Always Learning – mechanics, welding, sewing etc.


Always Learning – mechanics, welding, sewing etc.

The skills of a sailor go broad and deep.

Hands-on work gets the job done

Hands-On Learning

I’m a great believer that SEEING and DOING are the best ways to learn almost anything. I love words and books, and can easily lose myself with either of them; but when it comes to practical learning, text is a poor teacher.

“What is the taste of sugar?”

Two different ways to answer this ancient Zen questions: Talk a person to death describing sweetness, or share a teaspoon of sugar.

Isn’t boat-handling much the same? We can talk all we want about factors to consider docking a vessel, yet there’s no greater teacher than practicing this manoeuver in adverse tide or wind conditions!

Certainly, I am blessed with a love of reading and a need to see things before I can really grasp something. The Marine Diesel Basics project grew out of this need to see what I was trying to learn and not just read about it in books, however excellent. Like most people, once I see something, I can begin to understand it.

Dinghy sailing in Toronto Inner Harbour

After dreaming as a boy of living on a narrowboat on the English canals, and travelling for years in a canoe in the Amazon rain forest (see Adventures), it took the visit of a nephew to get me sailing for the first time, on an “experience sailing day” in Toronto’s Inner Harbour. I never looked back.

CYA Beginner training began the same week and, after that, I immediately signed up for the CYA Intermediate. One year later, I sold everything and bought a cheap sailboat South East Asia.


However, it was not until planning to sail single-handed in sub-Arctic Labrador and Ungava Bay, on Canada’s Atlantic coast, that I decided to get serious about learning to sail. “What’s the highest standard of training and the toughest conditions?” I asked.

The answer was the Royal Yachting Association Yachtmaster Offshore standard in the English Channel & Solent in winter time – fog, gales, tidal streams, sand banks, ships, big tides, cold, drizzle and snow. Perfect, I thought, just like Labrador in summer time, except for the absence of rocks and reefs (icebergs are slow moving ships).

Five months out on sailboats in all weathers, in daylight, darkness, fog and snow, mostly with no GPS only compass bearings – was relentless and demanding. Courses included navigation, sea survival, first aid, and weeks of on-water manoeuvers. The Yachtmaster Offshore Certificate (though it can be commercially endorsed) is best thought as a solid training on which a seaman can build competence through experience. Certainly, without the training I’d never have sailed alone down the St. Lawrence river or dared to venture along the rugged coast of Labrador.

Key experiences were 1) sailing in a F9 gale, putting a metre-long crack in the hull, declaring a mayday and having the RNLI stand by as we baled for hours and limped to safety, 2) sailing by compass bearing around sandbanks at night, 3) being nearly drowned by a lifejacket.

Formal marine mechanical training started at the Midland campus of Georgian College, in Ontario, Canada – after living through an unforgettable summer of engine troubles while alone of the sub-Arctic coast of Labrador. “Get stuck in – or give up” were my options; so I choose marine school and paid for it by painting houses during the holidays and living very frugally.

I’ve never made a better investment in my life, gaining both theoretical knowledge (“why does a diesel engine work?”) and confidence to go on doing and learning.

Dennison Berwick @ Georgian College
electrical board Marine Diesel Basics
Dennison Berwick under sailboat
Dennison Berwick learning to sew
Dennison Berwick learning to weld

Being full-time at school also gave opportunities to learn other skills – in my case, sewing and welding. I promised myself a Sailrite sewing machine as a graduate gift when I started, so it was important to learn how to use a sewing machine.

Every Wednesday evening was time to forget mechanics and feel the fabric under my fingers at sewing class. My project was new covers (with piping) for the cabin and forepeak

Weekends brought more studying and the opportunity to learn to weld – a serious gap in my otherwise bookish education, and very useful on a steel sailboat.

Of course, school is only one aspect of learning – a process  that hopefully stretches through every day of our lives. I often think of humans are like trees in this regard; if we are not growing, we are dying. Even on my first boat, Karuna, marine engineer Peter Jarrett, and yacht broker Michele Pippen were generous teachers always willing to explain and encourage.

After Georgian, I went to work for a highly experienced sailor and marine mechanic working on sailboats in Toronto. Craig Morley, of Aquafacts, combined great knowledge of all things mechanical with years of sailing experience. He understood the real-life consequences of what he was doing – and he was a generous teacher always willing to explain to me not just what we were doing but why and how.

Craig Morley marine surveyor & mechanic
Craig Morley marine surveyor & mechanic
Dennison Berwick helping install new marine engine
Dennison Berwick sewing cones for as Jordan's drogue
sewing cones for a Jordan’s drogue
Learning Inkscape & Affinity Designer to create vector graphics
learning Inkscape & Affinity Designer to create
vector graphics
Guernsey sweater knit for a friend
Guernsey sweater knit for a friend

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