Adventure Vacations Learning Sailing

Family Sailing: 5 Great Places to Learn

Family Sailing in Scotland, rouding Cumbrae
Written by Kirstie Pelling

How to learn family sailing

Have you ever considered sailing off into the sunset with the kids? So what if you can’t tell your “lee ho” from your “ready about?”Like anything, it just takes tuition and perseverance to pick up the necessary skills and lingo. And learning to sail together is one of those classic family bonding experiences. We’ve tried it and in this post share our experiences of family sailing with five great places to learn…

Young boy takes the helm on family learn to sail course in Scotland

Matthew takes the helm on one of our family learn to sail experience, in Scotland

Family learn to sail holidays bind you together

We know that learning to sail together binds you as a family. Because we’ve done it. You get to work as a team, older kids become engaged in learning something practical that also carries clear responsibilities, and you are encouraged (some might say forced?) to spend time together as a family in a small space.

To be honest, I’m an unlikely sailor. I can only tell which way the wind is blowing by a complicated system of hair flicking, I couldn’t hook a fish out of an ocean if my life depended on it, if there’s a rock anywhere I am magnetically attracted to it, and if I see a coffee shop then that’s my sailing done for the day. But the time we have invested in learning to be crew and skipper (guess which one I was?) has been hugely rewarding, quite a bit challenging, and if we ever find ourselves out on an ocean on our own, then I imagine pretty useful too.

There’s lots to learn with different skills for everyone to master – chart reading, navigation, sailwork, steering, radio operation, weather forecasting, ropework, kayaking, anchoring, snorkelling, even diving! And when you have learnt the ropes (literally) getting qualified to take a boat out yourself opens up a whole range of new opportunities for active adventure holidays. You get to see some amazing places, being out at sea really is a different world and sailing adventures together can be a great way to strengthen family bonds.

Sailing in Bay of Islands New Zealand

Sailing in Bay of Islands New Zealand

Where can I learn to sail?

And while you should definitely invest in a recognized course with qualified instructors, you don’t necessarily need to shell out to do it in the Caribbean. The Royal Yachting Association is the UK governing body for all things boating. They structure and can recommend approved and appropriate training courses and centres, and not just in the UK. There are RYA approved centres running courses at sailing bases all around the world so there’s likely to be a sailing school you can trust somewhere near you. Assuming there’s some sea somewhere near you…

There are many ways you can learn. When we first took a boat out on our own, in New Zealand, we didn’t do a formal course. We found the sailing equivalent of a man with a van, and crammed ourselves into the tiny cabin with maps and charts. He sent us off on his own when he felt we had learnt enough from him. In Scotland some years later we learnt formally, on a bigger boat, but had two trained crew members with us at all times. You can join a flotilla as a family, or leave the family on the beach and do your course by day. Do a bit of research and decide what is best for you and your family, especially if you have younger kids. Believe me when I tell you it can be very testing trying to learn while supervising toddlers in an unfamiliar environment.

Here’s our suggestions for some great places you can learn to sail as a family, based on our own personal research and experience and what others have told us of their sailing adventures.

Learning to family sail and rowing in Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Great family sailing holiday: rowing ashore in Bay of Islands, New Zealand

5 of the best places for family sailing

New Zealand, Bay of Islands

Having said that you don’t have to trek off round the world to learn to sail, I’m about to suggest that you climb on board a boat in New Zealand!  We spent a while out there when our kids were toddlers and took a one week learn to sail course with a local company in the Bay of Islands. The course involved two days intensive on board tuition with a skipper/instructor and without the distraction of kids, with the option to do a further three or more days cruising on our own, if we got the hang of it.

The Bay of Islands is a great spot to learn, a 16 km-wide bay set into the north-eastern coast of New Zealand’s North island. Located 60 km north-west of Whangerei, this area is one of the most popular in the country for fishing and sailing. (It is renowned internationally for its big-game fishing.) The Bay area has lots of beautiful natural inlets to explore, and is sheltered and safe enough that after our initial two days of training, our instructor felt he could leave us in charge of our little boat, Kakapo, with a crew that included a three year old and a four year old.

