Smooth Sailing Ahead: Spotlight on Summer Sailing Lessons

Many students opt to participate in sailing classes during their sophomore summer, both to earn a coveted PE credit and to learn an often inaccessible sport.

by Arielle Feuerstein | 7/8/22 3:05am

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Source: Courtesy of Sophie Ragg

Just 13 miles from campus on Mascoma Lake lies the Dartmouth Yacht Club. Home to a secluded beach and fleet of sailboats, the club also serves as the site of various instructional sailing programs during the summer months. This includes sailing camps for children, adult lessons and Dartmouth Physical Education sailing classes, which provide beginner sailing lessons to Dartmouth students.

Summer sailing is a popular pastime for many sophomores on campus, so much so that there are four sections of sailing classes for undergraduates — offered on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays — each with space for 16 students. According to Dartmouth Yacht Club director John Brady, every section is either full or at near capacity. 

“We fill our classes pretty much every year,” Brady said. 

This is the first summer since the COVID-19 pandemic that summer sailing lessons are operating at full capacity. According to Brady, the Yacht Club shut down during summer 2020, and summer classes returned in 2021, but with a limited number of students. 

Alex Rego ’24 is one such student to enroll in Dartmouth’s sailing program. She grew up in Martha’s Vineyard, where she was able to take sailing lessons for free as a child, and she saw Dartmouth’s lessons as an opportunity to reconnect with that part of her childhood. Rego praised the accessibility and affordability of Dartmouth’s sailing program. 

“I really fell in love with [sailing] as a kid and I’ve missed it a lot,” Rego said. “To learn to sail full price is a lot — it’s a really expensive sport. I thought that Dartmouth offered such a good deal, and I wanted to get back into it.”  

Registering for sailing lessons costs $210 for undergraduates, although students receiving financial aid can apply for a discount. When students enroll in sailing lessons, they also receive membership to the Dartmouth Yacht Club. 

The first thing sailing students must do, according to Brady, is pass a 50-yard swim test at the beginning of their first lesson. After that point, sailing instructor Sophie Ragg ’22 stressed that each lesson is often dictated by the conditions that day.

“Some days there will be loads of wind and we can learn how to helm, crew, put up the spinnaker, balance the boat and set the sails effectively. Other days there will be less wind and it’s a good time to learn some theory, tie knots, learn about navigation and the wind or go out and do capsize drills,” Ragg said. “Depending on the wind direction we can also play games, follow the leader or tag or go further down the lake to explore. It really just depends.”

Rego found herself pleasantly surprised by how “laid-back” and approachable her first few sailing lessons were.

“I have background experience, and yet I still get timid sometimes on boats because there obviously is risk and the opportunity for things to go wrong, but we all felt so, so safe,” Rego said. 

Fostering this casual learning environment was important to Ragg, and she stressed that she liked that sailing classes were a place where students could be unafraid to make mistakes or try new things. 

“You’re going to fall in the water and things are going to go wrong,” Ragg said.  “It’s a steep learning curve, but it’s kind of fun in a place that can be as pressurized as Dartmouth to have an environment where people can just give things a go and have fun. It doesn't matter how you do at it; it’s more just about the experience

While learning to sail, students have the opportunity to become skipper certified. This enables students to take boats out on the water alone, and because sailing students are already members of the Dartmouth Yacht Club, they have access to the club’s fleet of boats for no additional fee. 

“So that’s a really cool goal to reach and then try and get people satisfied by week two or three, four, so that they have the summer to enjoy the experience of sailing as much as they can,” Ragg said.

According to Brady, in order to become skipper certified, students must demonstrate that they can sail a boat upwind, downwind and across the wind. They must also know how to tie various knots necessary for sailing, and they need to be able to stop the boat in the water at any time if someone were to fall overboard. Students must also be comfortable leaving the dock with the boat and returning to the dock.

“By the end of the course, everybody is able to do that and we're able to let them out alone in a boat,” Brady said. “The learning curve varies quite a bit for everybody. Some people just pick it up intuitively, others it takes a little bit longer to get them comfortable doing it, but it’s just a process that everyone has to go through.”

Rego said she is particularly excited about having the opportunity to sail on her own time.

“Theoretically, in a few weeks here, when I get certified, I can go out and sail whenever,” Rego said. “It’s just the best way to break up your day.”

Ragg similarly emphasized that sailing can provide a valuable break from the stress of campus life.

“The sailing school down on Mascoma Lake is a really beautiful place, and I think not many students know that it exists,” Ragg said. “It’s cool to get off campus and … come outside this Dartmouth bubble and experience something that when you’re there, you don’t feel like you’re at school. It’s like a completely separate place.”

To Ragg, the most rewarding part of teaching sailing is seeing her students become comfortable on the water.

“It’s cool to see how people go from having no confidence, and they’re a little bit wary, especially on a windy day, to being super confident sailors and to be able to take the boats out — it’s a cool experience to see the transformation,” Ragg said.

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