Crawl to Sail: RCN sail experience 2020


A/SLt Dale Lui, RCN Sail, Campus Support (Pacific) ~

Beneath the unwavering heat of the Pacific sun, sailors, both seasoned and new, are training in cadres this summer to learn hands-on seafaring skills. 

Despite COVID-19 conditions, which threatened the continuation of this year’s program, Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) Sail has managed to once again touch water, being made possible through the support of personnel-awaiting-training (PATs) leading from the helm. Passing on their skills and knowledge are weathered sailors such as CPO2 (Retired) John Haggis who are helping raise a new generation of mariners, skippers, and seafaring leaders.

“The number one goal of our mission statement here is to provide the sailing platform as means to give young, on-the-job officers, or non-commissioned members, and personnel-awaiting-training a chance to develop their leadership and teamwork skills. Sailing as a platform is absolutely perfect for that,” he says.

A team at Naval Fleet School worked behind the scenes to get the program running in accordance with regulations and safety procedures for COVID-19.

“Everything that we did here at the school had to fit into the national picture,” said Lt(N) Konnor Brett. “We had to fall within the orders of the Chief of Defence Staff – directly under those orders – and then determine what it would look like for Naval Fleet School to start working again. So much time and effort was put toward force protection measures and the Commandant’s vision of what it was going to look like to get to a start point.”

On the water

Whether it’s aboard a dinghy or a CS36 sail boat, new sailors and experienced trainees rode both wave and wind in the vast ocean blue. With mariners and skippers syncing their efforts, teams let fly the foresail and main the instant the orders are barked.

Even though CS36s and dinghies are different from the warships of the fleet, the familiar lessons integral to every sailor’s toolbox in the navy – leadership, communication, and competence – follow every trainee’s session at sea.

“While we don’t sail the frigates like we would a CS36, sailing teaches the same kind of trust and non-verbal communication the RCN uses as currency on operations,” says A/SLt Matthew Ladouceur, Sail Training Coordinator for RCN Sail. “It gets to the point where you don’t need to tell someone something. You can give them a look and a hand gesture and things are going to happen.”

A/SLt Ladouceur had extensive sailing experience prior to his service. He obtained victories in inshore and ocean racing competitions, coupled with several years’ experience as a sailing coach. His passion in sailing is matched by his familiarity with the benefits of sailing.

“Sailing in the private sector is used as a teambuilding and professional development tool,” he says.

The first group of PATs were sent to the Canadian Forces Sailing Association (CFSA), located at the mouth of Esquimalt Harbour, the first week of June. A dizzying scheme of maneuvers peppered the waters as sailors tacked across the waves in tight knit formations. Each dinghy consisted of a skipper and crew who coordinated their efforts in a bid to maximize their sail’s performance according to the weather, and avoid crashing into another team or capsizing their boat.

As OS Harry Clements, one of the trainees on the course, attests, “If you have two people on the ship, if one person is in the wrong place – they’re very light boats because they’re very small – it’s not hard for them to tip over, and it does take teamwork to get them back up as well.”

He’s no stranger to sailing; he knows the difference between a jib and a genoa and the dangers that come with the sport. He lived aboard a sailboat as a child. At age 12 he settled down in Ottawa before joining the navy. Despite having sailed from Alaska to Mexico, and then across the south Pacific to New Zealand and back, the course was still a new experience for him, having never raced dinghies before.

“Everything you’re doing at every point requires communication and if you don’t have that communication it’s actually quite dangerous. Especially when your skipper needs to be in contact with you at any point in time, because any small movement he makes on the tiller results in the boat moving. If you’re going fast enough, you could get hit in the head with the boom, you could end up overboard if you’re not ready for it, or you could end up capsized because you didn’t shift your bodyweight properly.”

Beyond just sailing, RCN Sail offers exposure to the overall culture and organization of the navy. It provides valuable experience that serves sailors for the rest of their careers.

Sailing involves more than just taking a boat out on the water. It starts in the office where a set of orders is created for the crew. It takes place on a desk where a course is charted depending on the wind and current on that particular day. Finally, it takes place in the supermarket figuring out the best provisions to take to sea.

“Sailing is something you can do your whole life,” says Haggis. “It’s a great sport, it keeps you sharp. If you own a boat, you might be the captain, but you’re not just the captain. Lots of times you’re the crew, the engineering officer, the logistics officer, and the navigator. It’s just great fun, great for the family. If it’s something you want to try, come on down, we’ll get your name on a list, get you a part of the program – it’s not just a sport, it’s a lifestyle.”

For anyone interested in participating in the program as a trainee, contact your chain of command about joining one of the courses this summer and follow RCN Sail on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #RCNSail.


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  1. CDR Fraser McKee says:

    A great idea. The original HMCS Venture pre-war was used to teach sea sense – i.e. weather expectation, working with the wind & tides, apart from ship handling. All skills they’ll need when in the newest electronic frigates, subs, etc. Even more the small, weather sensitive AOPS & MCDV’s. As RADML Murray said “The Gulf {of St. Lawrence} is a very unfriendly place.” If a Force 9 blows in, as it will, sea and weather sense will count more than a fancy CDAG engine and radar. Sailors (the newer term!) indeed will be what’s needed.

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