On the Water: Set Sail

Never skippered even a Sunfish? Lessons and boat rentals abound. Or you could let someone else hoist sails while you lounge on the deck.




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The Rehoboth Beach Sailing Association is one of many outfits that will give you everything you need to sail the high seas.
photograph by Keith Mosher


For decades sailing was either a sport for the wealthy or a career for swabbies. But these days anyone from those who have never set foot on a rocking deck to those who have mastered the art of tacking tactfully can enjoy the thrill of racing over the surf.

Don’t let inexperience or a lack of vessel prevent you from exploring the water. Rent a sailboat for a few hours—or a full day, if you’re so inclined. The Rehoboth Bay Sailing Association, Bay Sports in Dewey Beach, Coastal Kayak in Fenwick Island, the Rehoboth Bay Marina and the Lewes Yacht Club, among others, will let you venture out on one of their rental boats.

And if you aren’t sure you’ll be able to bring the boat back in one piece—if at all—you can also hire a skipper. “If you’re a little shy, we’ll ride with you,” says Teri Munz of Rehoboth Bay Sailing Association.

You may also want to consider taking lessons. Before you launch, the instructor will review essential points of safety, the parts of the boat, sail positions and the basics of tacking and jibing, or turning the boat. Once you head out, you’ll learn to spot where the wind is coming from and areas to avoid.

Once you’ve wired the basics, enjoy the Rehoboth Bay. It’s small and closed off from most of the heavy tidal currents of the Indian River and the ocean, so it’s easy to sail on. “This is a can-do bay,” Munz says. That makes it the perfect place to practice what you learned in class. The same is true of Little Assawoman Bay, so go ahead, get intimate with your sheets.

When it’s time to step up, try moving on to the Delaware Bay. Tidal currents can complicate progress, and larger swells can be dangerous. But sailing on a calm, sunny day can be very pleasant. The wide open view stretches all the way to New Jersey, there’s no rush, and there’s no crowd to share the wind with. “The bay is like a big playground,” says Sarah Lester, sailing instructor for the Lewes Yacht Club. “Sometimes our [students] want to know where to go, but really, you can go anywhere.”

Wherever you go, be prepared to get a bit wet. A Sunfish, the 13-foot boot used in most rental fleets, sits very low on the water. At the least, you’ll get a spray splashing your face. But it’s also possible that the boat might tip. (You do have your lifejacket on for a reason.) If that happens, don’t stress. To right the boat, stand on the centerboard, grab the gunwhales, then lean back. After you climb back in, bail a bit, then sail on.

After putting in so much work, you’re going to have a raging appetite. Give in and have lunch. The bay is filled with interesting, often isolated beaches. And most small rental boats can be pulled right onto the shore. So pack a lunch.  There is no place more perfect for a picnic.

If the serenity of a bayside lunch doesn’t suit your mood, tie up at a restaurant with a dock: The Rusty Rudder in Dewey has a dock on Rehoboth Bay while The Lighthouse Restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf in Lewes welcomes boaters from the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal (if your boat has a motor). On the Little Assawoman Bay lie Catch 54 and Harpoon Hanna’s restaurants, both in Fenwick Island, which have slips for boaters.

(Take note: There is no thoroughfare from Little Assawoman Bay to the northern bays, so if you want to visit the Fenwick Island restaurants, you’ll have to put in at a marina in South Bethany or Fenwick Island.)

Not loving the idea of captaining your own vessel? Get someone else to do it for you. There are dozens of boats in the area that are available for a chartered ride, which gives you and your family a great way to get out and enjoy the water without having to master the art of, well, anything. The crew will handle all of the tacking, jibing and navigating. Your job is to have fun.

One of the most notable vessels is the Kalmar Nyckel. Get to know how Delaware’s earliest settlers crossed the Atlantic during a trip aboard the historically accurate replica. The original sailed from Sweden to what is now Wilmington in 1638. Your trip won’t take as long or go as far, but it’s definitely worth the ride. The ship moors at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal at different dates in October. Day trips let fledgling sailors help hoist and trim sails while exploring the deck and its functioning cannon. If you’re feeling more adventurous, join a pirate crew as it commandeers the Kalmar Nyckel on one of the Pirate Sails. You won’t have to walk the plank, but it’s a trip you won’t soon forget. The captain and crew dress to the breeches in historic gear and are quick to show guests the knots that keep the boat together. Volunteers even help sail the boat.

While sailors can learn the ropes onboard, Judy Hentkowski, office manager for the Kalmar Nyckel, stresses that riding on the Tall Ship won’t require hard labor. “We don’t force the guests to help us sail the boat,” she says. Those who aren’t interested in sharing can charter a three-hour trip by calling 429-7447.

If you’re more than a little experienced on a Sunfish, step it up at one of the area’s regattas. The Lewes Yacht Club and the Rehoboth Bay Sailing Association offer races throughout the summer. Some events feature only a handful of competitors. Others, like the RBSA’s Commodore’s Cup on September 2 have been known to draw packs of boaters so thick that the red, blue and yellow sails blot out the waves.

Before you board, be sure to consider what you’ll need for the day, and, no, that is not limited to a bathing suit and a bottle of Merlot.

Wear comfortable clothing. Shorts and a T-shirt are the uniform of a boater. You’ll have to do a good amount of moving, from tacking to docking, so clothing that confines is bad news.

Bring a windbreaker. After all, you are going on a vessel powered by wind.

Wear water shoes. You’ll probably jump into the shallows at some point, and stepping on a shard of shell could ruin your day.

Bring a cap, sunglasses and sun block. Glare off the water can be blinding. And, after all, lobsters are better on a plate than on a deck.

Stock up on water. The sun and salt air can leave you feeling like you munched on sand for lunch. 




The Beginner’s Guide to a Sailboat

Boom a spar on the foot of the sail

Bow the front of a boat

Cen terboard a removable board that steadies the hull

Cockpit where you sit

Halyard a rope that raises a sail

Hull the floating core of a boat

Jibe a downwind turn

Mast the pole that carries the sail

Port the left side of a boat

Rudder a fin that steers a boat


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