Kakapo was tiny and smelt of wee. Partly that’s because one of the bedrooms was the toilet. The boys’ bed was a kind of posh toilet seat. The other two sleeping compartments, for Stuart and myself were the shape and size of twin coffins. The boys loved it. The freedom of setting sail into the blue, of anchoring for the night on the dark ocean, of setting our body clocks to the wind and the tide simply made them happy. It was thrilling to see their young limbs easily clamber round the boat as though it were a fun factory. To watch them help us steer and play with ropes. We soon got into the swing of it; in fact it was a magical if somewhat nervy experience. We parked up in bustling tourist places like Russell for a pint or two, and were chased by dolphins at dawn sailings. We anchored in quiet bays and inlets, rowed ashore on some of the nearer islands on our little yellow dinghy, paddled in phosphorescent waters and snuggled up together on-board at night. The children still sing the little song we made up while hauling the ropes – “We sailed on Kakapo, she’s a magic yellow boat you know…

Excited kids getting ready to go sailing in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Excited kids getting ready to go sailing in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Wild family sailing on the West Coast of Scotland

A few years later, when looking to refresh our sailing skills, the idea of setting sail 30 miles west of Glasgow didn’t sound the most romantic in the world. But then, we didn’t fancy forking out for blue skies and even bluer waters. It was Easter, Largs was easy to get to, and a small family company agreed to help us develop our skippering and family crewing skills around the sheltered waters of the Firth of Clyde. And we found the experience surprisingly delightful, even if the weather was not.

Our lessons took place as we sailed from Largs down the Firth of Clyde and around the Kyles of Bute, calling in at places like Rothsea and Portovadie, visting pretty little marinas, harbours and villages, navigating around the mainland peninsulas, exploring lochs and inlets and rounding islands like Cumbrae and Arran. The Firth of Clyde is one of the largest areas of sheltered deep water in Britain making it an excellent spot for recreational sailing and learning.

For those with more time or sailing skills, the Western Isles of Scotland offer incredible sailing opportunities, with Isla, Jura, Mull, Skye and the Hebrides beckoning, for those brave enough to venture out and up the west coast. Of course if you don’t feel you have the skills to sail yourself, you can always book a skipper/instructor to come with you; it’s a great way to learn with the comfort of knowing your have your own live-aboard backup plan if things get hairy. The Scottish islands are extremely varied, scenic and packed with mountains, castles and whisky distilleries. They are also more exposed to the vagaries of North Atlantic weather than the Firth of Clyde so more suited to those looking to stretch their skills and experience.

The Scottish water can be grey and cold but dolphins, birds and other wildlife add splashes of colour and interest, you can even get a touch of blue sky and in the Firth of Clyde you might be lucky enough to spot a submarine emerging from the depths. Of course this being Scotland, there is always potential for wild weather. We ended up having a bit of a surreal experience with a lifeboat crew when the prop shaft had become dislodged from the bottom of the boat and we were slowly filling with water. But as the rescue boat arrived I caught sight of the kids’ faces. How could I ever provide this kind of excitement with a family beach holiday? And as we had fish and chips later and recounted tall tales of rescue, I knew they were really animated and really alive. And so was I.

Little girl winching in the sails

The kids just loved learning to sail. Especially the ‘Are we sinking?’ bit.

Group sailing holidays in Turkey

If you prefer blue to grey, there are some great sailing opportunities around the Med and Turkey can be particularly good value. The Lycian coast of Turkey is known as the Turquoise coast and is a perfect area for cutting your teeth as a nautical family. The area has a reputation for being one of the least crowded cruising grounds of the eastern Med but it’s not short of facilities and tends to have somewhat lower mooring fees than other parts of Europe (although some report that is changing). There are many harbours and marinas in the area including the popular bases of Gocek and Fethiye.

Within the Bay of Fethiye alone you can explore twelve islands, which include the delightfully named Pancake island, and Cleopatra’s Baths. It’s easy sailing with short hop passages between the islands and sheltered bays, and plenty of swimming and snorkeling above sunken towns, all great variety and interest for kids. Further west, the Lycian Coast, is rich in wildlife and scenery. In Turtle Bay you can see endangered loggerhead turtles. You can also see ancient tombs cut into the rock faces. You won’t see much if you have a dunk in the natural mud baths, but you will have a lot of fun. Sailing south east out of the bay of Fethiye you’ll happen upon Oludeniz, a great spot for some sun worshipping and sand castle building. You may want to spread your wings by venturing on to Butterfly Bay, and the fabulous Kalkan.

