Sailing is challenging enough without the weather forecasts, flag signals, and racing rules. It’s the kind of thing you get the hang of over time. But if you’re just starting out, there are ways to get around the initial challenge besides a good GPS. If you have a smartphone or tablet, you can download apps to help you navigate, keep track of local weather, or simply remember basic rules and signals. Here are some that are worth checking out.

iGrib: Make your own forecasts

GRIB stands for gridded binary, a way of viewing weather files. This app, which sells for $4.99, gives you access to the same information that weather stations use for their forecasts. The difference is that you can make your own decisions based on other factors, such as your own route. Some sailors also use it to make longer-range forecasts for long-haul trips.

Tide Graph

Despite its name, this app measures more than tides: it also gives you information on sunrise and sunset, moon phases, and user-set locations. The data is taken from a vast range of coastal stations and shown in an easy-to-use interactive graph. The catch? It requires an internet connection and is limited to US coasts, although this might change with future updates.

Sailboat Race Starter

It’s basically a countdown timer, but the extra features tailor-made for sailing make it well worth the $5.99 price tag. For instance, you can sync your time with that of race officials, so you don’t miss out if you lose the warning signal. You can also set it to vibrate or alert you as the start time draws near, and use the integrated GPS to see how close or far you are from the line. Perhaps most importantly, especially if you’ve tried inferior apps, it doesn’t dim the screen or “sleep”—you can be sure it’s up and running during the start sequence.

Knot Guide/Signal Flags: Not essential, but fun to have

Knot Guide is basically what it says it is: a guide to knots. The current version, priced at $1.99, features more than a hundred knots, most of which are new or unique.  The app also gives basic information about each knot, such as where it’s used. You can classify them by use and type, and save your favourites.

Signal Flags is also a good reference tool. This free app shows you the 40 flags used in international code along with a brief description of each. It’s essentially a recognition tool: it helps you figure out messages displayed by other vessels.

 

For yachters, there’s something positive and carefree about sitting at the helm of a smaller vessel. The paddling gives you a different sense of control, and the sails let you know you’re going steady. You feel the breeze more, and you’ve got more time to appreciate the scenery. Whether you’ve been sailing for years or are just getting your feet wet, kayak sailing is an experience not to be missed. If you’re thinking of giving it a try this season, here’s a guide to the basics.

Sailing kayaks are generally single-hulled, but some people put two kayaks together to create a catamaran-like vessel with two hulls. This is done using stabilizer bars, which keeps the kayaks together and allows you to control them as one unit. A single sail is usually enough to power the entire contraption. Experts recommend using two similar kayaks, although many boaters have successfully put hard and inflatable kayaks together.

A less common arrangement is called the trimaran, which, as the name suggests, is a three-hulled version of the catamaran. This includes a standard kayak hall and two small outrigger boats on either side, providing stability. Besides the main sail, you’ll need a smaller spinnaker to power the boat, according to Triak, a leading manufacturer of trimarans.

Spinnakers, which are basically lightweight sails, help push your boat along when the winds are light. Experienced sailors can fly spinnakers at speeds of up to 15 knots, but you may want to give it a few test runs if you’re new to it. It goes just in front of the main sail, and works by catching wind from either side with the sailor tacking back and forth.

Alternatively, you can use an airfoil sailing rig. This rig uses a stiff sail framed with wood or composite battens running across the sail. It’s a little unusually shaped, but it goes remarkably fast and works well with leeboards in preventing side slippage. The speed can compromise stability, but this is easily remedied with an outrigger. Whatever you choose, be prepared to shell out a good sum for your kayak rig: the simplest ones start at $200 and high-end asymmetrical models can run close to $1,000.

Kayak sailing is fairly easy if you have some sailing experience, but weather considerations play a much bigger role. Too much wind can cause the small, light vessel to overturn, and a sail that’s much too powerful can cause side slipping. Take time to consider your boat design—you may want to install a daggerboard or leeboard for stability. You may also want to give it a test run beforehand, as different tacking techniques may take some getting used to.

Many boaters think of sailing as a way to tighten their bond with nature, or at least experience it more intimately. But until recently, few have given much thought to what that same hobby does to the environment. Although there are far worse ways to have fun—like driving around in a Hummer—the damages of sailing can be minimized in surprisingly easy ways. Here are some easy ways you can green up your sailing without ruining your fun.

Stop oil leaks: Oil is commonly discharged from the bilge, especially if the engine isn’t properly tuned. The best way to prevent this is obviously to make sure your engine is tuned at all times. In addition, you can block possible drips by placing an absorbent pad under the engine’s most drip-prone areas. Check them often and replace then when they get too heavy—and make sure to dispose of them at a safe place.

