Start Sailing Now

Sailing The Great Lakes

Published in the December 2017 Issue December 2018 Feature Tim McKenna

There is never a “bad” time to start sailing. This may sound a little trite, but it is true. Even if you have never sailed before in your life there are certainly plenty of opportunities and resources to do so no matter what your age. Or, if it has been awhile since you have sailed, there are lot of ways to get back on the water.

For the younger kids there are a lot of youth programs designed to get them out on the water at many yacht clubs around the Great Lakes. Most of these programs start the kids out on Optimist dinghies, a boat just under 8 feet designed for kids up through age 14 or so. Many of the youth programs progress from the Optimist to FJ’s and 420s as the skill levels increase. It can be quite an experience to be anchored or hanging on a mooring ball when 50 to 60 small boats with crews of two or three come sailing back to the base after a day of racing. They are absolutely fun to watch.

Not In My Youth

Okay, you say, that sounds great, but I am considerably older than that. What can I do and how do I do it? There are several options depending on your goals, experience and expectations. Are you interested in a formal series of sailing classes that leads to a certification from one of the nationally-recognized organizations offering this type of program? There are more than 30 schools throughout the Great Lakes that offer formal certification classes operated by affiliates of US Sailing and the American Sailing Association. These schools offer introductory, Basic Keelboat, through advanced cruising classes. In most cases these classes can lead to a certification to bareboat charter anywhere on the Great Lakes as well as the Caribbean. There are also many sail training facilities operated by local municipalities and private sailing instructors throughout the Great Lakes region. The idea is to get on the boat with someone who can make you feel comfortable and safe, while learning the basics. In addition, many of these schools will offer private lessons designed to your specific needs or partial days of an introduction to sailing…just to see if you like it!

Welcome Back

Getting “back on the water” is easy. You can contact a school and take a refresher class, rent a boat for a day sail with an instructor, or just walk down the dock and ask someone to take you sailing. Yes, this can work. It has, in fact, worked for me in various parts of the country as well as with new friends made on my own boat.

If you have had some experience and want to build on it, show up at the local marina on a Wednesday evening or Saturday morning when the locals are getting ready to head out for the weekly boat club races. There are always boats looking for crew and people who want to sail and learn. And remember, it is certainly less expensive to sail with someone on their boat.

Getting Certified

Let’s return for a moment to the value of taking formal sailing classes. In the “Certification Classes” you will learn to sail based on a logical sequence of instruction. You will learn “why” and not just “how” things are done. There is an emphasis on safety, rules of the road and how to use the equipment on the boat. As you progress through the series of classes you will be given the opportunity to sail on different boats with different sail handling systems and a variety of equipment onboard. Basically everything from the VHF radio to the electronics and the engine.

After taking the classes or getting the refresher sail there are opportunities that will continue to make sailing available to you. There are charter companies throughout the region that will allow you to rent a boat for a day or a week. One concept that has been gaining in popularity is “Fractional Ownership.” This allows you to purchase the use of a particular boat for some period of time during the course of the year without having to maintain the boat or pay for dockage and insurance. You can sail on other people’s boats as much as possible or take that giant step and buy the boat of your dreams.

All that really matters in the long run is that you get out on the Great Lakes on a sailboat and do it safely while having a very good time.

About The Author

Tim McKenna is the founder of Erie Islands Sailing School. He began sailing as a child on Lake Erie and, as they say, the rest is sort of history. Tim has competed in most of the Lake Erie races as well as more than a dozen Port Huron to Mackinac races. Although a lifelong Great Lakes sailor, Tim has also enjoyed the opportunities to do some extensive “Blue Water” sailing in the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean. He has done multiple deliveries to and from the Caribbean from New England and the Chesapeake, sailed to the Azores and even had a trip from Gibraltar to the Canary Islands. Tim has sailed through or around most of the islands in the Caribbean and even managed to live on his sailboat for two winters in the Bahamas.

Tim holds a USCG 100-Ton Masters license and is certified by the American Sailing Association to teach sailing. Having taught sailing at schools on Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, as well as in Florida, California and the Virgin Islands, he decided to put together a sailing school where it all started for him—the beautiful waters of Lake Erie. He enjoys sharing stories of many sailing adventures, the people met and the fantastic boats on which he has sailed.



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