There’s lots of choice when it comes to boat rental and training, with many independent operators offering bareback (ie sail it yourself ) and skippered charters, depending upon your experience. It can be a bit of a minefield trying to figure out who is the “best” operator so if you are inexperienced you might want to consider booking a learn to sail flotilla holiday instead. Flotilla holidays can be a great way to learn. Instead of having an instructor to yourself, you join up with a group of other boats who learn, sail and share experience, tips and instruction together. It can be great for families, making sailing a more social experience and means there’s a community of people around to help if you get stuck or need a little help.

Alongside the specialist sailing schools, some of the major holiday operators offer active, learn to sail holidays. Neilson provide some great sailing holidays in Turkey that include including flotilla style cruising holidays, learn to sail holidays, and stay and sail options (where you have a ‘normal’ holiday for one week and sail the other). There are courses and options to suit different levels of experience, linked to RYA qualifications, run from their base on the Dorian coast. The base offer children’s clubs to make it easy for parents with younger kids to head out and learn for the day; while older kids can join the training too. Yacht training is typically only available to those 16 or over but families can arrange a private flotilla skipper course where you get a boat and dedicated instructor to yourselves and teenagers from 13 up can join this training option.

Even if you have no prior experience it may be possible in a two week break to learn to sail, under instruction in week one, and be your family’s captain, taking charge of your boat and crew, in the flotilla the next.  If your group includes two over 18’s with sufficient verifiable sailing experience you can join one of their one or two week small flotilla cruising holidays sailing the Lyian Coast of Turkey. The one week flotilla explores the southern area, starting and finishing at the main base at Demre, and following a circular cruising route, while the two week flotilla explores a much longer stretch of coast right on a fabulous one way journey between Demra and Adakoy.

Yacht in Fethiye Bay by Chris_Parfitt

Yacht in Fethiye Bay, Turkey. Image by Chris_Parfitt

Flotilla sailing in the Dalmatian Islands, Croatia

Croatia is one of the world’s classic cruising grounds. The varied and interesting Adriatic coastline, the plethora of islands, the reliable winds and good sailing conditions, and the easy navigation make it a first choice for bareboat yacht charters. To sail the entire coast and include all the islands you’d probably have to do a few return visits. There’s over a fifteen hundred kilometres of coastline, and a wealth of islands to choose from – over 1000 in total.

If you aren’t qualified or confident enough to do a bareboat charter then a ‘learn to sail’ or flotilla holiday in Croatia may be the ideal thing for you. There are many companies that offer this as Croatian weather is so ideal. Mornings tend to have light winds making them perfect for practicing and teaching while brisker afternoon winds enable you to try your hand at what you’ve learnt. Wherever your party sail, there will be great views, lovely beaches and enchanting Croatian towns and villages to explore in the evening. You might wander the coastline of Istria, or head further down to Zadar and National Park of Kornati; made up of around 90 rocky and glorious islands and islets. From further down the coast in Split you might sail away to pretty islands like Hvar. Or even further down you might depart from Dubrovnik and cruise islands like the forested Mljet or rich coastal towns like Cavtat.

There are some drawbacks; Croatia is very busy peak summer, particularly with Italian cruisers who have popped over in a day. If you charter bareboat then you may need to find a berth or safe anchorage in the early afternoon, just when the best winds are getting up. And islands and town can be packed out with tourists. It is also very hot; but that’s where jumping comes in! On the plus side, facilities are advanced and there a a vast amount of marinas to choose from. Mooring in some of the classiest ones can be an expensive business. But in winter it’s more affordable and you can pretty much get the islands to yourself.

A friend of ours sailed with her family from Split to Dubrovnik last winter. They already had some prior crewing experience and skipper training so only needed a few days with a skipper on board to refresh their skills and learn their way around the boat before taking off solo for a month to tour the area and visit the best of the Dalmatian islands. I asked her what she thought and she said, “It’s really good for beginners and families as there aren’t great distances between mooring points, harbours and islands and there are loads of anchorages in sheltered bays. While the winter weather can be a challenge, visibility is mostly good, there are no difficult currents or tides to contend with and it’s easy to find shelter if you are unlucky enough to find a storm coming in. It’s a great place to learn and off-peak it’s not only great value but you get the islands and marinas pretty much to yourself. In the summer it must be idyllic. ”

Looking out to the bay in Slano, Croatia

Looking out to the bay in Slano, Croatia

The enduring banca in the Philippines

Talking of simple boats, in The Philippines people sail on traditional outriggers, made of wood and tied together with bamboo. Boats don’t get much simpler than this. Or more terrifying in bad weather.  But once again, my children behaved as though sitting on a boat with spidery legs in a storm was perfectly normal. A day later they happily jumped off them into an unfamiliar world of fish and coral. And I relaxed and joined them. You can book a snorkelling day just off Matan Island in Cebu through the tourist board.

