Features August 15, 1999 Issue

J World and Offshore Are The Top Guns Of Big Sailing Schools

Respondents to a PS survey were vocal in their criticism of both the Annapolis Sailing School and Womanship.

Many sailors attend sailing schools to improve their skills, prepare for a race or cruise, or just to add structure to a vacation. Some who have never sailed before enroll to learn the sport.

How do you know what school and classes are right for you? Which schools are the best and which should you avoid? Do you need to take a course before you can charter a boat? Should a sailing school be accredited? Practical Sailor looks at these and other questions with the goal of matching you with the best program that suits your needs.

There are hundreds of sailing schools in North America ranging from one-boat mom-and-pop shops to large schools with locations in every major sailing hub. Because it is impossible to survey every school, we chose the best-attended and most successful programs. The fact that a school is not included in this article is not a comment on its competence or quality.

Why Go To School?
Most of us learned to sail purely by doing it or perhaps in yacht club junior programs. The first classroom might have been a friend or relative’s boat and they provided the instruction. For those of us who learned on centerboard boats, the term “sink or swim” had special meaning.

Sailing lessons with close friends and family members can be rough, time-consuming and frustrating. Many a sailor has memories of learning from his or her father. Some of these might be of memories of shouting from the foredeck: “I said port, damn it!” or “Don’t you know where the wind is?”

In contrast, most professional sailing schools offer the opportunity to learn or improve your skills in a structured environment, with good equipment, and from experienced instructors with better people skills than your blood relatives.

Schools offer a variety of sailing classes ranging from weekend learn-to-sail courses to resort classes in the tropics. In addition, many schools offer navigation classes, week-long live-aboard classes, bareboat charter certification classes and much more.

Some schools are also affiliated with the American Sailing Association (www.american-sailing.com) or the US Sailing Association (www.ussailing.org). Those schools that are accredited tailor classes to meet ASA or US Sailing standards.

One benefit of selecting one of the 300 ASA or US Sailing-affiliated schools is that your instructor will likely be certified, said Harry Munns, executive vice president of the ASA. Accreditation “has done a great job in getting a lot of small schools to a level of competency,” said Rich Jepsen, chairman of US Sailing’s commercial sailing committee.

Although accreditation is meant to be a form of quality control, it is not a guarantee. Nor is the size of a school. “It’s a mistake to say bigger schools always are better,” said Munns. “There is a tendency among big sailing schools to want to emphasize the numbers—their many boats and instructors. While that’s valuable, the fact of the matter is there are some very good programs on a very low-key basis.”

Another consideration is equipment. Don’t underestimate how important it is to “learn on quality sailboats,” said John Jameson, secretary of the Scotland-based International Sailing Schools Association (www.int-sailing-schools.com). No matter how good your instructor is, you will be limited if you are learning on substandard equipment. Most of the programs listed here use keelboats that can handle most conditions. Some programs, like those offered at many colleges, however, use small centerboard boats. When former students complain about the age and condition of boats, take note.

Bareboat Charter Classes
Many sailing schools offer bareboat charter certification classes to provide customers with hands-on practice before they take the helm of someone else’s 40-foot, $150,000 asset. If you have never been skipper of a boat somewhat close to the size of the one you intend to charter, a class is not a bad idea. It is not usually required, however.

Most charter boat companies will ask you for a “sailing resume,” not certification. Although the ASA and US Sailing certifications are impressive-looking documents, a signed check is generally more persuasive. Charter companies are hesitant to make certification a requirement in view of the fact that so many experienced and qualified captains have absolutely no formal training.

How The Rating Was Done
To rate sailing schools for this article, sailing school grads were asked a number of important questions about their experience. Most of these comments were made through a questionnaire published in the January 15, 1998 issue. Armed with former students’ comments and criticisms, the schools and their instructors, programs and equipment were reviewed carefully.

In addition, this quantitative information was balanced with qualitative information received from customers about their overall satisfaction. Did they get their money’s worth? Would they recommend the program to a friend? Did the course meet their expectations? Negative comments about programs—whether they were on surveys, on the Internet or from former students who called personally—were investigated thoroughly, especially if they fell into patterns. The ratings were developed by weighing all of the above factors.

J World
In the 1991 survey of sailing schools, J World won the highest ratings for its fleet of new, high-quality racing boats (J’s of course), their challenging courses and adept instructors. Eight years later, they are still the best in the business.

“I truly felt like I was attending the ‘Top Gun’ of sailing schools. It was worth every penny I paid,” said Karl F. Beaster, a Wisconsin native. J World’s Jahn Tihansky said his company’s recipe is for good coaches, good boats, and lots of time on the water.

It’s working. J World’s customer satisfaction record was perfect. Every former student who reported was satisfied with his experience on the water and in the classroom. All felt that J World’s program was worth the money. That is a distinction no other large school achieved.

