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?

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 manoeuvring 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.