Sailing Etiquette

Few spheres of activity embody custom and tradition to as great an extent as sailing and boating. Some aspects are bound in law and the Rules of the Road (which governs the conduct of a vessel under way at sea) but there’s a lot besides that falls under the general concept of Sailing Etiquette.

Imagine that you have been invited for an exciting day on the waves - here are a few thoughts on how to conduct one’s self afloat!

The Skipper

Most Skippers are practical and relaxed characters who enjoy sharing their love of the outdoors and the sea with others – that’s why you got the invite! They may also be goo friends of yours shore-side – but there’s something you have to remember now that you are afloat… the Skipper once afloat IS IN CHARGE. There will be moments where things have to be done – or not done! – NOW – and the Skipper will bark at you in a way that may surprise you! Once the drama passes the Skipper will be back to normal as if nothing happened – make sure you are too.

The Rules

The Skipper will give you a safety brief, tell you what is expected of you, tell you how the toilet facilities operate, what the catering arrangements are; make sure you listen! And if in doubt … ASK.

Food and Drink

There is a general expectation that the Skipper brings the boat and the crew bring the food and drink. Find out what is expected and make a good contribution to the proceedings. Smaller sailing vessels may not have a heater or kettle; luxurious boats may not welcome red wine (it WILL spill!); a days in a stiff breeze is likely to favour finger food rather than a laid table as the yacht spends the day leaning 20 degrees to her side! Alcohol is likely to figure somewhere in the day but ask before drinking too much; some skippers avoid drink while under way, and seasickness is more likely if sozzled.

What to wear

Ashore, you don’t know what wind is. For your first time afloat you are in for a shock! With no buildings and trees to break it up, and a cool sea to chill it, the wind can cut like a knife – all day long. So make sure you have the right warm/waterproof/windproof clothing. The sun can be strong too, so take a hat – one that won’t fly off in the breeze. Suncream and lipsalve will be useful. Gloves can be a godsend in colder weather or if you will be handling ropes and lines. And on your feet wear non-slip and non-marking soles! Black marks on the timber and fibreglass will be unwelcome – and high heels are definitely a no-no!
The most important thing to wear will hopefully come naturally – A SMILE. The most important thing to pack in you sea-bag is a good sense of humour too.

What to do when under way

Your Skipper will have explained what is expected of you; whether out as a ride-along passenger or out to haul on lines and be as actively involved in the operation of the vessel as possible, you can find a way to contribute to the day. All aboard are expected to keep a look-out for other vessels or floating debris – don’t assume that what you can see from the sunbathing spot on the fore-deck has also been seen from the wheel! Always be ready to lend a hand or serve the sandwiches.


When the boat comes back alongside, don’t just shout thanks and leap away back to your car! Ask what you can do to help – because there’s a great deal to be done to secure a vessel and put her to bed. Do your bit.
Tell the Skipper what you thought of your day, and ask to go again if you really mean it; after all, sailing (and seasickness?!) aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.
And then adjourn with a grateful wallet to the pub/yacht club bar!