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What you need to know to start sailing

“Sailing can be as extreme or relaxed as you want it to be. It is an activity that really caters to your level of engagement,” says Alex Byczko, a Toronto-based sailor and coach. “Are you someone who views sailing from a romantic point of view? Well cruising Lake Ontario at sunset with a little charcuterie spread may be what you look for in sailing. Are you an adrenaline junkie? Racing or sailing fast catamarans might be where you want to put your focus. Those are two extremes but between those options,  there are many opportunities to take a more relaxed or more intense approach to sailing.”

Byczko has been sailing since 2000. He got into it through the Canadian Sea Cadet Program.

“I honestly didn't know this was something I was going to become so passionate about but over time I realized I was intrinsically motivated to get better at sailing and better at coaching the sport,” he says. “What first got me into the sport was the fact that I got to be outside, in a cool environment, chilling with my friends!”

Through the Sea Cadet Program, Byczko was shipped all around the country to learn how to sail. He started in Penetanguishene, then to Kingston (which is still the best place to sail), then to Fort Qu'appelle in Saskatchewan, Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia, and back to Kingston. He is now firmly settled at Westwood Sailing Club in downtown Toronto.

How hard is it to learn?

Byczko says it depends (This is the quintessential answer to all sailing questions).

“I think based on skills alone, it's not hard. A lot of sailing is pushing, pulling, stepping, squatting, and bending. These are things that anyone can do. I think cerebral skills take a bit of time to develop. For example, wind sense takes some time to fold into your muscle memory, you know, where is the wind, where can my boat go with this wind angle, etc.”

Byczko suggests the level of difficulty also has something to do with the quality of instructor you have. It’s important to find someone to really break down the skills to make the difficulty ramp really low.

What basic skills and fitness do you need beforehand?

Skill-wise, sailing requires a lot of pushing, pulling, squatting, bending, and some ab work.

“If you are keel boating (these are the bigger boats, usually 22ft+,) your level of fitness can be pretty low,” Byczko says. “You will have to do some rope pulling and steering, but with the boom (the horizontal pole just above your head) generally pretty high on keelboats you won't be doing much squatting or bending at the waist.”

He adds that with dinghy sailing (smaller boats usually 22ft and below) you will need a little bit more fitness because you are doing more.

“These boats are little and will react quicker than keelboats so you have to move a bit more,” he says. “Booms, sometimes, are lower so squatting and bending at the waist is more of a thing. The other thing is that you can fall out of dinghies and they will capsize sometimes so being able to get back into a boat will take some effort. Also, these are the boats where you will do a little bit of ab work, but that happens once you get your feet underneath you.”

What about gear?

In sailing, one can expect to get wet and the weather is not always sunshine and heat. Getting a good PFD that is comfortable will make you want to wear it. Then, invest in clothing that will keep you warm when you are wet or something that just keeps you dry (again this depends on your format) that will really take you places in the sport.

For instance, the Helly Hansen Salt Navigator Sailing Jacket is designed to be a versatile and protective jacket with the sport in mind. It is made with HELLY TECH® Performance 2-ply fabric that keeps you dry and warm. Some of the best features include a hi-vis packable hood, a high protective collar, a D-ring for a kill cord, and stealth seals in the cuffs. And, it looks fantastic.

And the first steps to learning to sail after gear?

We get right into learning sailing terms, rigging a boat, and getting out on the water to get that first experience.

“Sailing terms are important so the learner and I are speaking the same language,” Byczko says. “There are a lot but there isn't any major pressure to learn it all at once. Like all things, they will come with time and practice.”

He adds that important to learn rigging right away to start building independence from the get go.

“You should know where things go on their boats so if something breaks while on the water they have the ability to recognize that something is wrong and start making their way to safety or macgyver it on the water,” Byczko says.

What safety skills are essential?

For the dinghy, capsize recovery is a core skill that is practiced as part of your lessons. Knowing why a boat capsizes and then how to right it again is key. This is sometimes called self-recovery. Every dinghy sailor should be able to right their boat, get back in, and sail it back home. It's something that I practice alone and with my learners.

What is the hardest part of sailing to learn?

“Hard part for all new learners is understanding that you can't sail directly into the wind,” Byczko says. “This goes back to my wind sense comment from earlier. New sailors have a hard time recognizing the signs that are telling them they are getting close to the "No Go Zone." Some are obvious, some are subtle, but it takes time to internalize the information and then act upon it. But once that's in their mind, the sky's the limit.”

Sailing lessons in Ontario are usually offered through a club, although most don't require you to become a member to take lessons and the ones that do generally package your first block of lessons into your registration fee. But that's not the only way to get lessons. Some instructors have their own boats and will teach you there. Sometimes in a group or one on one.

For those starting out, Byczko recommends dinghies: Albacores, RS Quest, Rs Zest, Hobie Wave, Hobie Getaway, WayFarers, CL 14s or 16s

For Keel Boats, he says anything is fine because it's likely you will have an experienced person on board first. But for guidance, keep it small at first then slowly get longer.

Byczko says, what he loves about sailing is being in control of a piece of machinery that relies on natural forces.

“It's a very person vs nature scenario,” Byczko adds. “You are flooded with information from what you feel, how your boat is going, what the wind is doing, and how the water is acting, but at the end of it, you have to weigh all these variables in order to make a decision about what you need to do next. I love that self-direction.”

Good luck!

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