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This paper considers features of domestic and social life aboard sail training vessels, exploring the particular character of life at sea, and how these features contribute to the distinctive character of sail training experience as a context for learning. Methodologically, the study lies in the sociological tradition of ethnography, focusing on the actions of participants and on the meanings ascribed to participation. Learning that takes place as a consequence of the residential and communal living dimensions are claimed by proponents as key elements of the sail training experience, and this account seeks to illuminate such claims and to make comparison between the experiences of participants and the accounts of practitioners and advocates of sail training. Space, movement and privacy are considered, alongside the inescapability of the setting, and the impact of domestic and working routines. These features are shown to create conditions that should be understood as those of a "total institution" aboard ships. It is argued that the claims in respect of learning arising from communal domestic life are generally borne out by the empirical evidence. Situated learning is considered as a framework for understanding the processes taking place, and it is argued that it is the institutional character of life aboard a sail training vessel that creates its particular power as a learning experience.