Set Sail

The fiberglass hull cuts smoothly through the sea-green waters of San Francisco Bay while I trim the billowing sail, powering the boat forward. As I head farther offshore, the city--and the pressures of daily life--recede.

Glancing around at other sailboats nearby, I'm not surprised to see women at the helm. Women are setting their sights on the compass rose like never before, lured perhaps by sailing's timeless romantic appeal: cruising iridescent waters in a warm, gentle breeze. There's also a feeling of freedom and confidence when you master the skills to sail a boat.

More than ever, sailing is open to women of all ages, says Dawn Riley, one of America's most accomplished sailors and the 1995 team captain of America3, the historic all-women America's Cup team. Based on a 2007 study by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, nearly 1.5 million women sail in the U.S., and the number is growing rapidly.

Learning to sail encourages a love of the water and offers the adventure of being out in the elements--from serene sunshine to perilous thunderstorms. And the technical aspects of steering a boat by wind challenge your brain and your body. The stronger and more flexible you are, the better the sailor, notes Riley.

Getting started in the sport is as easy as calling a sailing school and signing up, says Mollie Hagar of the Modern Sailing Academy in Sausalito, California. You don't need any special equipment or a boat. "There's not much required in terms of preparation--it's just a matter of showing up and having fun."

Ready to set sail? Here are some guidelines to get you started.

On Land

Sign up for a sailing class. U.S. Sailing (ussailing.org) is the national association dedicated to the sport of sailing. It certifies instructors, sailing centers and sailors, and provides an online database of certification courses around the country. To receive your basic certification (not required by law, but the best way to learn), you can take an intensive beginner course that lasts a few days or is stretched over a few months.

If you're fortunate enough to live in an area where sailing is popular, there is often a yacht club nearby that offers sailing classes. At the club, you may also find a salty dog or two happy to answer your questions and help you get started.

Go small. Hagar recommends new sailors seek out classes with four to six students. "It's important that each student has something to do on the boat and ample time to get good hands-on experience. It also helps the instructor to adapt the class to individual needs."

Connect with other water women. The National Women's Sailing Association (womensailing.org) provides opportunities for women to learn and enhance their sailing skills, have fun and meet fellow female sailors. NWSA offers courses and trips designed just for women.

On Sea

Watch your head. Know where the expression "kaboom" originated? A sailboat's boom is a heavy pole that runs horizontally above the middle of the boat and controls the angle and shape of the sail. The boom swings back and forth quickly and with force during tacking and jibing (turning upwind and downwind). Duck your head, or you'll be the next "kaboom" victim. Always listen for instructions from your skipper.

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