recovery exercise is a good example. Try asking the student to talk through each step they intend to carry out immediately before starting.

A good time to try this is before organising putting a reef in the main sail.


Virtually all serious athletes use visualisation techniques because of the proven results in improving their performance.

Get students to visualise all the actions that will take place before attempting a complex manoeuvre, the more detail the better. This is particularly valuable with students who find boat handling difficult. You could get them to include; each of their actions, the boat's movements, the individual crew actions, possibly even sounds of the engine.

This can be done from a viewpoint of an observer outside the boat, or from the helming position. Frequently people who struggle with boat handling do so because they do not have a clear picture of what they are trying to achieve, this technique can help those people enormously if they will buy in to it.

As a minimum, you will replace the negative pictures that some people have in their mind, they may be focused on where they do not want to go or the the other boats they could hit on the way out!


Develop different means of communication with students. Verbal, Visual, Demonstrations, Ask Questions and Group Discussions. Remember 90% of good communications is in LISTENING.


10% of what we read.

20% of what we hear.

30% of what we see.

40% of what we see and hear.

70% of what we say.

90% of what we say and do.

Make sure there is lots of activity and input from the students in your lessons!


Building up the whole task from small segments. Example: Man over board recovery under power.

  • Start with the drill under power with no sails.

  • Gradually add in; appointing a pointer, throwing the lifering, sending a Mayday, pressing the MOB button on the GPS, preparing a line with a loop.

  • Try the drill under power but starting with the main sail up.

  • Practice heaving too.

  • Start the drill from sailing, heave to, check for ropes, start engine, lower headsail, motor round to pick up casualty.

All of the above would take place over 4 or 5 days.

In this way, the students get lots of practice, but there are no steps where they need to learn a lot of new actions in one go.


Start with the whole task, and then work on any weaker parts separately, before reintroducing them to the whole.

Example: Man over board recovery under sail.

Try demonstrating the whole manoeuvre. Then if the students struggle with the positioning of the vessel for the return leg, try covering the backing and filling technique (see the RYA Yachtmaster Scheme Instructor Handbook) under main sail alone.

Once they can do this part, reintroduce it to the whole manoeuvre.


The task is attempted, then coaching advice given to tweak the performance in the right direction.

Example: Execution of a short passage.


Most sailing instructors focus on improving their technical skills, boat handling, navigation and theoretical knowledge. Whilst these are important, to teach effectively it is not necessary to be outstanding in any one area. A good level of competence is all that is required.

The major skills that instructors should develop are those that relate to communication and working people. The books listed below are some of the most useful that I have found.

How to win friends and influence people.

How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Dale Carnegie.

This book is the classic on communication. Everyone should read this at least once!

Positive Personality Profiles.

Positive Personality Profiles.

Robert Rohm.

Robert Rohm's humorous book will help you to understand the different styles of learning and approaches to skippering used by students.

Skill with people.

Skill With People.

Les Giblin.

This is the best book for those who do not like to read, its small and very concise.

Balcony People.

Balcony People.

Joyce Landorf Heatherly.

This book explains brilliantly how to help others to improve their performance by encouraging them. is free to use, but if you feel you would like to contribute to the running and development costs you can donate via Paypal:

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