Graduates were also pleased with J World’s commitment to keeping classes small and filling courses with students of the same skill levels. Most J World classes have three students to every instructor. A few had private lessons. One was Chelsea Clinton, who learned to sail at J World’s Newport location.

“We offer more time on the water than most programs. If you come here, you’re going to go sailing,” said Tihansky, a former sailmaker, who owns and teaches at J World in Annapolis, Maryland. Tihansky also works for US Sailing, training future US Sailing-certified instructors.

Most J World grads say they spend almost all their time on the water. “Our whole experience was highly pleasurable and the instructors never forgot that we were on vacation and not in boot camp,” said Michael de Angeli, of Rockville, Maryland.

J World conducts most of its classes on the popular J/80 one-design racing sloop. The only complaint was from Brian Logan of Akron, Ohio. He said that his J World instructors at the Key West school were great, “but they were better at sailing than lecturing.”

Annapolis Sailing School
The Annapolis Sailing School has far more satisfied customers than dissatisfied ones, but those in the later category are vocal. Overall, the Annapolis-based school rated only fair, with many complaints centered around the company’s boats and equipment.

Many former students reported that the boats were in mediocre condition and that equipment was sometimes old and in bad shape. This is the same complaint graduates voiced in our 1991 survey. Other customers said that the instructors’ lesson plans were poorly organized. Happy customers do abound, however:

“Beautiful islands, great snorkeling, and the instructor, captain and chef were superb,” said Robert Beasley of Glen Burnie, Maryland, who attended Annapolis Sailing School’s St. Croix, BVI location. The school was also good enough for Hodding Carter, Jr., son of the former president who attended a few years ago.

The school prides itself on focusing more on cruising skills. They also strive to be family oriented, offering courses for every age group and at every level. This doesn’t always turn out for the best, according to Elaine McBeth of Williamsburg, Virginia. She said that on her first day of class, she and her husband were the only ones who showed and the company dumped them into a class that was already five days in. On the second day of the class, another newbie was introduced, with his 12-year-old daughter in tow.

Although he enjoyed his live-aboard class, Dem Answine of Apollo, Pennsylvania said his accommodations stunk. “The head odor in the rear berth was unbelievable.” He also craved more structure and direction. “The intensity of the instruction was very low. I feel the instructors should have taken more initiative in suggesting specific topics to learn. There were no daily lessons.”

A third of the grads said they didn’t feel they got their money’s worth or that their expectations were met.

Club Nautique
Club Nautique is an Alameda, California school that offers advanced sailing instruction, bareboat certification and navigation classes. Its overall satisfaction rating in our survey was a healthy 93%, and ratings for quality of boats, equipment and facilities were good.

C.J. Stumpf, however, who took a liveaboard class that included racing, cruising and navigation aboard 24’ keelboats and Hunter 30s, said the boats “were quite old.”

For the quality of instruction, courses and staff, the school did not do as well, though David Chamberlin of the bay area, who took the week-long cruising class, said, “If I were to acquire a non-sailing companion, this is the school and classes I would put them in—quickly.”

Offshore Sailing School
Since they offered their first sailing class 35 years ago, Steve and Doris Colgate and the Offshore Sailing School have graduated 80,000 sailors. Their courses have a reputation for being challenging; instructors are some of the best afloat.

Offshore’s instructors rated best overall in our survey and they were miles ahead of most schools. Former students had nothing but praise for the sailing staff’s ability to teach, communicate and inspire confidence.

In fact, the only uncomplimentary data we uncovered may not be disparaging at all. Customers said Offshore’s classes spend more time in the classroom than those at other schools. That’s true, said Steve Colgate. “A lot of schools avoid the classroom, but we think it’s important. That way we can talk about why things happen. We can explain events that way and the result is people come out with greater understanding,” he said.

The other side of the coin was voiced by Gary Salins of Lakeside Park, Kentucky. “The course materials were too technical for a ‘learn to sail’ course,” he said.

Another benefit of the Offshore Sailing School is their custom-designed boats. “The Colgate 26 was built with training in mind,” Colgate said. He developed the concept and Jim Taylor did the plans. Features include a small aft berth for the instructor, sturdy rails around the cockpit to give new sailors a sense of security, and logical placement of equipment.

In addition, we like Offshore’s tradition of requiring students to go solo before they graduate. “It shows our confidence in the student,” Colgate said, “and gives them confidence in themselves. They really pay attention when they are aware that they will have to go it alone at the end.”

Offshore tops the list in the famous alum category. Pupils include Christie Brinkley, Bob Vila, and Martina Navratalova.

