BREEZE INTO A SAILING COURSE
By JENNIFER ZAJAC

(MONEY Magazine) – How many times have you strolled along a beach or by a harbor, watched sailboats riding the breeze and daydreamed about being out there among them? Unfortunately, even a modest 20-footer costs at least $10,000--and then there's the $4,500 to $6,000 in annual maintenance, storage and insurance. Perhaps you've considered chartering, say, a 37-footer with a captain and a cook. Bankbook, ho! The one-week tab for a couple is about $4,000 including tips.

There is, however, a delightful and less expensive way to realize your sailing fantasy: Spend $400 to $2,100 for two to six days of sailing lessons--that can double as a sun-soaked vacation--and gain the confidence and credentials to rent a 30- to 40-footer almost anywhere for $200 to $500 a day depending on boat model and rental duration. You'll save a bundle, have fun, and when you're done you can kick back and let someone else worry about scraping the barnacles and varnishing the spars.

As more aspiring sailors discover the benefits of lessons and rentals, sailing schools around the country report brisk bookings: At least 75,000 adults in the U.S. learned to sail this year (up from about 65,000 three years ago). In the box at left, we list five top American Sailing Association- accredited facilities in the U.S. and the Caribbean, including the International Sailing School in Punta Gorda, on the southwest coast of Florida. That's where my husband Greg, a sports librarian, and I recently went as total novices and learned to be skippers.

The ISS, a 35-minute drive north of Fort Myers, is one of more than 150 schools in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean accredited to offer classes and exams in the ASA's seven stages of Keelboat Sailing Certification. A keelboat, we learned, has a weighted fin--or keel--at the bottom of the hull that keeps the boat from slipping sideways in the water and helps resist tipping over. The category includes most large single-hull sailboats.

We enrolled for the five-day course offering two days of basic sailing certification followed by three live-aboard days of more advanced instruction toward coastal- cruising certification. Cost: $1,745 for the two of us. If we passed the course, it would be documented in a passportlike book, which would qualify us to rent a boat of 35 feet or less in "moderate wind and sea conditions" almost anywhere from Maine to Hawaii and, in many places, one up to 40 feet long. (Although only six states--Alabama, Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and North Dakota--require recreational boaters to have a license, most owners of rental fleets understandably want proof that you're not going to ram their new sloop into a bridge.)

Greg and I prepared for our lessons and exams by studying a 206-page manual called Sailing Fundamentals by Gary Jobson, which ISS had mailed to us four weeks before our arrival in Punta Gorda. Once there, we were greeted by the school's owner, CJ Coulson, 54, and our first instructor, Bob Hoff, 55, both of whom looked as if they had just walked off a package of fish sticks. Each had a white, combed beard and sparkling blue eyes. Awaiting us at the marina, Fishermen's Village, was a white 22-foot Catalina, the Chevrolet of sailboats. There was a mainsail and a smaller sail called a jib at the front, or bow, of the boat, and we were to steer with a lever called a tiller, attached directly to the rudder at the stern.

Like most good sailing schools, ISS teaches in groups of three or (as in our case) fewer to give each student plenty of experience at each crew station. We sailed from 8:30 a.m. until at least 5 p.m. and spent an hour reviewing terms and procedures at night. Our first days on the water we zigzagged around Charlotte Harbor, learning the ropes (called lines, on a sailboat), from trimming sails and changing course to tying knots. We were also drilled on such matters as the elaborate rules of right-of-way among converging boats. For instance, powerboats must always give way to boats using only sails. (CJ sneeringly referred to the former as "stinkboats," and let us know that motorboaters called us "wind fairies.")

We had our first written exams, lasting about 40 minutes each, after lunch on Day Two. Bob promptly graded the papers and reviewed with us the very few questions we missed. Then it was back out on the water for more basic practice.

Moving on toward receiving our coastal-cruising certificates, we spent the next three days learning to sail in stronger winds and seas on a larger craft that had both sails and an auxiliary engine. The white, 35-foot Endeavour (think of it as the Buick of sailboats) was a bit daunting at first. Its four-foot-diameter steering wheel required some adjustment after the tiller on the Catalina, and the larger sails gathered serious wind power, requiring us to wear gloves to prevent rope burn.

Living aboard a 35-foot boat was like camping out first class. We had a fridge, a double bed, two single berths and a fully equipped bathroom, though all were munchkin-size. And there were nooks and lockers to stow the variety of clothes we were advised to bring for weather that can shift from gusting storms to clammy fog to brutal sunshine.

CJ and his wife Josie stayed with Greg and me on the first night out. We anchored just off the Intracoastal Waterway, protected from any storms that might roll in off the gulf. A gentle, cool breeze made sleeping easy.

The next day the wind picked up. I was at the wheel as the Endeavour began to slash through the water, my excitement turning to alarm as the boat started leaning over. CJ assured me that, yes, this is supposed to happen. It's called heeling. I caught Greg's eye, and we exchanged grins. At that precise moment we fell in love with sailing.

On our final night aboard, we tied up at a marina about 13 miles below Fishermen's Village. After arranging to funnel cool air into the boat's cabin from a dockside air conditioner, CJ and Josie drove home, leaving Greg and me to enjoy the Endeavour as if it were our own.

Setting sail the next morning for Fishermen's Village felt bittersweet. Our five days of boating were coming to an end. We spent two hours of the trip back taking the written exam for our coastal- cruising credentials. CJ turned the helm over to us while he graded the papers--and by the time we docked, Greg and I were proud to know that we had passed.

Both CJ and Bob recommend getting out at least three times a year to stay in sailing shape. That's a prescription we'll be glad to follow, though we're in no hurry to buy a boat. The Endeavour hasn't been in production since 1987, but a comparable new boat will run from $100,000 to $140,000 (and depreciates about 5% the first day you own it). An '87 Endeavour in decent condition costs about $55,000 to $59,000.

Look for more information on the Internet: ASA (www.american-ailing.com) and the U.S. Sailing Association (www.ussailing.org). Before choosing a school, make sure the instructors are ASA or U.S. Sailing certified and interview them about their experience, their method of teaching, what students will (and won't) learn and whether the school can cater to your skill level and aspirations.