Despite the high water levels this summer, it’s pretty much business as usual for the CANSail program at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Sailing Club.
Almost 30 youth, aged nine to 16, are currently taking part in the six different levels of the program, administered by Sail Canada, the country’s national sailing authority.
With water still covering the floor on the main level of the club building, the in-class sessions are being held upstairs. It’s made for a bit of a challenge, with all 30 students in three different groupings in one big room, but the five instructors are adapting.
Emily Warren and Josh Kairo lead the CANSail 1/2 group in a lesson about clouds. Their young charges are at the earliest stages of their progression as sailors. CANSail 1 teaches them the fundamental skills, including basic sheeting, steering, and boat handling. They then move on to CANSail 2, where they learn to adjust their bodies and boats for changes in direction and wind speed, and to perform boat-handling manoeuvres in a controlled setting.
Donna Genge, who oversees the CANSail program, is always amazed at how quickly the kids catch on. “This summer,” she says, “by the second day, they were sailing down the channel between other boats that were docked, and doing it with confidence.”
CANSail 3 is the intermediate course. This level exposes sailors to a greater variety of conditions, while teaching them to integrate boat handling manoeuvres and balance with basic tactics. In CANSail 4, advanced sailing, sailors learn advanced boat handling manoeuvres in a variety of conditions, with a focus on tactics and strategies for regattas. These two levels are being taught by Andy Berti and Alexandre Brillon this summer.
Like these four instructors, Levi Harper has also progressed through the program right here in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Harper, who teaches the CANSail 5/6 group, says he started sailing when he was six years old. Now 23, the Parliament Oak grad, who is finishing up his last course at Brock in the Recreation and Leisure program, is the elder statesman among the group.
The higher level classes focus on integrating the skills and manoeuvres learned in the earlier sessions into a racing setting. The nine students in Harper’s class this summer learn more about the fine points of sailing, including rig tuning and sail trim. In addition, students at these levels are expected to compete in regattas as part of the program.
On the day The Local visited, Harper was leading them through a lesson on sailing in windy and choppy conditions. This admitted landlubber grew a bit glassy-eyed listening to talk about planing, surfing, broad reach angles, beam reaches, bear away sets, jibe sets and vectors. It was all over my head, but the students in the class answered questions and offered opinions, clearly knowledgeable about all these terms at this stage in their development.
Once the on-land session was over, the nine sailors split up into four pairs, who busily readied their assigned 420’s (4.2 metre long dinghies rigged with a spinnaker and a trapeze). Samantha Boulton, meanwhile, volunteered to go solo on a Laser.
Watching them all work together to rig up their boats was impressive. For the most part, they did so independently of Harper, who would step in with a few quick reminders about some simple adjustments. And when necessary, mostly-friendly advice was offered from each other as well.
As they began to navigate out the channel, I was able to tag along with Harper on his coach boat.
The on-water sessions are chances to practise what is learned each day in class. Harper explained some of the students in his group would have been competing last weekend in the Can Am Challenge, a friendly regatta in Youngstown, NY. As well, they will all be taking part in a regatta this coming weekend in Port Credit. To that end, Monday’s on-water session would also involve practising tactics around the mark, as well as three-minute repeat starts.
As today’s in-class session focussed on windy, choppy conditions, it was a bit disappointing that the river was too calm to apply what was learned in the lesson.
It was quickly clear these sailors were very confident in their abilities. Once out in open water, Harper dropped some marks for the sailors to practise turning around. It was amazing to watch each pair work together to swing their crafts around the buoy. Some had to be reminded to plan their approaches, but for the most part, to my untrained eye, they handled the turns expertly.
Communication, as you might imagine, is extremely important in a two-person sailboat. A couple of the pairs did well on this aspect. But, as Harper explained, it was pretty quiet out on the water this day, and he much prefers to hear a lot more talking in these 90-minute to two-hour sessions.
Harper blew a whistle, and the five boats gathered together to practise starts. This was saved for the final 15 to 20 minutes of the practice, and it was a good thing.
To practise the starts, Harper wanted the boats to come to a stop. He grew a little frustrated, as it seemed each of the five boats was doing something different.
He explained the calm conditions today, especially in light of the anticipation of a windier day, may have caused the group to lose a bit of their focus near the end of the session.
We head back toward the sailing club for lunch, and we see the sailors from the other two groups heading in as well. Harper remarks he hears a lot of talking at this point, and it seems to bring a smile to his face.
The group heads in for lunch, then will begin the afternoon with another in-class session, followed by another chance to practise what they learn on the water.
As Genge says, the youth program is great, and the numbers this year are strong, despite the challenges the high water levels have posed.
The students in the CANSail 1 to 4 groups will continue until Aug. 23, while the CANSail 5 and 6 sessions wrap up Aug. 9. The Adult Beginner program, running Tuesday and Thursday evenings, is getting set to start on Aug 6. Information about the program and registration can be found at niagaraonthelakesailingclub.com.