Sailboats moored at a dock

The One Where I Learned to Sail

It’s a stormy October night. Outside the wind whips across the Howe Sound, gusting noisily. I rock gently from side to side. My fellow crew members sleep soundly around me. One snores in a deep, loud baritone. Another punctuates the air with short, staccato snorts. Together they create an unpleasant symphony. I kick myself for not bringing ear plugs.

I’m aboard the Celeste, a Dufour 31’ sailboat. Earlier that day, I met with three other budding sailors, along with our instructor, Steve. We would spend the next five days living on a keel boat in a bid to pass the Basic Cruising Standard test. Unlike everyone else, I have little-to-no sailing experience. This is going to be a steep learning curve, I think.

Day one

I wasn’t wrong. Straightaway, there’s a lot of information to take in. Steve shows us round the boat, explaining how everything works. I’m instantly confused over how to use the toilet, or the ‘head’, to use the correct sailing terminology. I’m so busy calculating when I might have to urinate next, I forget to listen when he explains how to use the sink, electronics and bilge. I spend the next five days hoping my ignorance doesn’t cause the boat to sink.

Kitchen aboard sailboat
The kitchen
Living quarters inside a sailboat
Inside the Celeste’s cabin

After waiting for gale force winds to die down, it’s time, quite literally, to set sail. Steve negotiates the boat out of the tight slip in Vancouver’s Granville Island. Then, he calls me up to take the helm. As we glide through the cargo ships anchored outside the harbour, a smile spreads across my face. I’m sailing! I’m doing it! We’ve not capsized, no one has gone overboard and I’m at the wheel. It’s a miracle.

As we round Whytecliff Park, we’re soon becalmed. We motor the rest of the way to Gambier Island, where we learn how to set an anchor. We’re not docked, so there’s no hope of stretching our legs. It’s only been 12 hours and I’m already understanding the meaning of cabin fever. But it’s a beautiful spot, and were it not for the frigid breeze and isolated showers, I could have spent all evening up on deck, staring out to the horizon.

Later I confess how nervous I am about this trip. Steve laughs and says there’s nothing to worry about – “this is just a floating RV”, he says. I can see what he means. Living aboard a boat is much like camping. You have everything you need, only on a much smaller scale. Cooking on the propane stove is a juggling act, showering is a luxury, and the living quarters are cosy – especially when you’re inside, listening to the rain pattering on the deck above.

Sea and hilly landscape at dusk
Anchored near Gambier Island

Day two

When I poke my head outside in the morning, I find the wet weather front has passed. It’s a brisk autumn day with clear blue skies. Perfect for sailing. Unfortunately, I haven’t slept a wink. Apparently, exhaustion and sailing go hand in hand. It’s good practise, I’m told.

Sadly, this does not stand me in good stead later when I’m at the helm, sailing close hauled in gusty winds. Suddenly the boat heels, turning everything on a right angle. I hear books go flying inside the cabin, and look to see the port side toe rail in the water. I panic, squeal and let go of the wheel. The boat careens off to the left. Steve (who until now had been casually pottering around in search of snacks to eat) tells me to keep the boat under control. “It’s heeling excessively”, I whimper. I’d read in the course manual that this wasn’t recommended. “There’s no such thing”, he tuts. Later I try to tack in the wrong direction. Fatigue and fear are getting the better of me.

That evening we dock in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast. We can make use of the showers and, mercifully, the toilets. I’m still not 100% certain on how to use the head, and now too much time has passed to ask. After a group dinner at the pub and a couple of beers, I give myself a stern talking to. I’m here to learn how to sail, so I’d better get on with it. I think about the physics of sailing – something which doesn’t come naturally to me – and gets things straight in my mind.

Day three

From thereon in, it’s plain sailing (pun intended). I successfully learn how to tack and gybe. I get to grips with various manoeuvres, such as docking, mooring, anchoring and crew overboard. I also understand when to harden the main sheet and jib, how to furl and unfurl the sails, and when to reef the sails.

On the third evening we stop at Keats Island and hike up to the view point. From on top the hill we can see across the Howe Sound. Someone spots a couple of humpback whales migrating down the coast. It seems to me that they’re always on the move, just like a sailor hopping from port to port. I think I wouldn’t mind being a sea-based nomad too.

Sailboat on the sea with man on the bow
Sailing in calm seas

Day four

Day four is test day. There’s little wind, so we motor to our destination of Bowen Island and go over some final revision. This is the bit I’d really been dreading. It’s been a long time since I took a two hour, 200 question test.

I’d read the course manual in advance, and as I work my way through the exam, I realise Steve has been subtly supplementing our knowledge throughout the week. We all pass with flying colours, and reward ourselves with burgers and beers at the local eatery.

Day five

With the test out of the way and my confidence bolstered, I find I don’t really want to go home. I’m enjoying myself in this floating RV. As we cruise back into Vancouver, dolphins encircle the boat, presumably feasting on the salmon running at this time of year.

Only now do I reflect on what an incredible week I’ve had. It felt like a terrifyingly tall order at times. I didn’t sleep and the head remained a mystery almost to the end. But I managed it. Even better, we had sunshine, good company and five days of incredible scenery. Amidst all that, I’d actually learned how to sail – something I’m still astonished by. So you won’t mind if, for now at least, you call me Skipper.

Calm sea with lighthouse in the distance
Sailing around Point Atkinson

Learn to sail with Simply Sailing

If you’re interested in learning to sail, Simply Sailing operates out of Granville Island in Vancouver. They offer a range of day sailing, intensive and liveaboard courses.

Sail boat on the sea with city in the distance
Heading back into Vancouver

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