Island Hopping on bancas off Mactan Island, Philippines

Island Hopping on bancas off Mactan Island, Philippines

Tips for a happy family sailing holiday

1 If you’ve never sailed maybe try a taster day or weekend as a passenger or crew before committing to a week or more onboard. If you decide to go for it and want to learn skills to enable you to crew or skipper a boat yourself, invest in an approved training course, recognised by a body like The Royal Yachting Association or try a flotilla style sailing taster holiday or a sail and stay holiday where you get a bit of both beach and sailing holiday.

2 Make sure your insurance includes appropriate cover for sailing in the waters and conditions that you anticipate. If you are renting a boat (with or without a skipper), make sure you have appropriate insurance for the boat in the (unlikely) event of an accident, especially if you are learning!

3 If you have existing sailing qualifications or experience, don’t forget to take your certificates, log book or evidence of competence with you. And keep records of your experience while you are sailing as you may find it comes in useful to prove your skills next time you want to rent.

Sailing in the Chilean Fjords with a three legged dog, Dinky

Sailing in the Chilean Fjords with a three legged dog, Dinky

4 Choose an operator that is experienced with families – perhaps run by a family. They will best be able to advise on what will suit your level of experience and the age and interests of the kids. They’ll also know the local area, conditions and family attractions.  On our Scottish holiday our trainer and skipper cooked for us and tailored meals to the children’s likes and needs. He was also patient with the kids’ short attention spans.

5 A sailboat is a different environment with different risks. Talk with the family about how it’s different on board and set some clear rules for life aboard, especially as regards safety, lifejackets, emergency procedures, not fiddling with equipment, radios, navigation equipment etc.

6 Make sure everyone has a lifejacket that fits properly, especially younger kids or those that are not strong swimmers. Always ensure kids wear a life-jacket on deck and consider using harnesses or tethers when on deck, especially for younger kids or in bad weather.

7 If inexperienced consider joining a flotilla for company and support. The last thing you want is to be stuck in a squally sea trying to handle a boat on your own, or crashing into a super yacht filled with glamorous people! And you could think about choosing a company that has other families sailing in the flotilla. Your kids will get to make friends.

8 Choose a place with sheltered waters where weather won’t derail you – Scotland was tough in force 5 winds at Easter, and perhaps next time we might choose somewhere a little warmer.  Maybe it’s worth paying out for the blue blue sea once in a while, if you can afford it.

9 Learn about the weather, check local forecasts and be conservative in your plans while you are learning. Take a day off if things look like they could get hairy or beyond your skill and confidence levels; the last thing you want is a drama that puts everyone off or worse.

10 Don’t turn down new experiences. We first learnt to sail when we met a New Zealand family in a hardware shop and they asked us if we fancied coming on board as crew. It was one of the best weeks of our life.

Family Sailing in Scotland, rouding Cumbrae

Family Sailing in Scotland, rounding Cumbrae

Over to you

Have you got a place you’d recommend for families to learn to sail? Or some tips for a happy family sailing experience. Do leave a comment and let us know.


About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


  • Somehow you have collected more experience points in some trips than I have in years of sailing with my parents. Sinking isn’t on my existence list yet, though getting lost in the days before GPS is, or engine repairs with my dad on the open waters, or losing – and recovering – an anchor in Sweden. KAKAPO looks delightful, about 24 ft? Just like our first boat. Plus she reminds me of Douglas Adams’ book. From own experience I absolutely recommend the Baltic, Denmark and Sweden, the closer waters are more quiet and there are no tides to consider all the time – my experience with English tides is limited to reading Chichester, and Peyton. GPS makes many things easier these days, but one still should not underestimate rough weather or the risk of someone going overboard. (Losing a propeller is generally a less likely risk.)

    Our choir conductor is considering a whisky tasting sailing trip to the Islands, so perhaps I’ll get to see the area, too, eventually.

  • We are very keen to do some family sailing. We have done dingy sailing in Minorca with our kids aged 5&4 which they loved. We can’t find something in the UK that will cater for these ages. Are you able to pass on the family run sailing company you used in Scotland? Or do you have any other information of UK based family companies? Thanks in advance.

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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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