Olympic Circle Sailing Club
Based in Berkeley, California, OCSC is a small and worthwhile program that graduates about 50 students a month. It is also a club with more than 700 members, although membership is not required to take OCSC’s US Sailing-affiliated classes. The program is ranked first among smaller schools. If you live anywhere near San Francisco Bay, OCSC will not be a disappointing experience.

OCSC graduate Leigh Trivette of Oakland said her class was demanding and confidence-inspiring. The program makes use of a small flotilla of J/24s as well as almost a dozen larger boats. The school has been in business since 1979 and it has a reputation for being well-managed and very efficient. It is also very reasonable, with week-long live-aboard classes starting at a low $890 (other schools charge up to $1,495).

Customers rated OCSC’s equipment and staff extremely well. Former students praised the program’s instructors highly for their ability to communicate techniques and the organization of their drills and lessons. All graduates said they felt it was worth the price.

Sailboats, Inc.
Sailboats, Inc. is a marina, yacht brokerage and sailing school. Based on our survey, former students think that their work load is making this Great Lakes region sailing school suffer.

Graduates complained most about the overall condition of the boats. Satisfaction with instructors was higher, although students said some were only fair communicators. Other said that the instruction lacked depth. That would account for why many said the class didn’t meet their expectations. Many of these same troubles plagued Sailboats, Inc. in our 1991 report.

Another common thread was unbalanced student-instructor ratios.

Marti Staszak of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, however, said his experience with Sailboats, Inc. was good in spite of the prevailing 8-foot seas and 35-knot winds which kicked across Lake Michigan the weekend he attended.

In 1991, we gave Womanship, an Annapolis-based single-sex sailing school, high marks. Since that report, however, we have received periodic and regular complaints from Womanship students. The same types of complaints were reiterated in our latest survey. We shared the most biting remarks with Womanship founder and CEO, Suzanne Pogell, whose responses are excerpted below.

“For the safety and well-being of women everywhere, Womanship should get out of the sailing school business,” said Deanna DeHaas, 24, of Annapolis, Maryland. “Based on my experiences at Womanship, I believe they are incompetent, dangerous and duplicitous. They compromised our safety in a substandard and dangerous boat and taught us almost nothing about sailing.” They were also late for class, she said.

As we learned, DeHaas was actually lucky. Sometimes Womanship doesn’t show up at all. Barbara Verville drove four hours from her Orlando home to take a Womanship class in Miami. When she got to the dock, the instructor, boat and classmates she had pre-paid for were nowhere to be found. “They canceled my class and didn’t bother to call me,” she said. “Womanship took my money and I never got an apology or an explanation and had to fight to get my money back.”

Pogell said the course was canceled at the last minute “because of a severe weather system which suddenly changed direction. This occurred at the same time our administrative staff was consumed with the after effects of the flooding of our offices.” A “computerized back-up system” also “proved faulty, and we did not catch it.”

In addition, many customers say Womanship’s equipment is old, decrepit and sometimes dangerous. “The companionway leaked, the water pump was broken, the mainsail was ripped and the boat was a mess,” said Suzanne Glenn, of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Glenn flew into Annapolis from Hilton Head just for the class to find that the boat she would sail on was smaller than the one the company described to her on the phone. Nor would the vessel have the private berth she said she was guaranteed before signing up and paying for the class in advance. She said she had to sleep hip-to-hip with another woman.

Pogell said Glenn must have heard “what she would have liked to hear but not what we actually publish or say about the size of the boat she would sail and the berth she would occupy. Never have we or do we guarantee a private berth.”

Glenn said her Womanship instructor, Pat Robinson, who apparently lived on the vessel, was sloppy and crass. “She may not have yelled, but she frequently insulted some of the students. It was not what we bargained for.”

DeHaas said Robinson showed up six hours late for class and failed to cover even 10% of the course syllabus. Despite assurances before the class, no time was spent on reefing, use of the boom vang and traveler, jibing and a host of other standard and crucial concepts Womanship promised to teach, said DeHaas.

Pogell responded that Robinson has owned and cruised her own 42-foot boat as charter skipper for many years,” and “has taught with Womanship for four years, leading students towards competence and confidence.” She is a “kind and gentle person who has never insulted anyone. However, her relaxed, collaborative instructional approach may not be comfortable for someone who is looking for more authoritative instruction.”

Cary Deringer of Bellingham, Washington flew to Ft. Myers, Florida for a class to polish her sailing skills, but the course turned into a nightmare, she said. “Three people were injured and the inflatable sank.” Disillusioned by broken equipment, the students voted to rename Gusto, Womanship’s 41-foot sloop, Busto. Late one night, a chronic air leak and a heavy squall spelled doom for the boat’s shaky old tender. “Picture four women barefoot in their nightgowns, hanging over the lifelines, trying to haul up a sunken inflatable and its outboard.” In the process, the instructor pulled her hamstring, said Deringer. Mocking Womanship’s motto, “Nobody yells,” Deringer said “I’d rather be yelled at than made to feel like an idiot.”

