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The Best Way to Introduce Sailing for Kids

Sailing can be an intimidating and scary experience for kids and adults. Many people never get the chance to experience what it is like being on a sailboat, far from shore. It's a completely different world being on a vessel that you don't know how to control in water that's deep, cold, windy and wavy. For people to learn, they have to first and foremost feel safe.


To feel safe, we recommend taking first time kids and adults out on a larger keelboat versus a dinghy. The difference between the two is that a keelboat has a heavy lead-filled fin below the boat giving it stability. We call it a "keel". A dinghy, on the other hand, does not have a lead keel. It has a centerboard fin with no lead in it. It requires the skipper and crew to use their body weight to keep the boat stable. Keelboats react more slowly while dinghies feel fast and sensitive. It's almost impossible to capsize a Keelboat but dinghy's can capsize easily, sending skipper and crew into the water to begin the recovery process.


A keelboat can accommodate up to six people. You have the coach or mentor on board giving you hands-on instruction and the tasks are divided up to more people. Wind changes affect a keelboat more slowly and there is time to learn and observe. Whereas dinghies only have 1 or 2 people on the boat - the students. The instructor is on a coach boat with a loud hailer instructing 5 boats to 10 boats at once and the students start to learn the hard way on their own.


A lot happening at once in the mind of a sailor. You need to understand primarily the angle the wind is contacting the boat while at the same time steer the boat, and checking sail trim. If you are in a dinghy, you additionally need to coordinate your crew weight to keep the boat flat. It's a lot to take in for a first-timer.


Dinghies are great fun and they are the next step after you can control a keelboat. They are more exciting to sail. You feel more speed and power that the wind generates. They are more physical and they teach you more about the physics and forces in sailing. A pre-requisite for anyone who wants to learn dinghy sailing is being comfortable swimming in deep cold water far from shore in 1-3 foot waves and not panic when the boat capsizes. If you or your child are the adventurous type, and feel the need for excitement, dinghies are more engaging and fun than keelboats and you will become a master sailor. The best sailors in the world all cut their teeth in dinghies like the Laser and Hobie cat. If you can control these boats you can sail anything in higher wind strengths.


Traditionally, sailing has been taught by relatives or friends who know what they are doing. You go out with someone you trust in pleasant conditions. This is how I was introduced to sailing at the young age of 5.


My grandfather had a sailboat in Nova Scotia called "Venture". It was a 30 foot wooden inshore fishing schooner built in 1935 and he would take his children and grandchildren (me) sailing on Sunday afternoons in the summer. It's still one of the best memories of my life. I'll never forget the first day I went sailing on this vessel with my father and grandfather. It started slowly but it was a big exciting adventure for me and that's the point. Sailing is about adventure. You get to see the world from a boat and go places no car or video game can take you to. This is essentially what draws people to sailing. It has the element of danger and self-reliance which is exciting.


We would start the afternoon sailing upwind past the islands in Mahone Bay Nova Scotia and gradually the wind became stronger and the waves increased in size. The boat started to heel over (lean over) and water came in over the leeward side. I was gripped. "Are we going to tip over?" My dad said "Maybe!" Grandad, who was at the helm, was clearly disgusted with him. "Of course we're not going to tip over! Come take the helm." So here's me, 5 years old and I'm steering this two-masted schooner with a full press of sails and water is coming in over the side. I learned how to steer in a straight line and tack the boat through the eye of the wind. I learned how the rope systems worked to raise and lower sails, how they pulled sails in and out and how to rig a hank on Jib.


After 5 summers of this, I started sailing lessons in little FJ dinghies and it just came naturally to me thanks to my previous experience with my Grandfather. I was still not keen on falling in the water but they made us do a variety of swim tests off the dock. Boy that water was cold and wavy but I overcame my fear. By the end of the summer, I was winning little club races beating kids who were 18 and felt quite proud of myself.


Then, I saw older kids sailing the next level dinghy, the "Laser" and these boats were moving fast, planing over the water like a motorboat with spray going everywhere. I was hooked and determined to get one. I saved some paper route money and three years later, when I was 13 I got my first Laser.


The "Laser" is now called "Ilca7" and is the Olympic single-handed class sailboat for men. It's a race boat that is fast and very tippy in big breeze and waves. It's the most widely raced boat in the world with fleets in every country. Kids as young as 12 can sail them and there are masters sailors still sailing them at 85! They are physically demanding boats because it's just you moving your body weight outboard to keep the boat flat.


My first day sailing my second-hand Laser was nothing short of terrifying. At 13, I was pretty light only 113 pounds and it was windy so I had a friend join me. Sailing upwind we were fine but we then needed to sail downwind to get back to the dock. As we bear off and ease the sails, the boat accelerates. Spray is everywhere, the boat is planing and the foils are humming. Then, we capsized with violence. The boat rolls to windward with astonishing speed, and my friend and I were both ejected backwards out of the boat. The mast crashes into the water and the boat turtles over completely. The water was cold and we began the recovery process of pulling the boat back upright. We get it going again and capsize the boat like this 10 times before reaching the dock. I was humbled and wondered if the Laser was such a good idea.


But it turns out it was the best idea for me. I kept at it, grew stronger, I found mentors who taught me how to get better, I went to regattas, made friends and just got better and better. I started winning local regattas and earned a spot on Canada's National development team finally winning the national championships in 1996. I've kept racing Laser ever since. Now I'm 54, still sailing Lasers and helping people get into the sport of sailing.


All thanks to my Grandfather who took me sailing in the summers on an old wooden schooner. The moral of the story is: start on a keelboat, get comfortable with that, then progress to dinghies. Take your family sailing with us on our Hobie 33 Keelboat as their first introduction to sailing. If this 5-year-old can do it, so can you.


Nick Pullen







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