Learn to Sail LA’s Official Tall Ships (For Free!)

My love of tall ships goes back a ways, but given my recent research dive into the great tea races, it’s taken on an outsized portion of my attention lately. Back when I was working at a tea importing company, I decided to write about the races that brought ships three-quarters of the way around the globe, yet were so meticulously and expertly raced, that these ships arrived within minutes of each other. A great story, one that requires authenticity to tell correctly.

Having no experience with boats or sailing of any kind, I started casting around for a way to get an authentic experience of life aboard a tall ship. Before my wife and I had kids, we took a weekend trip to San Diego to hang out and see sights, and generally enjoy ourselves. While there, we took a harbor tour on the Californian, a reproduction of a 19th century revenue cutter. It was a great experience, and tons of fun. I asked the crew every question I could think of about what they were doing and why.



I thought, Man, if I only lived closer, I would definitely volunteer here.

I looked for something nearer to Los Angeles, but only found expensive small sail boat lessons, or programs that were geared toward children. Nothing like what I really wanted.

A couple years later, my wife and I went to the Tall Ships Festival in Los Angeles, both because I like tall ships, and my daughter, at the time, loved rubber ducks. That’s when I was introduced to the Los Angeles Maritime Institute (LAMI), and their fantastic TopSail Program.

They explained to me that, yes, their program was designed to teach sailing to middle and high school students, but they relied on volunteers in order to operate. This meant they needed adults who knew about sailing. Which meant that they taught adults to sail, in order to teach the kids how to sail. Which meant that they offered crew trainings for prospective volunteers for ABSOLUTELY FREE.

10411187_678270235224_8524887673195633517_nReel me in.

I’m hooked.

That first orientation and crew training on board their brigantines Exy and Irving Johnson were everything I hoped they would be. Fun, extremely informative, challenging, and totally legit. To be honest, I was concerned at first that the program would be full of some know-it-all jerks who got their kicks out of bullying people around and showing off how well they could operate a boat. Nope. Nothing could be farther from my experience. At LAMI, I’ve found nothing but patient, helpful, and well-informed instructors and colleagues, all of whom are motivated by their love of teaching about life at sea.
Over the next year, I gained volunteer hours, and a better understanding of how the boats worked. I climbed into the rigging, participated in man-overboard drills, and stood anchor-watch on overnight voyages. The best part, though? The best part is passing along what you know, little as it may be, to the kids. Out on the water, even the orneriest teenagers are far from recalcitrant and rebellious. It’s like the salt water wakes up their thirst for learning, and it’s all I can do to show tell them everything I can, until my brain is tapped out and I have to hand them off to someone more experienced.



The Los Angeles Maritime Institute’s youth topsail program is a fantastic way for anyone to learn about tall ships, sailing, history, STEM, and just about anything else worth knowing. I highly recommend it!

For more information on volunteering please check out their website here: http://www.lamitopsail.org/getting-started/

Don’t care to get your feet wet? That’s alright. Get LAMI-nated instead: http://getlaminated.org/

To read more about the Famous World Wide Tea Clipper Races follow @CuttySarkLog on Twitter.


To see this story come full circle, this was my view from on board the Exy Johnson during a Tall Ship “battle sail” in Dana Point a few weeks ago.




Joshua Rigsby is a writer, tea-drinker, and planet 9 enthusiast based in Southern California.

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