Learning To Sail

What should I know before learning to sail?

In Canada, the sport of sailing falls under the auspices of the Sail Canada and provincial sailing associations. Sail Canada sets one national training standard which is taught by instructors certified to Sail Canada standards by provincial sailing associations. Most reputable sailing clubs, yacht clubs, and commercial sailing centres are members of Sail Canada and/or their provincial sailing association. Westwood Sailing Club is a member of both Sail Canada and the Ontario Sailing Association (OSA).

The Sail Canada instructional program has two distinct streams: a "Learn to Sail" program, intended for sailing small, unpowered sailboats known as "dinghies", and a "Learn to Cruise" program intended for larger live-aboard-type sailing yachts which have more complex systems and a greater range. These programs are detailed on Sail Canada website's Sail Canada Learn to Sail page.


Dinghies or yachts: a sailing course or a cruising course?

Dinghies and yachts both require knowledge of sailing. In both cases a sailor must know how to set their sails correctly, and how to handle a boat in various situations. However, when it comes to actually learning to sail, there are great differences in how one goes about handling the boat, and what one has to learn.

Dinghies are very light boats, which are sensitive to changes in wind direction, wind strength, waves, and the crew's balance. They can be very tippy. Under certain circumstances, they can capsize (however, they can be righted and drained very quickly). The person at the "helm" of a dinghy has a great deal of control over how the boat sails. A dinghy sailor usually does many tasks at the same time: steer, control the sails, and adjust several other controls.

Yachts - often called keelboats, due to the heavy metal keel, which prevents them from capsizing - are much heavier vessels and are less vulnerable to changes in wind and waves. They have more complex systems - fuel, mechanical, electrical, etc., and require special expertise in maneuvering under power, anchoring, docking, etc. Because of their size and complexity, yachts often require several crew members working at different tasks in order to sail effectively.

Since dinghies are more sensitive, they provide great feedback and offer excellent training for sailing. They are more responsive to the wind - if the sails are set incorrectly, the boat slows down. If the problem is corrected, the boat almost immediately speeds up again.

In this dinghy sailor's opinion, if you want to learn to sail in the best way possible, learn to sail on a dinghy. If you then want to learn to sail yachts, you can do so after having gotten a good grounding in the basics of sailing. On the other hand, if you're about to take delivery of an expensive yacht, or if you don't like to get wet or spill your drink, you may want to look into that cruising course.


Where can I go to learn to sail?

Sailing courses are offered by yacht clubs, sailing clubs, and commercial sailing centers. And of course, look no further: we provide Sail Canada-certified courses on our 2-person Albacore sailing dinghies, we recruit actively, and as a community club we are very inexpensive. And our boats are available for our members' use.

Learning to Sail at Westwood

CANSail 1 & 2 / Basic Lessons: what's the format, how does it work?

The basic sailing course at Westwood is known as White Sail. It actually combines two courses, CANSail 1 & 2 of the Canadian Yachting Association Sail Canada Learn to Sail program.

There is a choice of four separate self-contained CANSail 1 & 2/White Sail sessions, each starting at different times during the season.

Our evening CANSail 1 & 2/White Sail classes take place Monday and Wednesday nights, from 6pm-9:30pm, over approximately 10 classes (see our Learn to Sail page for details). Classes start at 6pm in the evening. On a typical evening, students arrive and "rig" (set up) their boats, and are given a briefing on the night's on-the-water activities. At around 6:30 or 7pm, the boats head out on the water, with the instructor in attendance in the Club powerboat. At sunset, usually around 8:30pm, the boats come back in, and students de-rig their boats. There is then a post-sail debriefing and/or a theory session, and class is typically dismissed by 9:30pm.

There are also Saturday classes in May and June, as well as a Sunday class in July, running from 9am - 4pm.

In addition, there is a Water Safety (Swim) Clinic, which takes place in a pool and covers some capsize, first aid, and cold-water survival skills.

Following the class students are encouraged to hang around and socialize, and take advantage of the barbecues and the deck. In the past, many classes have opted to hold organized dinners following classes.

For the first two on-the-water classes, volunteer skippers will be on hand to assist in helping students become familiar with rigging the boats, and to accompany new students on their first sail.


What does the Rigging Clinic involve?

Taking place during the first day of each CANSail 1 & 2 class, the Rigging Clinic is a demonstration of how to "rig" (set-up) and launch one of our Albacore sailing dinghies. We also try to provide some information about what to wear when sailing, and general orientation information about the club. Additional Rigging Clinics are usually held on a weekend afternoon, and take about 90 minutes.

The rigging clinic is highly recommended for all new members.


What does the Water Safety Clinic involve?

The Water Safety Clinic takes place in a swimming pool, and covers some basic capsize, swimming, first aid, and cold-water survival skills.

