Learn to Sail!

So you want to learn to sail?

Congratulations on fulfilling a wish on your bucket list and buying a sailboat. Or, perhaps good friends have invited you to go cruising with them and/or race with them at their club? Or, maybe you plan to charter a sailboat down south next winter? In any case, you want to learn to sail “big” sailboats, so what next?

As Canada’s National Sailing Authority, Sail Canada delivers a range of programs, including beginner to advanced levels of Dinghy sailing, Keelboat sailing, Cruising, Powerboating and Navigation. These programs are offered by local sailing clubs and schools that work closely with their respective Provincial Sailing Associations.
The Dinghy sailing program, CANSail, uses smaller boats (where you can pretty much count on getting wet!) and primarily appeals to youth and young adult sailors. The Powerboat program is primarily concerned with the operation of powered vessels, including those with gasoline outboards and gasoline or diesel inboard engines. Keelboat and Cruising programs are for those who wish become a competent crew or the skipper on cruising or racing keelboats.

While dinghies rely on centreboards or dagger boards to keep them on course and the weight of the crew to keep them balanced and upright, keelboats have a large weighted keel that keeps the boat on track and more or less upright, even in strong winds.
If you are unsure if learning to sail on a keelboat is for you, you can try one of Sail Canada’s entry level courses, Introduction to Boating (taught on power boats as well as sailboats), Start Keelboat Sailing, or Basic Keelboat Cruising. According to Samara Crothers, Program Manager at Sail Canada , one of Sail Canada’s three key pillars is Participation (Development and Performance are the other two), and Sail Canada has created multiple pathways for new sailors to begin enjoying the sport.
The first, Introduction to Boating, is more of an “experience” than a course, as the emphasis is on getting you out on the water as quickly as possible with an instructor in charge of the boat. You are “hands on” as soon as you arrive at the dock and the Intro is usually offered as a three or four hour event, with no classroom instruction and no evaluation or certification.

Start Keelboat Sailing is a course with formal instruction on all the bits and pieces of a sloop rigged keelboat, as well as the skills needed to depart from and return to the dock under power, raise and lower the sails, and function as a member of the crew in light to moderate conditions in local waters by day. In this course the student is provided with direction by the instructor skipper. The student is not expected to make plans for or independently execute the various activities, but must demonstrate the ability to carry them out with limited direction from the instructor skipper. This course is generally taught in one weekend and is a recommended entry point for those with no on water experience.

However, according to Melanie O’Brien, Program Coordinator at Ontario Sailing, the highest level of participation in cruising training, at least in Ontario, is in the Basic Cruising course, which accounts for 62% of all keelboat students taught in Ontario. Basic Cruising expands on the material offered in Start Keelboat Sailing, but the key difference is that a Basic Cruising student is expected to be able to prepare and execute a plan, supported by competent crew, for most common maneuvers under both power and sail.
Sailing schools offer Basic Cruising in several formats, including mornings or afternoons over two consecutive weekends, two evenings per week over three weeks, or full days from Monday to Friday, but all provide a minimum of 18 hours of on-water instruction, plus theory instruction and testing. Many sailing schools will also offer Basic students the opportunity to write exams for the Pleasure Craft Operator Card and the Restricted Operator’s Certificate (Maritime) for VHF radio operation; in Toronto many schools offer the Ports Toronto Powered Vessel Operators Permit course. There are no prerequisites for Basic Cruising, other than reasonable upper body strength and mobility.
Successful completion of the Basic Cruising course prepares the graduate to be in command of a sloop rigged sailboat of 6 to 10 metres, with either an outboard or an auxiliary inboard, and to sail in familiar waters in moderate wind and sea conditions during the day. Students who can demonstrate a majority of the skills but do not have the ability to make and execute plans, i.e. are not able to take on the role of skipper, may be awarded the Basic Crew standard.

In any case, once you have completed the Basic, what next? Even if you receive the Basic Cruising standard, you probably shouldn’t buy a boat and sail off into the sunset without gaining some experience first and then taking more training to build expertise. But, how to gain experience? Sure, you can sail with friends, but you are unlikely to spend much time at the wheel (or tiller) of THEIR boat. If you race with friends at a local yacht club you may never get to touch the wheel and will likely spend most of your time trimming the mainsail or perhaps the foresail or sitting on the rail as ballast. Winning is often everything on many racing boats and the grace and elegance of the sport is sometimes lost in the heat of the moment.

An alternative path to improving your post-Basic sailing skills is to join a club that has boats specifically for use by members who do not own a boat. Toronto, Vancouver and many other locations have boat share clubs where you get to sail without the cost of boat ownership. Whether the club has a couple of Shark or J/24 sailboats (both 24’) or a half-dozen or more boats ranging from 24’ to 31’ or 33’, you can sail without paying thousands to buy a boat.

These boat share clubs often have an educational characteristic and may run on-water clinics and/or classroom seminars on subjects introduced in the Basic, ranging from introductory navigation and piloting (how to avoid the rocks!) to sail trim (how to get somewhere faster) to boat maintenance (how to save money where you DO own your own boat). As Bryant Adlam, head of the Sailing School at Humber Bay Sailing Centre says, “as you sail with experienced skippers and participate in skills development, you will gain confidence and begin to enjoy sailing even more.

Now, as you spend more time on the wheel (or tiller), either sailing with friends or at a boat share club, what else can you do to expand your sailing knowledge? Stay tuned for Part Two of “So you want to learn to sail?” in the next edition as we explore the courses and pathways that develop and expand on the skills you learned in the Basic. We’ll discuss the multiple Sail Canada keelboat cruising courses as well as other useful courses such as Coastal Navigation and Keelboat Racing as well as non-Sail Canada courses such as Diesel Engine Maintenance, Performance Sail Trim, and others.


Photo credit: Ken Dool
Article written by: Bob Greenhalgh

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