Hooked on sailing

Sailing lessons make the sport available to anyone, no matter your age

Meghan Mathias (left), aquatic coordinator for Recreation Oak Bay, learns how to steer a sailboat with the guidance of Alana Marks, a lifelong sailor, instructor and aquatic programmer for the rec centre. Recreation Oak Bay offers month-long sailing lessons for adults and youth, in an effort to prove that everyone can access the sport.

Meghan Mathias (left), aquatic coordinator for Recreation Oak Bay, learns how to steer a sailboat with the guidance of Alana Marks, a lifelong sailor, instructor and aquatic programmer for the rec centre. Recreation Oak Bay offers month-long sailing lessons for adults and youth, in an effort to prove that everyone can access the sport.

Sailing lessons make the sport available to anyone, no matter your age

There’s always a breeze of nervous excitement on the day new sailors will practice capsizing their boat.

It’s the very thing that most people are scared of when they begin sailing lessons, says west coast sailing guru Alana Marks, but it’s also what gives them the greatest sense of accomplishment: beating that fear.

“First, they find out how hard it is to actually get a boat tipped, then they see how in-control they are of the situation and feel really proud of bringing it back up,” she says.

Capsizing is one of the first training elements participants learn when taking their CANSail Level 1 course through Recreation Oak Bay’s Adult Sailing Lessons. For an entire month, instructors like Marks aim to get up to 12 adults hooked on the activity that is often misunderstood as an expensive and elitist sport. And while this month’s classes kicked off Aug. 5, the group may be offering a September session due to higher than usual demand.

“We are very lucky because, in Victoria, you can sail year round and for a city that is very environmentally conscious, it’s a sport you can do without impact, so it’s a very different way to experience the coast,” says Marks, who doubles as the aquatic programmer for Recreation Oak Bay.

Marks began her sailing career at age nine. She was on a friend’s sailboat and lit up with the excitement of going fast and getting to control the boat. She had always been a water baby and had tried kayaking and other boating methods, but sailing opened up a new side of the sea.

She joined the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets at age 12, became a junior instructor at age 15, received her official Sailing Institute Certification at 16, and has taught sailing to youth and adults around the Island for almost 10 years.

“There are so many isolated gems and hidden secrets along our coastline, and sailing is one thing we are especially lucky to have to allow us access to those,” says Marks. 

There are a few things everyone should know about sailing before starting out: it’s important to have a love of the outdoors and water (though many people join up to resolve their fears of deep water), it’s a surprisingly social sport, which Marks says not a lot of people realize, there’s a huge sailing community in Victoria, and you can learn to sail at any age.

“One of the greatest things is that we see 16-year-olds sailing with their grandparents, and 25-year-olds sailing as couples, because it’s a really accessible activity for almost everyone – there are also adapted sailing boats to suit people with disabilities,” says Megan Mathias, aquatic coordinator for Recreation Oak Bay. “There is really so much coast to explore, so this is a lovely way to do it.”

Mathias also grew up on boats, and while she always preferred being in the water to being on it, she taught sailing lessons in the U.S. and has worked with the Sea Scouts to secure a strong partnership with the rec centre. The program, facilitated through Sail Canada, teaches up to Level 2 (out of Level 5) certification. Participants learn basic seamanship, how to rig a sailboat, on-water boat handling, water safety and self-rescues – along with a whole lot of terminology.

“There are ropes for everything; ropes to lift the sails, ropes to adjust the speed, ropes to control the direction, and that’s really the hardest part,” says Marks, “just getting familiar with the ropes and how each one interacts with the boat.”

It’s usually about the time that people master their fear of tipping over that they realize a new fear: getting tangled. It’s a serious matter in the sailing world, especially when capsizing, but Marks says even that is rarer than you’d think.

“I think in the time I’ve been teaching I’ve only seen one person get tangled, and that’s why we have expert staff leading people through the lessons,” Marks says. “The biggest reality is that the water is super cold, but even that can be nice on a hot day, and there are showers at the marina to get warmed up again.”

The twice-weekly classes ring in at about $200 for the month, but it also acts as a great introduction to, literally, getting your feet wet before purchasing a boat of your own, says Mathias. And for those whose chances of buying a boat are a long way off, there are still plenty of options to enjoy the sport, either through the rec centre, the Oak Bay Marina, or community clubs.

“I think people do still tend to view sailing as this elitist sport – ‘Oh, I can’t make it tonight, I’ve got my polo lessons,’ kind of attitude,” says Mathias. “It’s nice to get people in the boats and realize that it’s just not the inaccessible sport that it gets the rap to be. Anyone can sail.”

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