So You Want to be a Sailing Instructor?
by Tony Green
These were Captain Thom Burns' first words as he picked up the phone on that cold afternoon in February. I had called in to Northern Breezes Sailing School to inquire about American Sailing Association (ASA) instructor clinics and the staff patched me through to Thom. I had expected to be brushed aside and dismissed under the mistaken assumption that only the few and extremely salty ever get to be instructors, but I called anyway. We were suffering through the worst Minnesota winter in seven years and thoughts of sailing were keeping me from depression and insanity. I had read all of the current issues of the sailing magazines (twice) as well as all of the library books on boating that looked interesting and a few that didn't. The Internet still had plenty of information left, and one day while surfing, the idea of teaching sailing suddenly looked brilliant and irresistible. So I picked up the phone.
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tony and I am a recovering stock analyst and confirmed boataholic. I dropped out of the rat race two years ago to stay home with my two daughters and decide what to do next. I'm still figuring out what to be when I grow up, but getting paid to be on the water is currently at the top of my list. As I share my new aspirations with friends, family and strangers, the usual response is an enthusiastic (and envious) "that is so awesome!" Sometimes I get a more reserved "that's interesting," complete with cynical eye roll and get-a-real-job body language. If my wife is with me, she may get a sympathetic look that says "you poor thing." Well, I had a real job for 19 years and an early mid-life crisis was driving me into something completely different. Where else could I match my passion for sailing and know-it-all tendencies with income potential? I've owned boats, done the bareboat drill in the Apostle Islands, and teaching looked like a great way to go while waiting for Larry Ellison to return my calls about joining the BMW-Oracle America's Cup team.
Back to that February phone call. Thom Burns was encouraging and even seemed somewhat excited after I told him a little about myself. Hey, I wasn't being dismissed! I soon learned why. Northern Breezes loses about 20% of its Basic Keelboat instructors each year due to relocations, family, boat and other commitments. New instructors must be added annually just to stay even, and the school is in a growth phase, making staffing needs even greater. 2008 has seen a trickle of power boaters crossing over into sailing as they choke on high gas prices and that trend is likely to continue. Thom further explained that instructors for entry level courses are especially important, as they create the first impression of the sailing school, and a satisfied student typically returns for more advanced classes, such as Basic Coastal Cruising, Bareboat Charter and Advanced Coastal Cruising. These lead to repeat customers that are attracted to the school's vacation courses in Bayfield, Wisconsin and the British Virgin Islands, often accompanied by friends and family, who get hooked and the cycle continues. In fact, I first met Thom at one of these advanced classes; Coastal Navigation (ASA-105), a 20 hour classroom course taught in a local church basement. Usually held in the spring and fall, it is a nice off-season revenue stream for the school and keeps students interested and involved in the sport when they can't get on the water.
Prospective sailing instructors begin at the ASA website (http://www.american-sailing.com/ become_an_instructor.html), where a nationwide list of instructor clinics is maintained. Application is made directly with ASA, which reviews the candidate's sailing resume and then notifies the appropriate local sailing school if the applicant is accepted. An enrollment fee ($250 for Basic Keelboat) is paid to ASA. Course materials are mailed out, including two pre-tests, which must be completed prior to the first day of the clinic. In Minnesota, only Northern Breezes is listed and the school has two ASA certified Instructor Evaluators on staff; Thom Burns and his brother Captain Steve Burns. Basic Small boat and Basic Keelboat instructor clinics are held on Lake Minnetonka, normally in May and June, while advanced instructor clinics are taught on Lake Superior and in the Caribbean.
Prerequisites for an ASA Basic Keelboat instructor include: being an ASA member in good standing; age 18 or older; at least 3 years sailing experience; teaching experience or can demonstrate an aptitude for clearly communicating sailing concepts to the novice sailor; and capable of performing the standards described in the ASA International Log Book. But don't I need a Captain's license to teach? Well, no, as it turns out, for what I would be doing initially. According to the ASA website, you need a U.S. Coast Guard Captain's license if you answer "Yes" to all of the following questions:
1. Is the instructor or boat owner receiving any compensation or consideration?
2. Is the boat equipped with auxiliary power?
3. Is the boat operating on waters under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard?
Based on these requirements, I would be allowed to teach on local waters, such as Lake Minnetonka, White Bear Lake and Medicine Lake, but would not be permitted to instruct for pay on the Great Lakes or oceans, which are under Coast Guard authority.