Regarding the inflatable, Pogell said that after the course, “the leak was patched, regrettably, a continuing saga in the story of inflatables.”

As for Deringer’s statement that three people were injured, Pogell said, “Safety is primary with Womanship—our safety record is flawless.”

And in defense of Robinson, Pogell said that Glenn, the student who called Robinson “sloppy and crass,” told the course coordinator that Robinson “proved to be a competent instructor and, for the most part, a knowledgeable instructor. She was amiable and on a social and personal level I believe she was an absolutely wonderful person.”

Another account of life on Gusto comes from Alyson K. Zierdt, of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Womanship owes her money too, she says. “Breezes of 10 to 15 knots were apparently insufficient to move Gusto.” As a result, the group got to sail “fewer than five hours all week.” Even in the prevailing light breezes, Gusto’s mainsail ripped when it filled with wind.

Pogell said that contrary to Zierdt’s opinion of Gusto, the boat is well suited to the conditions of the Chesapeake Bay. She acknowledges that during Zierdt’s class “the winds never rose above 5 knots the whole week, and it drizzled or rained most of the time.” Still, she said, “Two of the students reported a gloriously rewarding experience.” And “two days after the conclusion of this course, the same boat encountered nothing less than 15-18 knots, with gusts up to 35 knots.”

DeHaas said her particular Womanship boat “was not in a condition safe for sailing” and did not have enough lifejackets on board for the crew. When she pointed it out, DeHaas said Womanship’s staff acted self-righteous and ignored her.

Pogell replied that when the “Check Out” revealed that the boat was one lifejacket short, an additional life vest was secured. “Although there was nothing ‘self-righteous’ about our response, we complete Boat Checks because items such as life vests can disappear.”

Not every survey respondent blasted Womanship, however. We spoke to Dorothy Royer of Lancaster, Pennsylvania who took a class in Annapolis in 1995 and said it was first-rate. “They make you feel more confident that you are able to do things on your own.” The only incident on her cruise was when several vegetarian meals the company promised failed to make it out of the garden.

In any case, the number of dissatisfied Womanship students is daunting. For the time being at least, we have to agree with the student who advised: “Find another way to sail.”

Other Schools
Blue Water Sailing School of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida scored well, although some graduates complained that there were too many students assigned to instructors. The ASA-affiliated school offers the full range of ASA classes. They graduate 40 students a month, mostly on live-aboard cruises to the Florida Keys.

Midatlantic Sailing School, based at Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia scored high. Owner/instructor Richard Grezywinski received praise from grads for good communication skills, thought-out lesson plans, and “being a leader on the water.”

When Jeffrey French and his wife, both of Hanover, Massachusetts, decided to sell their small boat and “move up to the big toys,” they took a class at Tradewinds sailing school on the island of St. Lucia (the school is now in Tortola). It was a pleasurable and helpful experience, they reported. Other former students did, however, mention that some of the company’s boats were aging.

Many sailors learn from dozens of colleges and universities across the country which offer programs. Overall satisfaction with these classes varies, although most former students said they were satisfied. Positive results came back for Orange Coast College of Newport Beach, California, Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and the College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina. The classes last from two days to two semesters and are often taught by college students who sail on the schools’ teams. The classes are usually cheaper than professional schools and the value for the money is excellent. A drawback is that you are limited to the school’s equipment.

If you’re looking for inexpensive alternatives, check out the US Coast Guard Auxiliary (www.cgaux.org), the United States Power Squadron (www.usps.org) and the American Youth Hostel Sailing Program (www.hiayh.com/202-783-6161).

Bottom Line
The table on page 6 tells the tale. J World ranks tops, followed by OCSC, Offshore Sailing, Club Nautique and Blue Water Sailing School. For the remaining three schools with sufficient survey responses to be included in the table, the ratings drop significantly, ending with a dismal 25% satisfaction rating for Womanship.

Contacts- Annapolis Sailing School, PO Box 3334, Annapolis, MD 21403; 800/638-9192. Blue Water Sailing School, 940 NE 20th Ave., Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33304; 800/255-1840. Club Nautique, 1150 Ballena Blvd., Ste. 161, Alameda, CA 94501; 800/343-SAIL. J World, 213 Eastern Ave., Annapolis, MD 21403; 800/966-2038. Offshore Sailing School, 16731 McGregor Blvd., Ft. Myers, FL 33908; 800/221-4326. Olympic Circle Sailing Club, 1 Spinnaker Way, Berkeley, CA 94710; 800/223-2984. Sailboats, Inc., 250 Marina Dr., Superior, WI 54880; 800/826-7010. Womanship, The Boathouse, 410 Severn Ave., Annapolis, MD 21403; 800/342-9295.

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