Learning to Sail

A common question we often hear is “Oh, you must have been sailing your whole life!”. In fact this comment is so common I have caught myself answering it in a rude manner lately (just the other day I told someone “FUCK NO!”). This question bothers me because there are people that will try and convince you this is required. The fact is, “sailing” a boat is easy….. Sailing a boat well, now that’s were the magic lies, and can be a lifelong quest. However, for cruising, you only need to be able to “sail” a boat safely. You can leave the good sailing to the racers or Olympic teams.


So armed with this knowledge I set about the task of learning how to sail a blue water catamaran safely. I had a small base of knowledge to build on as I had purchased a small monohull (Edel 540) 1 year earlier and began learning how to sail on a local lake (Wabamun). Although that only amounted to about seven 5 hour days of “sailing” (some of those days were more like drifting with no wind). However, when the wind did blow, I made the most out of those days and tried everything I had read about for the last 10 years. CAVEAT This is the point where I can’t help but get technical. I’m pretty sure I will loose some of you as you aren’t interested in the technical side of sailing. Please hang in there, as understanding some basics will make our story so much better. I will try to bring the technical stuff down to a laymen level that everyone can understand. If I do get to technical, please ask a question and I will be happy to try and make it clearer.


So lets start with the super simple basics (and yes I’m taking some liberties to make this as simple as possible). %95 of catamarans today have a sail configuration called “sloop rigged”. This is exactly what you picture when you picture a boat from the movies. 2 sails, 1 in front and 1 behind. Depending on where the wind bows, the 2 sails can push the boat like old pirate ships (pirates of the Caribbean square sails) or the 2 sails work together to form an air foil (just like an airplane wing) and “suck” the boat forward. Recognizing when the wind is in the right direction to suck or blow is the basics of sailing. This I understood, although its much harder to master than one would think.

She be sucked here! 😉 Yes this is our boat the first year the original owner bought her!


This may seem a shocker to some, but understanding these concepts and recognizing the wind changes is all that is actually required to “propel” a boat from Cuba to Mexico and then on to Key West! This has been proven by the 1000s of Cuban refugee boats found in the USA.  Of course, hitting ANY piece of USA on a cobbled together boat made out of coolers is much different than moving a boat between proper ports. I recognized this and realized I would need to learn a ton more skills. Skills like reefing (reducing sail), navigating, nighttime sailing, anchoring, docking, mooring and a bunch more.


Most people who want to learn to sail a cruising boat take courses certified through either ASA, US Sailing or RYA. These courses offer international recognized certifications and require actual time at a boat helm. Unfortunately this was a problem for me. With a full time job, 3 kids and a business, I simply didn’t have the 3 weeks to fly to a location to take the courses and get the helm time. I needed to find another option that I could do without actually travelling anywhere. I knew it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good, but it was the best I could do.


Through my research I found a New Zealand company offering a complete set of online courses. NauticEd.com was offering courses that contained all the same theories and content as the ASA courses but online. They were marketed at people who had a boat and could do the helm time on their own boat. The charter companies (boat rental people) had even begun recognizing these certifications. This sounded perfect to me, so I promptly signed up for the “Coastal Skipper” course and began my education.


I won’t go into deep detail about the courses, except to say that they were excellent. Although nothing can replace actual time at the helm, these course taught me excellent theory that was invaluable. Not to jump ahead in the story, but the anchoring course alone saved my ass in Key West when the winds kicked up to 25 knots with gusts to 30. Knowing how to properly anchor a boat in the ocean is WAY different that anchoring in an Alberta lake. Most importantly, the courses taught me how to be safe in everything I do. They stressed safety and urged caution, planning and forethought for all manoeuvres. Moving up from a small 19 foot boat to a 40 foot catamaran means the stresses and loads on everything increased by a factor of 10. Imagine a 5 story sail full of 25 knots of wind, things can go bad quickly, safety is crucial.


I continued to study these course right up until the day before I left to take possession of the boat.





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