The Basic Keelboat instructor clinic was a three-day affair at Shorewood Yacht Club in Excelsior, Minnesota. This well appointed marina is also home to Northern Breezes' Boat Club, where school graduates can sail the same boats on which they learn. Most of the nine instructor candidates were from the Twin Cities metro area, although one came from Minot, North Dakota. The Keelboat clinic ran concurrently with the school's Basic Small boat instructor clinic, consisting mainly of high school and college students hoping to become counselors at Northern Breezes' Youth Sailing Camp on Medicine Lake. Day one of the clinic included introductions, overview, administrative requirements and sailing. On the-water time emphasized single handed maneuvers, including solo crew overboard drills from all points of sail. These skills were of pass/fail importance, as Thom explained the real possibility of having to take control of the boat and safely operate it without assistance. Day two was spent almost entirely on the lake in gusty winds and waves on Lake Minnetonka. We quickly got comfortable sailing with each other and any competitiveness was left ashore. We were literally all in the same boat and it was apparent that our success did not depend on some one else's failure. It was fun and motivating to witness the cheers and high fives when we successfully rescued Timmy, our boat cushion mascot who kept "falling" overboard. By the end of the second day, we rarely missed our victim on the first try single handedly. The final day of the clinic was rainy and raw, so we spent it inside the comfortable clubhouse at Shorewood Yacht Club. Each ASA instructor candidate is required to teach a short class as well as perform a demonstration afloat on an assigned topic. Fortunately, my classroom topic was something I knew well; Rules of the Road, although I ran over the allotted teaching time. My afloat topic was docking under power, which also proved to be manageable. After presentations were complete, we took the written test. All ASA courses include a formal examination and the Basic Keelboat Instructor test was quite challenging. Even though we were only qualifying to teach introductory classes, a surprisingly high level of knowledge was required. After the exams were graded, Thom did a brief wrap up followed by written course evaluations and individual exit interviews. In these final conferences with Thom, we exchanged feedback about the clinic and reviewed our personal goals and plans to become actual instructors.
In my early conversations with Thom, he described his hiring process. The ASA instructor clinic is all that is technically required to certify students and sign ASA log books. ASA does require that you teach through an affiliated ASA facility. There are only two ASA affiliated schools in Minnesota and Northern Breezes is by far the larger and better known. Since I wasn't interested in starting my own school, Thom and I discussed my working for him. To become a Northern Breezes instructor, Thom encourages prospects to pursue advanced teaching credentials such as Basic Coastal Cruising, Bareboat Charter and Coastal Navigation. This is an opportunity for Thom (or his brother Steve) to further ensure there is a good fit between a new instructor and the teaching philosophy of Northern Breezes. Coaching of real students can be observed and personality traits are easily seen under the more challenging conditions of a live aboard course. It sure sounded like a four-day interview to me, but it was sailing time and included advanced instructor credentials (which meant higher pay), so I quickly agreed.
Three weeks after completing the Basic Keelboat instructor clinic, I was on my way to Bayfield with Michael, a fellow graduate. We were registered to take the Basic Coastal Cruising/Bareboat Charter vacation course as instructor candidates. This four-day, fast-paced course allows students to complete two ASA standards in one trip to Lake Superior. As instructor candidates, Michael and I would be in a real teaching environment with genuine students; in our case Vladan Pulec and Katerina Pulcova, a husband and wife team from the Twin Cities. We lived and sailed together for the next four days: docking, tacking, jibing, reefing, heaving to, anchoring, navigating, eating and sleeping. Michael and I acted as crew for the students as well as demonstrating our teaching and sailing skills, with Thom Burns observing and running the occasional casualty drill on us. There are no separate instructor tests for these courses, although ASA requires a minimum score of 90% on the student exams in order to be rated as an instructor. It was an exhausting weekend, but very satisfying as we completed two more ASA instructor requirements, acquired more signatures in our logbooks and qualified for a pay raise.
I was nervous before my first students arrived at Shorewood Yacht Club, but knew that I couldn't show it. Amazingly, my anxiety wore off the moment I met them and we started talking. They were brand new to sailing, and I realized that no matter what, I knew more than they did and would at least teach them something. I spent most of that first class with a smile on my face thinking "I can't believe I'm getting paid to do this!" Some students were easier to teach than others, but as the summer and fall wore on it was always fun. The most challenging situations occurred when students in the same class had significant differences in abilities or when one of them had clearly been dragged aboard by a spouse or parent. The unmotivated students were rare however, and the low points were more than offset by those golden moments of watching someone get hooked on sailing. Seeing students go from timidly stepping aboard the first day to flying across the lake and safely returning to the slip unassisted on the last day is extremely gratifying. There are few things as rewarding as helping someone learn a new skill and watching them have fun with it.
So would I do it all over again? As we say here in Minnesota, you betcha! Sure, I left a trail of cash along the way. The total cost for Basic Keelboat Instructor certification was under $300, while the Basic Coastal Cruising, Bareboat Charter and Coastal Navigation Instructor upgrade cost close to $1,000. The advanced credentials bring a higher wage for classes taught at all levels and I estimate that the payback time for my "graduate" program will only be a couple of years. I'm not likely do get rich doing this, but that was never the goal. Aside from the money, I love the intangible benefits such as increased sailing skills and the confidence that I've achieved during the certification process. I have been pleasantly surprised by the status of my new position and enjoy it more than I care to admit. And I got an awesome farmer's tan. What really surprised me was how achievable this was. I was a bit conflicted in writing this article; worried that more readers will realize how it's done and pursue teaching, creating a surplus of instructors. Part of me wanted to make the process sound agonizingly difficult and selective, but it just wouldn't be true. Teaching sailing is a blast and is a realistic option open to any avid sailor with moderate knowledge and skills. It's the best part-time job I've ever had. What's next? Obtaining my Coast Guard Captain's license and teaching for Northern Breezes on Lake Superior and in the Virgin Islands. Getting paid to sail in the Caribbean. Are you kidding me? Where do I sign up?
Tony Green has been boating since 1985, including eight years on U.S. Navy nuclear submarines. He currently teaches for Northern Breezes Sailing School and sails with his wife and two daughters on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, on the St. Croix River and on Lake Superior.