If you ask two sailors about almost anything, you will get at least three opinions. There is no more controversial a question than what is a perfect first boat. To begin with all boats are compromises. They are compromises between optimum sailing ability, and the need for accommodations, or shoal (shallow) draft (depth). If a boat gets wider, it becomes more stable up to a point, but after that angle, a beamy (wide) boat has less reserve stability to right itself, if it goes over too far. If a boat is too wide and blunt, it has a lot of drag, but has lots of room down below(inside the cabin). If a boat is too narrow, it has less drag, but if too narrow the boatwon’t have much stability or much room down below. Too much weight and the boat is slow and hard to handle, too little weight the boat is fast, fun, and easy to handle up to a point in the wind range, but after that, takes greater skill and athletic ability to sail.
If you ask some sailors, they will recommend a traditional design because traditional boats are perceived as being harder for a beginner to get into trouble with. This is not necessarily true, but it represents one popular point of view.
The general consensus among professional sailing schools is that a first boat should be responsive enough that the beginner can learn proper sail trim and boat handling. This viewpoint is founded in the belief that to really learn to sail, the boat should be light and responsive enough that the beginner can experiment with sail trim and sailing angles and be able to see and feel the results. Following that line of thought, first boats should have a reasonably easily driven hull, and a reasonably modern rig and underbody. Many schools have shifted to fractionally rigged sloops, since they tend to be the easiest on which to learn more nuanced aspects of proper sail trim.
Of course, much of this depends on each new sailor’s own priorities. There are a lot people out on the water who really only understand the rudimentary aspects of sail trim and boat handling. That works for them and they should not be judged one way or the other, as long as they sail safely. But if you, as a beginner, really want to learn the finer points of sailing, and you are somewhat athletic, then small sailing boats, called ‘dinghies’, can provide great platform to learn on. If you are less agile, then stick to a sloop rigged boat of 30 feet or less in length, and of light to moderate displacement (weight) and with a fin keel and spade rudder. Beginners sometimes think they prefer to have wheel steering, but on this size boat, a tiller is a far better steering method both to learn on, and to sail with. In fact the last thing that a beginner sailor should have is wheel steering if they actually want to quickly learn to sail well.
Under no circumstances should a first boat be a new boat. When you buy a new boat, there are a lot of decisions to be made, and a huge amount of work sorting the boat out so that it is easy to sail, and so that all of the controls and amenities are available and convenient. If you have never owned a boat and have not spent years sailing on lots of different boats (or at least a boat of your own), you do not have the knowledge base to know what it is that you need to do with the boat, or what your options are. With a used boat, someone else has spent the time and money setting the boat up. You can try it out and if it does not work you can walk away and find a boat that does meet your needs and tastes, or else knock down the price to correct the problem.
People rarely hold onto first boats for very long. As they learn, their tastes, needs, and goals change. After sailing for a while, perhaps a more experienced sailor may to switch to a more serious cruising boat, or perhaps want a to try racing.
First boats tend to get beat up a bit. There is enormous depreciation on new boats, (masked by comparing base prices to the actual cost of purchase plus equipping one). That depreciation is significantly negatively impacted by the excessive wear and tear of learning to sail and own a boat. A used boat is expected to have some scuffs and bruises so the wear of learning is less of a financial liability. Given the probability that a sailor’s first boat will be sold more quickly than a second, it therefore makes no sense to buy new.
Another key factor in picking any boat is to figure out where you are going to sail, what your abilities are, and what your real needs are. Different sailing venues favor different types of boats. If you sail in an area with light winds, for example, you want a lighter weight boat with a generous sail plan or you will be very frustrated. You also have to ask yourself how are you going to use a boat. Will you only daysail, or do you think you will want to spend nights aboard cruising? Do you want to trailer a boat to keep costs down, or do you want to keep the boat in the water because it is way more convenient and is less abusive to the boat?
In the end, the choice of a first boat will often depend on the best boat that is available at a reasonable price in the beginner’s sailing area. That is not the worst way to select a boat, since that boat probably served her owner well in the prevailing conditions.