Participants will be asked to tread water for five minutes, swim 100 meters (4 lengths) while wearing a life jacket, swim 50 meters (2 lengths) without a life jacket, put on a life jacket while in the water, climb out of the pool unassisted, and practice swimming out from under a sail in the water. There will also be brief lessons in artificial respiration and cold-water survival. Please bring a towel, swimsuit, a change of light summer clothing you can swim in and your PFD (if you have one).

This clinic is for the safety of all members. Albacore, Laser, and Hobie Cat sailboats have all been known to capsize, and learning to right a capsized boat is a required skill in all of our courses.

All new members must attend a Water Safety Clinic. It's actually a lot of fun, and we usually go out for dinner and refreshments afterwards.


Do I need to know how to swim?

Our sailboats do sometimes capsize, so the Club does require a basic level of comfort in the water. If a new member has moderate difficulty with the Water Safety Clinic we may require that they wear a Personal Flotation Device whenever sailing (as opposed to simply having it in the boat). If a new or potential member has great difficulty with the Clinic, we may have to (graciously and diplomatically) offer a refund and decline membership.


Which CANSail 1 & 2 session should I take?

It basically comes down to your schedule and inclination. If you're keen, don't mind the cold, and want to make the most of the sailing season, then the May session is best for you. If you prefer warmer weather and still want to make the most of the season, then the June session is best for you. If you want the warmest possible weather and the calmest winds, then the July session is best for you.

If you are considering the May class, we strongly advise that you consider spending $100 on a light wetsuit. Speak to us at one of our Open Houses for more information.


I can't make all the classes, how important is attendance?

Very. Our course format is very condensed. It's possible to miss one, or maybe two classes, but with only 10 classes, any missed time may have a bearing on whether you successfully pass the course. The instructor might not be able to pass students with low attendance.

We also ask that all students arrive for class by 6pm. Our boats can only remain on the water until sunset, so any lost time early in the evening will cut into precious on-the-water training time.


How important is it to practice outside of class, how do I get out sailing?

Our experience has been that students who practice the most get the most out of the course. We offer organized Social Sailing Thursday nights: arrive at the club by 6pm, ask for the Beach Captain, and let it be known that you are a new sailor looking to get out for a sail. You will be matched up with a more experienced sailor, and away you go. You are also welcome and encouraged to come down on weekends, make some new friends, and get out sailing.


I'm only interested in sailing lessons, do I have to buy a membership?

Westwood is now offering a one month membership. The one month membership is tailored for people who would like to learn to sail and take the CANSail 1 & 2 class. However, if you would like to attempt the CANSail 3 or Catamaran programs, the purchase of a full membership is required.


What kind of equipment and/or clothing will I need?

At a minimum, you should ensure that you have a Personal Flotation Device, rain gear, and appropriate footwear. To find out more, follow this link to discover What the Well-Dressed Sailor is Wearing This Season.


I'm interested in catamarans, how do I learn and get ranked on catamarans?

Once you've successfully completed CANSail 3 or Bronze Sail Course, you can take one of our Catamaran Classes.

These are informal lessons taught by a Sailing Instructor or experienced catamaran sailor.


I've sailed before, should I take the CANSail 1 & 2 or CANSail 3 course?

If you have had a great deal of dinghy sailing experience in 2-person dinghies, or if your prior sailing experience was on Albacores, then you may want to consider the Advanced CANSail 3 course.

Otherwise, you probably should stick with the CANSail 1&2 course. While the Albacore is a great training boat, it is quite versatile, and our experience has been that Basic to Intermediate sailors who learned on other classes of boat take some time to adapt to the Albacore.

If you're not sure, you should talk to us.


Do you offer children's sailing courses?

Strictly speaking, no, since Westwood is an adult sailing club. However, we do share our boats and facilities with daytime community programs which provide recreational activities and sailing lessons for children.

Using Westwood's Boats and Facilities

How do I take out a boat?

The club ranks its members into three categories:

  • Crew (novice)
  • Helm (intermediate)
  • and Skipper (advanced).

Members are ranked separately on each of the three classes of boatm which the Club owns: Albacores, Hobies Nacra, and Lasers.

In order to be entitled to take a boat out in controlled conditions, members must reach the Helms level. The Helms level is reached by successfully completing the CANSail 1 &2 / (formerly White Sail) course (Albacores, Lasers and Wave only), or by gaining equivalent experience and passing a Club practical exam. The Club limits Helms-level sailors to sailing in the protected area of the Outer Harbour, and only in moderate wind conditions.

In order to be entitled to take a boat out in any conditions, a member must be ranked as a Skipper. This level is reached by successfully completing the CANSail 3 (formerly Bronze Sail) course (Albacores, Lasers only), or by gaining equivalent experience and passing a Club practical exam. Skippers are expected to possess and use good judgment in all aspects of sailing.


