Where little sailors are a sight to lift the spirits | Canberra CityNews

Where little sailors are a sight to lift the spirits | Canberra CityNews
The Canberra Yacht Club sailing school fleet sets off into Lake Burley Griffin.

NOEL BEDDOE continues his occasional series reminding us why Canberra is the most beautiful place to live*… this time he marvels at a flotilla of little sailors plying Lake Burley Griffin.

A mass of sails, a fleet of boats crowded together, banging across a broad waterway in a tight group, jostling to get access to the propulsion of moving air…

Noel Beddoe.

It’s a sight to lift the spirits. It’s ours on Lake Burley Griffin, west of Commonwealth Bridge, Saturday and Sunday, September to April. 

They head out from Lotus Bay, beat across towards Museum Point, cut into West Basin past the Acton Point jetty, wheel around in that water; if you’re lucky and score a table on the patio of the café in the National Museum, the flotilla passes within a stone’s throw.

There seem to be a lot of boats, but you can’t possibly count them because they scramble, shift position; you become aware of power boats on the edges of the fleet, darting in to provide coaching and support. And if you are out on that patio, getting a close-up view, this is what strikes you – the sailors are all children, many younger than 10.

The sails filled out, the little vessels scudding across the water, the tiny skippers – they make me think of a flock of fragile butterflies being pushed along by the wind. 

I know now how many little fibreglass hulls make up that collection of craft – they are the 60 owned by the sailing school of the Canberra Yacht Club in Yarralumla.

The general manager of the yacht club operation is Steven Hart. He learned to sail at Deviot in Tasmania, and first sailed Lake Burley Griffin when his family moved to Canberra in 2003. He was a sailing instructor at the club by the time he was 15. 

What does sailing give him?

“You learn self-discipline, concentration – if you’re not on top of your game you finish up in the water; if you’re out there alone you can’t argue it wasn’t your fault if you make a mistake.

“And while you’re on the water, that’s all you’re aware of, the water, the wind, the things you have to do. Anything else that’s going on in your life, that all just vanishes away while your out there in a boat.”

There are some commercial operations in Australia that pump out sailing lessons; there are also not-for-profit yachting clubs that teach sailing for a love of and commitment to the sport. Canberra yacht Club is among the latter. 

“We average around 1100 kids trained a year. A year,” says Steven.

“We have 35 certified instructors on the books in summer. This is often their first job. We provide everything – the boats, the life jackets, the instruction. We have to charge a fee to meet costs but, of course, it’s nothing like having to own your own boat.”

The yacht club came into being in 1959. That’s 65 years, up to 1100 youngsters a year these days – a very great many people introduced to a sport and an interest that can last a lifetime.

Do many people stay with yachting?

“A lot do. We’ve had graduates win national, international titles. We consistently have a strong group of young sailors travelling to interstate regattas.”

A matter of special pride to Steven?

“We have sailing for the disabled, Sailability. Folk come, you’ll see their wheelchairs sitting outside after we’ve used our technology to get them into boats, they’re out there with their instructors, learning to sail under their own effort. They can chase their own Paralympic dream if they want to.”

Someone who can’t walk, rushing over the water on the wind – I can only guess how much the experience must mean to the participants. Much of the cost of the program is met by sponsors.

I grew up in a Housing Commission estate in western Sydney; sport was cricket in summer, Rugby League in winter, year round competition and social tennis. Sailing was an unattainable dream, the province of the elites; so it is for most Australian children. Kids in the ACT are luckier than that.

For information about costs and scheduling of lessons, or to donate to the Sailing for Sailability Program go to  canberrayc.com

*The Oxford Economic Global Cities Index recently examined the 1000 largest cities in the world to measure the quality of life they provided; it ranked Canberra’s quality of life the highest in Australia and second highest in the world behind Grenoble in France.

Noel Beddoe is Canberra author. Three of his novels have been nominated for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.


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