Avoid oil change spills: When changing your oil, make sure to put it in a spill-proof vessel and keep it all in place by using an oil pump. Cover the filter with an absorbent pad, like the ones above, or use a plastic bag around the oil filter to keep it from spilling.

Refuel slowly: Avoid wasting fuel by filling up slowly, so that none of the fuel is released onto the ground or water. This will also give you time to catch small spills with a rag or absorbent pad. Only fill your tank up to about 90%, so that the fuel has room to expand as the temperature goes up. When spills do happen, don’t try to clean them up with soap—this doesn’t take them out of the water, and it’s even more harmful to the surroundings. It’s also illegal in most places.

Use safe bottom paints: Many boat paints are designed to prevent damage from the elements, but they tend to be toxic to marine environments. For the hull, which has the most contact with the water, use a nontoxic paint—many brands now offer anti-fouling varieties that don’t do as much damage to the water.

Clean on land: Do as much of your maintenance work as possible on land. Cleaning in water releases the dirt and cleaning chemicals into the ocean, and it’s much harder to clean up than on land. Note that paying greywater charges in marinas doesn’t reduce the damage; it’s mostly a way to discourage the practice.

Sailing aficionados want nothing more than to share the experience with their kids and family. Unfortunately, travelling with children is never a piece of cake, especially when you throw in the rigors of running your own boat. But it’s not impossible: with some expert planning, careful preparation, and a lot of patience, you can plan the perfect sailing holiday with your family, no matter how young.

It’s always best to start kids of early so they’ll get used to the ups and downs of sailing. Some avid boaters take their kids to the water as young as six months, but it all really comes down to how much responsibility you’re willing to take. If you plan on doing regular sailing holidays, the first few trips are a good way to literally get their feet wet.

You can get child seats made especially for boats, but these tend to be pricey and most of them don’t do much that regular car seats can’t. A good, easy-to-carry car seat not only keeps them comfy on the boat, but also goes nicely into aircraft compartments and under tables when you’re at a restaurant. On the go, you may want a separate baby pouch to keep your hands free when boarding and leaving the craft.

On-board safety is understandably most parents’ primary concern. Needless to say, you’ll want an accessible life jacket of the right size. Children over age 7 generally need their own life jackets, and it’s always best to try them on to make sure they’re easy to put on and comfortable to wear. A good policy is to have them wear it on board at all times, but it’s particularly important to enforce this after dark.

One of the most useful things you can do is introduce the child to the skipper and remind them as often as possible to do as the skipper says. Skippers probably have the best feel of how the ride is going and will know the earliest when to take safety measures. If you’re on a chartered boat, ask if they have vessels with child netting on the side rails. This is especially important for toddlers, who are often the most curious and gravitate towards the edge.

Again, most important safety measure you can take is to train your child for sailing. This means not just reiterating do’s and don’ts, but getting them used to being in the water and the fact that it’s not as safe as playing on land. The first few trips might be hard, but as they get the hang of it, sailing with the family becomes less of a challenge and more of a real vacation.

When sailing season comes around, some destinations are pretty predictable—Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean, or one of the many islands strewn around the Caribbean. But other, less popular destinations have just as much to offer, the least being the fact that they’re far less packed. If you’re looking for something different or just want to avoid the crowds, here are some alternative stops you may want to check out.

The Mexican coast: Although parts of it are technically in the Caribbean region, Mexico has a vast coastline boasting several world-class ports. The most important of these include Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, home to some of the country’s best sights and a lively nightlife to boot. Although they’re pretty popular as vacation destinations go, sailors have the distinct advantage of seeing the area from a different point of view and really appreciating its beauty. Try to plan your cruise for the late summer to early spring (November to April in the region), where temperatures start to go down and it’s not as hot and humid as the peak of summer.

The South Pacific: If you have a fairly generous budget and don’t mind the long-haul trip, this is definitely worth checking out. The South Pacific is home to some famous islands, including Fiji and Tahiti, as well as some lesser known (but equally scenic) ones, such as Kiribati and Tonga. Whichever one you choose, it’s a cultural experience more than anything else: the food, the music, the scenery, and the pace of life are as unique as they get. Because they’re so remote, visits to these islands are almost like a trip to another century, although there’s no shortage of modern amenities either. It’s also a good destination for chartered trips, as the higher price often includes luxury features.

The Norwegian Fjords: Scandinavia hardly paints the picture of a tropical paradise, but if you’re on a budget, it’s definitely worth a look. The fjords of Norway offer some of the most unforgettable sights that sailing can offer, from imposing glaciers to sky-high waterfalls. Costs can be as much as 30% lower than in other destinations as it’s still an up-and-coming tourist site, but prices might go up in the next few years. The warmer months of June to August are the best times to go, but they also tend to be more crowded as the area is popular among travelers from the UK and continental Europe.