OCSG Competence Levels

skills for Canoe Sailors

The OCSG is a bunch of like-minded people who like sailing canoes and choose to meet up now and then to sail together. Some years ago the group chose to become affiliated to canoeing’s National Governing Body (British Canoeing) for the benefits provided (such as credibility, profile, support, advice, insurance), but good safe practices would have been promoted anyway and the more “official” status with its rights and responsibilities is not the only or main reason for the ongoing attention paid to “Safety Issues.”

Generally OCSG members tend to be open-minded free spirits, with a streak of independence. Many will go sailing in their canoes at times other than just at OCSG meets. Therefore we judge that canoe sailors need to be self-reliant and able to manage their own safety as well as being able to rescue themselves. For these reasons our activities are set up so that safety/rescue boats are not needed (and therefore not provided, other than at a very few venues such as Rutland Water, where they happen to be provided anyway for other water activities – we do not expect to need/use them).

Therefore the skills of self-sufficiency are important for everyone to understand and develop. The club undertakes to provide guidance and advice for canoe-sailing activities, which are likely to manage down to an acceptable level the inherent risks of sailing small craft, .

Different people will aspire to go canoe-sailing in many different environments, from a small lake to the open sea; so the risks associated with the range of situations also vary. Therefore the range of skills required have been identified and developed to help canoe-sailors be safer. The Competence Levels were introduced in 2006 to help canoe-sailors understand what they should be able to do in order to match their aspirations: that is “if I want to go for a trip up the lake, I need to be able to do this, this and this – so I can look after myself when alone and help others out when sailing in a small group.”

The Competence Levels can and should be used to help choose what activity/outing you should take part in and who else you go with, particularly at OCSG meets. Making the right decision about what you do is important, so that you don’t find yourself in a situation that you and the others in the party cannot deal with – in terms of sailing or rescuing yourself or others. Being over ambitious or unaware of what you are doing when sailing a canoe, can result in others having to shoulder an unreasonable burden of responsibility to assist – sailing buddies and/or event organisers have found themselves in awkward and demanding situations.

Some would say that this is just a matter of ‘common sense’ – but our experience shows that some people need informed guidance to help them develop this ‘common sense’. Surely it is reasonable to encourage a newcomer, who hasn’t sailed their canoe before, to only practice close to base, with the support of a more experienced canoe-sailor not too far away? Or for someone who has only recently developed their upwind sailing ability in easy conditions, to be discouraged from heading off on a 5 mile trip up the lake when the forecast is for a freshening breeze? Or for someone, who can only just about cope with modest trips in moderate inland conditions, to be encouraged to further develop their skills on lakes, before venturing out onto coastal waters?

We are fortunate in the UK to enjoy a great deal of freedom to do what we like and OCSG members are no exception to this. If you choose to “do your own thing” then no one is going to stop you, even at meets – all the rest of us can do is make strong recommendations, because this minimises the risk of mishaps provided the advice is heeded. However, if they don’t then such a person needs to be aware that they will be operating outside the auspices of the club and must take full responsibility for themselves. They should also realise that they will be causing additional stress and anxiety to the others at the meet, because we all have a duty of care to each other, whether or not it is expected.

Competence Levels - Purpose

  • to guide and promote the development of canoe-sailing skills to suit the location and conditions.
  • to provide an understanding of the capabilities required to undertake various canoe-sailing activities in differing conditions and over a wide range of challenge and adventure, including OCSG meets.

The OCSG competence levels detail some of the key skills and techniques required for sailing and paddling a sailing canoe, but are not intended as an exhaustive test of everything you might need to know or be capable of. Before going on the water particular attention should be paid to general planning and preparation for your canoe, equipment and clothing etc. Advice about these issues is available at OCSG meets as well as from this OCSG website, but at other times canoe-sailors will need to use caution and judgment to deal with the likely risks. OCSG members wishing to extend their skills and experience should consider the relevant British Canoeing paddling and RYA sailing courses. [see footnote A]

The OCSG encourages canoe-sailing activities in the company of others for mutual support; this forms an important part of OCSG meet procedures, for the increased safety it offers. Nevertheless canoe-sailors should aim to be self-reliant, developing their own experience and judgment as well as important skills such as self-rescue.

For those taking part in OCSG meets it is useful to know both your own and other’s capabilities, to help understand what activities are appropriate in the conditions at that location. These Levels provide a way of doing this.

Level 1 - Basic

Intended for those starting out with a sailing canoe, achievable after a handful of sessions on inland waters in light winds, F1-2. Shows competence to sail a canoe up to half a mile from the launch point, in light-wind conditions on simple waters with no current, supervised by a Level 2 (or higher) canoe-sailor.

In Light Breeze conditions (4>7 mph, F2)

1. Sail upwind half a mile, including tacking several times. Then return, gybing at least twice.

2. Sail away from launch site for a few hundred yards, drop or furl sail and paddle back. [see footnote B]

3. Reef afloat and continue sailing.

4. After the canoe has been fully swamped, recover the situation by baling it out (in a couple of feet of water near the beach) [see footnote C]

5. Be rescued by another canoe-sailor following a practice capsize.

Level 2 – Intermediate

Intended for those taking part in a round trip of about 5 miles on inland waters in a Gentle to Moderate breeze, F3-4, as part of a small group taking responsibility for their own safety as well as looking out for others in the group.

