Life List: Learning to Sail in Perth, Western Australia

What if I told you that you could learn to sail in an hour in Perth, Australia? As in, you could be sailing a catamaran by yourself down a major Australia waterway within an hour of learning. Yes, I’m serious. And after a first-hand experience doing it in Australia, I’m here to tell you all about it.

Learning to sail was one of those things I had always dreamed of doing. I remember as a kid, sitting in the sand on the Outer Banks, watching as my father and uncles attempted kayak sailing, often to no avail, as demonstrated by the VHS footage that an unnamed family member submitted to America’s Funniest Home Videos. But seafaring novels like The Perfect Storm and The Old Man and the Sea had also long fascinated me. Yet I had largely never been proactive in learning to sail, perhaps in part to observations of the hardships of it, which I both observed in my family and with the old man.


But then a couple months ago, when I received my itinerary for my first trip to Australia, to Western Australia (with Tourism Australia and Tourism Western Australia), I could no longer ignore the sport that had followed me since my childhood. As I read the description of the “Funcats Sailing Tour,” I quickly realized that this was no ordinary tour, but that I was rather going to be sailing my own boat. I all of a sudden felt thrust into my own music video of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, there's vomit….Well you get the point. I was going to be learning to sail in Perth, Western Australia.

Needless to say, I was pretty anxious when I arrived at Funcats, located on a stretch of sandy beach on the Swan River, directly across from the Perth skyline. I met Funcats’ owner, Andrew Partington, who shared a little bit about the history of Funcats, which actually dates back 40 years. I met some of the staff who I’d be sailing with, all of whom were competitive sailors, and along with the entire Funcats establishment, had an exceptional safety record. I was feeling pretty good. And then Andrew turned to me and said, “Alright, let’s get you on a catamaran and you’ll be sailing by yourself out there in no time.” Here we go.

But these aren’t the everyday sailboats you probably think of when you think sailing. The boats I’d be on were 14-foot catamarans that fit up to four people. In mere minutes, after a safety demonstration that included what to do if we capsized, we were on the water, sailing directly toward Perth on the other side of the river.

“That’s it,” I exclaimed, as my captain and guide finished his instruction after just a couple minutes and told me it was time for me to now take over the sailing rig. You could’ve just about replaced, “It’s like riding a bike,” with “It’s like sailing a catamaran.” At the front of the boat was an orange ribbon, which we had to always keep perpendicular to the boat, sailing at a right angle to the wind. When the ribbon started moving too far one way or the other, I’d simply turn the rudder until the ribbon was back at a right angle. And that was it.

That is, until we had to turn. Which at first seemed a little daunting, as it involved a maneuver that felt a bit like a gymnastics maneuver, of a duck and roll. That was mostly in my head though. After giving the rudder a firm push to start the turning movement, the sail slowly started moving across the boat, at which point I ducked under it to the other side, took hold of the rudder, and then we were off sailing in the other direction. And yet again, that was it.

After making a few turns across the Swan Valley, we started heading back to shore. My guide was the first to jump off as we came into shore. He patted me on the back and said to me, “Alright, you’re good to go; go have fun!” I froze. “Oh, like by myself?” He belly-laughed, “Of course, you’re a natural out there, and I’m completely comfortable with you taking the rig out.” It felt a little bit like highway, or high-seas, robbery. As if I had just walked into a Maserati dealership, and after sitting in the car, the car dealer had handed me the keys and told me to take it for a test drive.

And it was AWESOME. Of all of the new adventure things I had tried over the last three years, it was one of the most unique things of its kind that I had gotten to do by myself. And the sheer joy sailing a boat BY MYSELF on a major waterway in Australia was off the charts. I was a modern-day boat captain. It felt so effortless, as I’d begin the turn, duck and roll under the sails and head back across the river each time. I was a 32-year-old kid in a candy shop. And I must have looked like it, too, because I evidently lost track of time, as I looked up to see the entire staff waving me back in, as it obviously was time to come into shore.

In an hour, I had gone from having never sailed a boat to having sailed a boat by myself. That’s crazy talk. Perhaps even crazier, it was just $50 to rent out these boats per hour.

Of the 75 new things I’ve tried the last 3 years, learning to sail in Perth was a standout. Yes, I had just picked up a new skill in the time that it’d take to get photos developed at a pharmacy. And yes, the view of the Perth skyline was pretty exceptional, especially when I watched as a pod of dolphins swam by. But what stood out, like some of my other standout activities, was that I was the captain, literally, of my own ship. I hadn’t just tried a new activity, but I had learned a new skill, and a skill I could then impart to others.