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Sail away with Van Isle Sailing Co-op

More information about the Van Isle Sailing Co-op is available by e-mailing

Initial fears of making a fool of myself and getting seasick, falling overboard or simply steering the boat disastrously into the path of an oncoming seaplane aside, my first-ever taste of sailing was fairly .... well, smooth sailing.

All hands remained on deck. No one retched over the rails. And the boat itself returned to dock intact.

Of course, while I did get a short stint at the helm and even got a crash course on tacking into the wind, much of the credit (OK, all of the credit) for not falling into the salt chuck, causing stomach somersaults or sinking the 27-foot Catalina go to my guides, Van-Isle Sailing Co-op’s Tony Sherer and Doug Mowatt, who agreed to take me and a friend out on what turned out to be a gorgeous February day with a perfect mild breeze.

Sherer is president of the six-year-old sailing co-operative, which boasts some six-dozen members and has now has four vessels, all 27-footers.

The co-op is one of five such organizations in B.C. The model offers numerous benefits, not the least of which is affordable access ($405 annual fee; $475 for a family) to several boats year-round for a fraction of the cost of owning a vessel individually.

Then there’s the opportunity to learn sailing at your own pace from experts with years of experience – Sherer earned his skipper’s ticket in 1980, while Mowatt got his in ’85, and they’re just two of the dozen-or-so qualified skippers among the membership.

The co-op’s main focus is on getting more people sailing, or at least giving people the opportunity to try it without breaking their bank accounts.

“By co-operative ownership, basically it’s just to keep the cost down,” says Sherer.

“It’s not a sailing club, it’s a co-op. We want people to enjoy this and learn to sail and be competent and safe.”

While I don’t feel entirely competent as I take my nervous turn at the helm, I do feel safe under the watchful eye of my two guides, who tell me my white-knuckle handle on helm is definitely not uncommon for first-timers.

“Everyone has a death grip their first time out,” Mowatt assures me, though I remain not entirely convinced.

Still, the pair’s subtle suggestions and patient guidance help me (once I get a handle on the sailing nomenclature) to safely steer the little boat safely past a few massive anchored container ships into Nanaimo harbour.

And then Mowatt tells me we’re going to tack.

Cue the return of the death grip.

Yet, even with my heart in my throat and my mind envisioning our inevitable collision with the crab dock off Maffeo Sutton Park, Mowatt and Sherrer both appear completely cool as they talk me through the tacking process and the associated commands a half-dozen times until I’m still not even remotely approaching competent and the helm, but might pass for marginally comfortable.

If nothing else, my full white-knuckle death grip has relaxed a little and might now be classed instead as firm choke hold. Apparently, my ear-to-ear grin is also telling as to my increasing level of comfort and enjoyment.

After a few more tacks with my friend at the helm, we haul in the sails and motor leisurely back to the marina, here we leave Sherer and Mowatt to secure the boat and ready it for its next trip out.