Sailing is both an art and a science. Hundreds of books have been written about sailing from the basics to racing. Like playing an instrument, it is easy to learn the basics, but difficult to become a master. Sailboats also range from simple dinghies with one small sail to large sailing ships with many sails in various configurations. Sailing is even an Olympic Sport. So this is a subject that requires some special attention if you have decided to take up sailing.
The best way to learn is take a course. Many yacht clubs and racing clubs offer basic sailing classes. Most major metropolitan areas have many places where you can learn to sail. Some national organizations, such as the Red Cross offer sailing classes. http://www.marinersailing.org/home/red-cross-basic-sailing. Inquire with the Red Cross in your area. One good place to start looking for classes is the American Sailing Association (ASA) http://asa.com/. They list over 300 schools in the US alone and have affiliates internationally. There is also the US Sailing Association http://www.ussailing.org/education/learn-to-sail/ They also offer sailing classes around the USA. A quick search on the internet will find a sailing school near you, some are even free. Some colleges and universities have sailing teams and offer classes as well.
These are just a few examples.
Additionally, if you want to go beyond basics there are professional sailing schools who will teach you how to sail the bigger boats, how to crew on sailboats, and the fundamentals of racing. http://www.offshoresailing.com/sail-and-power-courses/ There are schools specifically for women to learn sailing. http://www.womanship.com/ (these links are examples only and not an endorsement of these schools)
Of course the first and most fundamental lessons deal with the names of things on a sail boats. Sails and all of the lines and rigging that are used have their own language. To be a good sailor you need to learn the language just as you would with any boat. It is not all that complex on small sail boats and most of the jargon applies to big sailboats. http://www.discoverboating.com/resources/article.aspx?id=243
Safety is of course the first item taught. Wearing a lifejacket on a small sailboat is almost mandatory. These little boats often turn over, and one of the first things you will learn is how to right the boat, bail it and sail away. In boats that are larger and have a weighted keel this is not as much of a problem. They rarely capsize. But you need to learn the tactics to keep these boats sailing at an optimum speed and angle of heel. Allowing them to heel too far reduces speed and ability to maintain course. And this can result in a knock down, a different name for a capsize.
Another huge safety item is all the lines that run around the boat and how to make sure you don't get tangled in them. If the boat capsizes there is a real danger of being caught under the sail. You need to know how to prevent this and how to extricate yourself if it does happen.
Of course you need to learn what all those lines are for; what sails do they hoist or position. On a small boat there may be only a few, but on a large sail boat with many sails the number of lines multiplies. There are halyards that raise and lower sails, and sheets that control the position of sails. There are downhauls and lazy jacks, and other lines. You need to know the names and what they do.
Beyond the safety issue you need to learn the science of how sails work to drive the boat forward, how to trim the sails (position them) to use them most affectively and how to sail the boat at different angles to the wind. Sailboats cannot go directly into the wind so you need to learn how to tack, that is, sail the boat close to the wind to make progress up wind. You need to learn the interaction between the sails, the wind, the keel (usually a centerboard, that is a board sticking down under the boat) and the rudder.
If after you have learned the basics, you decide to take up racing, then you will need to learn the rules for racing. These rules are used internationally so once you have learned them you can sail anywhere and know the rules.
There are many sailing clubs and yacht clubs that sponsor races. There are races specifically for class boats, that is boats that are all exactly alike, called one-design. This eliminates the factor of one boat being faster than another, and the winning depends on the skill of the sailor. These boats range from small dinghies to America's Cup boats and even boats that race around the world. Many people start by sailing dinghies and then progressively move up to bigger boats.
International Sailing Federation: http://www.sailing.org/classes/
Different Boat Types: http://www.newtosailing.com/classes/
List Of One Design Classes: http://www.ussailing.org/racing/small-boat-racing/one-design/list-of-one-design-classes/
One Design Classes: http://www.sail1design.com/one-design-classes/
Of course not all sailors race. Many like to just go out for a day sail, or a weekend cruise. Some who own bigger boats with a cabin like to go on extended cruises, from a few days to even years. Cruising around the world is not unheard of and has been done by many amateurs. There are also groups that like to sail and cruise together. They have events and get togethers for their members. Then there are Yacht Clubs for those with larger boats and slightly deeper wallets. Or, you can do it on your own. You do not have to belong to a club or association to go sailing or cruising. Many people do what is called gunk holing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunkholing That is, just sailing from place to place and stopping for the night or just for lunch.
The Fine Art of Gunk Holing: http://www.sailmagazine.com/fine-art-gunkholing
Pocket Cruiser Guide: http://pocketcruiserguide.com/
The Pocket Cruiser: http://www.stevproj.com/IntroPCPg1.html
Trailer Sailor: http://www.trailersailor.com/
Seven Seas Cruising Association: http://www.ssca.org/cgi-bin/pagegen.pl?pg=home&title=Home
Cruising Club of America: https://www.cruisingclub.org/
Once you have learned these basics you will find that sailing is fun. It is just you, the boat and the wind. No engine, no gasoline or other fuel needed. The original "green" machine. Me, I just like to take my sailing dinghy out for an hour or two. It is very relaxing.
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