1. Show effective sailing in a ‘Gentle Breeze’ (7>12 mph, F3) by following a Level 3 canoe sailor for a 1 mile beat in no more than 150% of their time. [see footnote D]

2. Sail away from launch site, drop or furl sail and paddle a half-mile round-trip in 15 minutes in a ‘Light Breeze’ (4>7 mph, F2). [see footnote B]

3. Reef afloat in a ‘Gentle Breeze’ (7>12 mph, F3) and continue sailing.

4. ‘Heave to’ for 5 minutes in a stable and controlled manner in a ‘Gentle Breeze’ (7>12 mph, F3). [see footnote E]

5. Following a practice capsize, recover and re-enter the canoe in ‘Light Breeze’ conditions (4>7 mph, F2). [NB see footnotes F/G/H/I for trimarans and outrigger float issues].

6. Take charge of a two person rescue of someone from the water in ‘Light Breeze’ conditions (4>7 mph, F2). [NB see footnote J for physical requirements and footnote F for rescue by trimaran].

Level 3 - Advanced

Intended for those taking part in more adventurous outings on larger inland waters, in stronger wind conditions (maximum 24 mph, F5) and larger waves, as part of a small group taking responsibility for their own safety as well as looking out for others in the group.

1. Show effective sailing in a ‘Moderate Breeze’ (12>18 mph, F4) by following a Level 4 canoe sailor upwind for 1 mile in no more than 125% of their time. [see footnote D]

2. Sail away from launch site, drop or furl sail and paddle a half-mile round-trip in 15 minutes in a ‘Gentle Breeze’ (7>12 mph, F3). [see footnote B]

3. Reef afloat in a ‘Moderate Breeze’ (12>18 mph, F4) and continue sailing.

4. Recover from a capsize, and re-enter the canoe alone, in a ‘Moderate Breeze’ (12>18 mph, F4). (For a trimaran, show re-entry following a ‘Man Overboard’ situation).

5. Rescue another capsized canoe-sailor alone, in a ‘Moderate Breeze’ (12>18 mph, F4).

6. Following demonstration of the above skills, complete a real journey of at least 8 miles round trip on inland waters with a Level 3 buddy, showing understanding of basic passage planning:

Outline a plan – Weather, Where to, Who is my rescue partner, Return plan & time, Contingency plan, Told Someone ashore?

Canoe – Boat, Rig, Foils, Fittings all OK for conditions?

Skipper – Able to cope with likely Conditions and possible Emergencies?

Gear – Buoyancy Aid, Whistle, Paddle, Bailer, Additional Kit (calling for help, navigation or other)?

Level 4 – Coastal

Intended for those taking part in serious adventures on exposed coastal waters, where higher wind and wave conditions are routinely expected, as part of a small group taking responsibility for their own safety as well as looking out for others in the group.

1. Show ability on all points of sail in a Fresh Breeze (18-24 mph winds, F5) with resulting wave conditions for a 5 mile fetch.

2. Complete an outing of 10 miles round trip on coastal waters with a Level 4 buddy. A passage plan for the outing should be prepared.

3. Gain experience of at least 5 other outings of at least 10 miles on a variety of coastal waters.




A. In order to learn more about coastal sailing some canoe-sailors may choose to complete an ‘RYA Essential Navigation and Seamanship’ course, or an ‘RYA Day Skipper Theory’ course or ‘British Canoeing Coastal Navigation and Tidal Planning’ or some equivalent course – but any of these will need to be complemented with significant experience of sailing and paddling a canoe on the sea.

B. For paddling skills requirements by those with physical disabilities, the use of an alternative power source such as an outboard motor may be appropriate.

C. Anyone sailing a canoe should consider both how it will behave in the event of complete swamping and how they will deal with such a situation. The key issues are how stable the boat is when swamped and whether it can be bailed out; both factors are affected by the amount and location of the buoyancy installed, as well as how effectively that buoyancy is attached to the canoe. Testing both the canoe and the user’s ability to deal with such circumstances is an essential prerequisite before going sailing in a canoe.

D. ‘Effective sailing’ requirements should be undertaken using a similar size sail to the canoe being followed (minimum size 25 sq ft – reefing of either sail may be required to achieve this).

E. ‘Heaving to’ is a useful skill to bring the boat to a near stop, in order to bail or attend to some incident etc.

F. For those using a trimaran, rescue requirements for Level 2 can be adjusted so that capsize recovery is not expected, favouring the importance of effectively dealing with someone in the water, such as supporting and taking them to shore, either inside or outside the boat.

G. Trimarans can be defined as craft with outriggers, where each float is large enough to fully support the canoe-sailor above the water, when sitting on it.

H. Canoe-sailors undertaking Level 2 who always use small outrigger floats are strongly recommended to develop their capsize recovery skills. Small outrigger floats can be defined as of a size that can be readily submerged by the canoe-sailor during a capsize recovery, but each one must be big enough to support the canoe-sailor when sitting on the gunwale of the canoe, without the canoe swamping.

I. Canoe-sailors who sometimes but not always use small outriggers are strongly encouraged to experience the required skills both with and without outriggers fitted – particularly the rescue-related techniques.

J. ‘Taking charge’ of a rescue means making decisions and instructing others in what to do, but not necessarily doing all the strenuous lifting.

Questions for all of us who sail our canoes

Do you know for sure whether you can carry out these skills? Wouldn’t you be happier knowing you’ve proved it to yourself? And repeat them regularly, say each year or so? Some skills are not needed very often and although you may have managed it once, can you still do it now? Maybe there are a few things you have never quite got round to trying. It may be that your canoe or rig has been changed since you tried something out and wouldn’t it be useful to try it again, for your own reassurance?