Shelby Williams started sailing when she was 12 years old. Now 19, she’s progressed to the position of head sailing instructor at the Pelican Yacht Club at Pelican Lake. She’s pursuing a course of general study at the University of Manitoba during the winter months, but in the summer, she can’t wait to get back on the water. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD)
So where did you learn to sail?
I took all of my sailing lessons at Pelican Lake. And I took five years of lessons there — I combined them into four years — I doubled up one year. Then at the end of my lessons, they kind of said, "Well, you’re done, so I guess we’ll hire you now, because we don’t really have much else for you to do!" So I’ve been working there for the last three years.
In what capacity?
I started as an assistant sailing instructor — I was an assistant for the last two summers. This will be my first season as the head sailing instructor and program manager.
What was it that drew you to sailing in the first place?
Well, I used to spend my summers at my grandmother’s house in Ninette, and she had the same working schedule as the times that the program ran, so she wanted to put me somewhere where I wouldn’t be causing any trouble. So she threw me into sailing lessons one summer, and I haven’t looked back.
What is it you like about it? What’s fun for you?
The control and the freedom.
But that’s diametrically opposed — control and freedom at the same time.
I suppose so, but the absolute control that you have over the boat and the freedom that it allows you to have on the water is incredibly fun. The speed it’s just very, very exhilarating.
I’ve always been a fish and I’ve always been very competitive, so finding water sports for me has never been difficult. But something about sailing has always just clicked for me. It’s a very exhilarating sport and there’s always new things to learn and new things to develop.
Now that I’m teaching, I’m learning even more, which is very exciting for me.
My mom was a teacher, and she gave me a little plaque when I became a journalism instructor that says ‘To teach is to learn again.’ Have you found that to be true?
Absolutely! I have the most wonderful students — they are all very excited to be there — they always want to be there. They show up and they’re ready and raring to go, which is great. I remember feeling that way when I took lessons, and it’s very exciting, because they’re always showing me something new.
Tell me about the Learn To Sail program. What sort of designations do people get when they go through the lessons?
There are several levels you take throughout your development as a sailor, depending on your age and, basically, the size of the sailor. We pair you with an appropriate boat and we just get you learning the basics. We set everyone at their own paces — some learn faster than others and some are bigger than others, which means that they can take on bigger boats. Usually the bigger the boat, the more complicated it gets. And with the bigger students, they can get a little more in-depth with the sport, which is great, because some of the smaller boats limit you a little bit.
Does it take a lot of athleticism to do this?
It depends how far you want to go with the sport. It’s like anything — you can do it very leisurely and very laid back, or you can really throw yourself into it — you can race and get competitive and things of that nature. So you don’t have to be athletic to start — a lot of our students haven’t even learned to swim yet when they join our program, which surprises a lot of people. I prefer to have my students know how to swim, just for safety reasons, but we’re very safety-conscious as it is — everyone has life-jackets, there’s always a safety boat on patrol, and we keep a very close eye on everyone.
Are you a competitive sailor?
Most of the time, I just prefer the leisurely sail and sometimes to push the limits. I’m not always a racer.
But last year when I started working at the Yacht Club full-time, I joined Trevor Maguire’s racing team on his keelboat ‘Quantum State’ we race a 23-foot H-boat. And I have learned more on that boat in the few times I raced with him last year than I have on any other boat in a long time. Racing, you have to learn quickly, or you get in trouble sometimes. So you have to know what you’re doing. And there was a lot of practice on his boat on summer nights, which was great.
There is a lot of professional development that we take each year to keep on top of the sport, because as in all things, things are always changing. I’ve taken a lot of courses. I took a racing clinic over the winter that really broadened my knowledge about racing, which will help us a lot when I take four of our students to the Manitoba Games this summer. We have two boys and two girls competing in the Manitoba Games in Swan Valley.
You train a lot of youngsters, right? How young can you go?
We start as early as five, but they’re not out on their own. With the five-to-eight-year-old range, we tend to do half-days with them, and we get started on basic safety and just get them having a lot of fun on the water. A lot of times it’s their first sailing adventure so you don’t want to jam their heads with too much theory, so we pair them up with some more advanced sailors and they just have some fun.
It’s probably good for both the advanced sailors and the kids.
Of course. It keeps their memory fresh as to the safety that they need to remember sometimes when there’s a lot of fun to be had, they tend to forget the rules, unfortunately. But it’s great fun. And it really is dependent on the size of the child. Sometimes you have a really big five-year-old and sometimes you have a really little eight-year-old. And you really have to plan accordingly in terms of that.
We talked about the youngsters, but anybody who is 20-something, 30-something, 70-something can take lessons, too, right?
Absolutely. We have a lot of adults who take private lessons — they come in for a few hours and they learn the basics. They work one-on-one with an instructor, and we get out on the water and test out the skills they have hopefully learned, and just hope for the best. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t!
We had someone come in — I believe he was 76 — and he had never been on a boat before, I believe. And he just wanted to give it a try. I think he went out with one of our instructors, and he just had a grand old time. He came back a few more times, and then he said, ‘Well, that’s it for me — my muscles can’t take it anymore. But I’m glad I did it once in my lifetime.’ That was great. And that was a learning experience for him and for us, because we don’t have many people who come in and say, ‘Well, I’ve never been on a boat, but I need to once in my life.’
If anyone is interested in learning to sail, where do they go for information?
They can go to the Pelican Yacht Club website — email@example.com — and there’s the Learn To Sail link there. They can email me it’s LTS.PYC@gmail.com . All the Learn To Sail information is up on the website — we have the schedule for the year there, and all the information about instructors and lessons and course prices and things like that.
If people are nervous at all about sailing, or think they might be remotely interested in the sport, is there a way that they can come and check stuff out?
For sure. Anytime anyone has any interest, they can always come by and chat. We even do sailboat rides we’ve taken a few families out for little adventures on the small dinghies. But if they get interested once they’re out there, they can take over a little bit and test it out. But even if they just want to come down and see what we’re all about, just give us a call. We’re very available.
We also, of course, have the disabled sailing program. We have two Martin 16s that are fully rigged for disabled sailors and we can run those anytime during the summer as well. And we do lessons for disabled sailors as well. We can take them out on the Martins with an instructor. Often if a disabled sailor is interested, but their family isn’t confident on the water, we’ll go out on the water with them and we can sit with them and keep them company and just go for a cruise or really get into some technical sailing.
This becomes more than a sport — it’s a passion for some people who really take to it, yes?
My first week of lessons, it was five days of sitting out on the water and playing ball tag in sailboats and chasing each other around. That changed the entire path of my life, that’s for sure. I’ve met some of the most wonderful people through sailing. And I’ve learned some very valuable life lessons through this sport.
Competition is NOT everything. You have to be very prepared to work through problems on the water. And you have to become very adaptable to situations because everything changes. The wind changes, the weather changes, something happens on the boat, and you have to adapt. Adapt or sink! So it’s a great sport, and a great sport to learn from.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 19, 2012