After living with my family for a week aboard a sailboat in the beautiful British Virgin Islands, and watching the captain (my father) expertly handle our rental catamaran that he had never sailed before, a thought popped into my head: How can I learn to do this?
Five years later, and after one failed attempt of learning how to sail at a local community sailing school, I now have my ASA 101 and 103 certifications, allowing me to captain and charter my own boat at many different destinations.
How to get certified
The first thing you'll want to do is find an ASA certified sailing school near you. Living in land locked Colorado, I thought that might be difficult but it turns out that ASA sailing schools can be found in 38 US states, as well as the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. I was fortunate enough to have Victoria Sailing School less than an hour of where I live.
You will need to pass both a practical and a written exam to obtain your ASA 101, 103, and/or 104 certifications. The most common option, which is the one that I did, is to sign up for a class at a sailing school. With this option, you'll attend some theory classes (mine were a mix of online and in person) as well as on the water practical sessions. During the practical sessions, our instructors taught us and had us practice different skill sets ranging from jibing to anchoring. We had a check list that they would then sign off on at the end of the practical, acknowledging that we had learned and sufficiently practiced each skill to successfully execute the different maneuvers on our own. Once the checklist was fully filled out, that took care of the practical portion of the certification. These 3 hour sailing sessions were quite enjoyable, spending time on the water at Chatfield reservoir just south of Denver with 2 or 3 other students and our sailing intrustor. After completing all the theory classes and practicals, I then took and passed the ASA 101 and 103 written exams, which were administered by my sailing school, paid the ASA fees, and became certified (ASA sends you your certification paperwork in the mail).
If you already have some sailing experience, you have the option of challenging a certification. With this option, you do not need to sign up for a class and can instead take the written exam(s) right away. You'll still need to pass the practical portion as well, so ask your sailing school about their options to challenge a certification. Victoria Sailing School offers the option to go on a sail with them where you can demonstrate that you have all the required skills. Because I had a little bit of sailing experience already, I decided to challenge 101 but take the class for the 103. The 103 consisted of 4 on the water practicals, in addition to the theory classes. I still had to write and pass both the 101 and 103 written exams, but I was able to get certified more quickly and save a little bit of money by challening the 101. Some of my peers signed up for both the 101 and 103 classes, so they had more on the water practicals and theory classes than I did.
How to increase your chances of passing (on your first try)
If you like reading books, I would recommend picking up a copy of the ASA 101 and 103 books. Perhaps the most useful thing about them, they have fill in the blank and multiple choice questions you can use to study. All answers are in the back of the book.
Having said that, learning and actually remembering the hundreds of sailing facts you need to know can be a little overwhelming. One of the best ways to study is to spend more time on the hardest questions, which will be different for everyone. You also want to avoid reviewing what you know well too often because it will not only make your review sessions incredibly long, but it will also make them very boring. Last but not least, you want to train your brain to recall the information, rather than simply reading the answers. This is why fill in the blanks questions is a much more efficient method of studying than reading through your notes a bunch of times.
This is the reason why I used the Sapienza study guides rather than relying on traditional methods of studying. The guides are an intelligent flashcard review system that use a spaced repetition algorithm to customize each one of your review sessions so that you spend more time on the hardest topics. It also has you recall information, which helps strengthen your memory. The system also makes you review easier topics at the ideal intervals, because you will forget even the easy stuff if you never use it. I recommend to start using Sapienza as early as possible in your studying, because committing something to long term memory takes time. Doing short 5 minute review sessions a few times a week for a couple months will consolidate your learning so that you will remember it for a very very long time. If you can get in the habit of using the study guides on a regular basis, you will learn all that you need to know to not only pass your exams, but also to actually remember everything that you've learned so that you can become a safe and competent sailor.