What kind of sailboats does Westwood have?

Westwood has four types of sailing dinghies in its fleet:


The largest fleet of boats at Westwood and the primary training boat. A 15' double handed sloop rigged dinghy.


A small single sail single handed dinghy

16' Catamarans

High performance double handed dinghy with trapeze (and spinnaker Nacra 500 only).


A smaller lower performance catamaran for single or double handed sailing


Can I learn to sail without taking a course?

Yes. If you prefer the informal route, you can practice by getting out sailing with more experienced members. Our organized Social Sailing on Thursday nights is an ideal way to gain experience. Of course, you can come down whenever you like, and more often than not, you can find someone to sail with.


I've sailed before, can I get my helm/skipper status without taking a course?

Yes. If you are coming to the Club with prior experience, or if you are a Club member who would like to get ranked, you can ask the Executive to put you in touch with a Club Examiner. The Examiner will put you through a series of sailing drills to ensure that you're ready.


Who runs the Club?

Westwood Sailing Club is a legally registered non-profit Corporation. We are managed by an elected 12-member volunteer Executive, whose roles and responsibilities are defined in our Club bylaws.


Who should I see if I have a complaint or comment?

If you have any questions regarding your sailing course, you should speak to your sailing instructor. If you are unsatisfied or need further information, you should contact our Vice Commodore (Safety & Training).

For any other problems or questions, you should contact the Executive Director whose role most closely relates to your concern.

If you are unsure who to speak to, or if you require further clarification, you should contact our Commodore.

Your feedback is very important to us. If you have any questions or concerns, please let us know. To contact any member of the Club Executive, you may use our Web Contact Form, selecting General Inquiry/Contact the Club.


When is the club open, can I sail during weekdays?

With some restrictions, the Club is always available to members. Once you have been through a sailing course and informal orientation, you gain access to the Club, its property, and its fleet of boats. By club bylaws: sailing is only allowed during daylight hours.

If you have your weekdays off, you're welcome to come down to the Club and sail. Of course, it may be more difficult to find a sailing partner during the day. Fortunately, each summer, the Club seems to develop a network of "daytime people" who are available during the day and sail together regularly.


Are boats always available?

On Monday and Wednesday nights, most of our boats are dedicated to the CANSail 1 & 2 / White Sail class. On Friday nights, most boats are reserved for racing. For occasional special events such as regattas, many of the boats may be unavailable. That being said, our experience of the past couple of years has been that aside from Friday nights, boats are almost always available. Furthermore, because we offer three different types of boat in our fleet, if the boat you want is not available, you can often crew on a different type of boat.

What are the requirements for using the club boats?

Any member sailing a Club boat must be qualified and ranked by the Club, as follows:

Albacore - Helm

At this restricted level, sailors must have passed CANSail 1 & 2/White Sail Level 3, or seek equivalent status from a Club Examiner. Helms level sailors are restricted to sailing in 10 knots of wind in the Cherry Beach/Outer Harbour area, and are not permitted to sail on the open Lake, or in Toronto's Inner Harbour.


Albacore - Skipper

These sailors must have passed CANSail 3/Bronze Sail Level 4, or seek equivalent status from a Club Examiner. Skippers are not restricted, but are expected to use good judgement at all times.



Sailors are ranked separately on catamarans, by Club Examiners. Albacore rankings are not transferable. Catamaran Helms have the same geographic and wind-speed restrictions as Albacore Helms.


Lasers / Wave

Albacore rankings are applicable. Helms-level sailors have the same geographic and wind-speed restrictions as on the Albacore.

Following successful completion of CANSail 1 & 2 members will be offered a rigging clinic for those unfamiliar with the rigging procedures, or at anytime any member familiar with the rigging.


All non-ranked members

are considered "crew" and must sail with a Helm or Skipper, as required by the current weather conditions.


New members with previous experience

New (or first-year) members wishing to sail the Club's boats without following a course must be certified by a Club Examiner as Helms or Skipper. This may involve a simple review of past experience, or taking a sail with an experienced Club member. Experience gained elsewhere, while valuable, does not necessarily apply to Westwood's ranking procedures. New members are asked to adapt-to and understand the Club's policies and guidelines.


All members

are expected to check weather conditions before sailing. New and less-experienced members should be receptive to guidance from more-experienced members, especially where there is any question about whether a member's skill level is suitable for sailing in the current wind and weather conditions. Any member using a Club boat is responsible for the safety of the boat and its crew.



Full Members at the Helms or Skipper levels are entitled to bring a guest sailing three times. Members are expected to use good judgement in deciding whom to bring sailing. Dinghy sailing can be demanding - sailing guests should be physically fit, competent swimmers, and able to take instruction. Members are discouraged from taking guests sailing in extreme conditions, or outside the Cherry Beach/Outer Harbour area.