Lan Yarbrough’s Tips for Sailing Instructors
Lan Yarbrough has taught as an ASA instructor since 1986 at all levels. He was one of the instructor writers that contributed to the Sailing Made Easy and Cruising Made Easy textbooks. He has taught and sailed on both coasts as well as in Mexico, in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Red Sea and in Asia.
Here are some of Lan’s proven practices for instructors to teach by:
- Be In Control
As instructor (and Skipper) you are responsible for both the success of the learning process and the safety of vessel and students. The art is to maintain that control while remaining calm and avoiding ever becoming “domineering”. The student will respond better, the atmosphere will be less tense, and learning flows easier.
- Break It Down
What is easy for you—or now even just a reflex— can seem very confusing, intimidating and downright scary to a student. When demonstrating new actions or procedures, break them down into component steps so the student can absorb them. For example, the student is on a beam reach and you want them to gybe around to a shallow broad reach on the opposite tack. Break that down into:
- fall off to a deep broad reach,
- hold course and issue commands,
- bring in the main,
- turn slowly downwind,
- call “Jibe Ho!” when the mainsail leech starts to curl,
- remind the trimmer to ease out the mainsheet smoothly,
- pause at the new tack, on a deep broad reach to prevent over-turning, then
- head up onto the new desired course.
With experience, these actions will all blend smoothly together; but, for the student, recognizing those individual steps along the way makes it easier.
- Praise Early and Often
Teaching someone to sail is a little like training a puppy. They want to please but are often confused about what to do, when, and how you want it done. Like a puppy, praising a student reinforces those good actions and they become even more eager for the next success (and virtual “doggy treat”). Avoid the virtual “newspaper on the nose”. It rarely works and you may get bitten!
- Keep Your Hands Off the Tiller
This is a hard one to remember sometimes but may be the most important teaching habit to help the student to the greatest progress. Teach the group early on how to handle lines, winches, and the tiller/wheel; then, back away. You will need to demonstrate a proper procedure, sometimes more than once, but the student learns faster from “Tiller-Time”, actual hands-on doing, than they will from just watching you do it. The student might even learn more from watching another student struggle with an action since they can mentally analyze what the other student is doing wrong and imagine themselves doing it right. “Learn by Doing” is a rule we can all respect.
- Keep It FUN!
Did I mention, “Keep It Fun”? If it isn’t fun and doesn’t feel good to a student, why would they continue or come back? If the FUN-meter goes down, fall back and take a breath. Tell jokes, start a different activity, sing sea chanties, and then return to the task.
- Keep It Light
Recreational sailing is a fun, accessible, and rewarding activity. Don’t allow any students or yourself to let it seem like a grim, scary or overly ponderous undertaking. One of my favorite phrases when starting a new skill or slogging through errors while students try to master a new skill is “Hey, this isn’t brain surgery, its only sailing!” Lighten up; treat any failures and errors as learning experiences not a mark against their intelligence, potential, or character. Keep It Light. Students should always feel that sailing is doable, learnable and fun!
- “To the Boats!”
One of the temptations of any new instructor is to spend too long in that mode where you feel the most control and predictability: Lecture. There are good reasons to lecture sometimes, but students sign up for a sailing class to go sailing. After a very brief session in the classroom, try to go “To the Boat!” as soon as possible. Even a lecture (supplemented perhaps using a sketch or a flipbook), delivered in the cockpit or around the saloon table onboard the boat is more acceptable to the student, enjoyable, and conducive to learning. Talk through names of parts briefly in lecture, then go “To the Boat!” to quiz and demonstrate on the real thing. More hands-on and connected to the boat activities mean even faster and more enjoyable learning.
- Don’t Play Favorites
Oh, wow! Is there any faster way to ruin the atmosphere of a class and create dissatisfaction with the course than to act like one or two students are “good sailors”, cool, and your favorites while the others are just there for the ride? I really don’t think so. EVERYONE in the class paid the same, each one wants to learn to sail and deserves to be helped and taught equally. Be professional; treat them all equally.
- Equalize Tiller-Time
As with not playing favorites, students are keenly aware of unequal treatment in their share of Tiller-Time. In any class, there will often be one student who could use some extra practice time doing an activity. You should recognize this and pay extra special attention to maximize the learning during their own turn at steering, or trimming or sail-handling. What you CAN’T DO is give them noticeably more time on the tiller or in the trimmer position at the expense of the other students. You just can’t. You will alienate the other students and lose their cooperation and respect. Talk to the slow one during lunch, pay a bit closer attention while they perform, perhaps. But, don’t cheat the rest.
- Use the Student’s Name…Consistently
There is no more pleasing sound to a human than the sound of their own name. Play around at the start until you know their names cold, then use them consistently. “Chuck, bring it in a little more.” “Good job, Kate, perfectly executed.” Do this and they will glow with pride when acknowledged. Using their name gets quick attention so you can shortcut any errors-in-progress. When you ask “somebody” to haul a line, “nobody” will respond but “everybody” will blame “the other guy” for the whole crew’s failure. Engage each of them directly, by name, and each crewmember will do their job more efficiently.