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Learning to sail

7 April 2012

I had always been obsessed with sailing boats on family trips to the sea and holidays, I bought little toy boats, sailors, gazed wistfully at the sails, read nautical tales and studied pirate stories. But I never thought that sailing was an activity within my reach until a chance encounter during my last year at university.

After leaving music college I had toured Italy and France as tuba player with the Imperial College Symphony Orchestra and afterwards continued to play with them on an ad hoc basis and separately in the Imperial College Brass Dectet as one of the trumpet players there was an old friend from my anglo-german youth orchestra days (another story…) and another would become my future diving buddy Al (see Learning to dive and More diving, 4m rescue diver and Maltese wrecks).One of the other trumpet players was a Cornishman who was involved in the Imperial College Sailing Club. One day, after a rehearsal I overheard him making a few calls, they had arranged a trip for that weekend and had a few free berths to fill. To cut a long story short I took a berth for £80 and had a great weekend! The details of that weekend are hazy in my memory but involve flying spinnakers, my first taste of controlling a 46 foot vessel and realising that sailing was a sequence of adrenaline, eating, fun and alcohol. I was hooked.

I stayed in touch with the Cornishman and whilst away at law school organised a trip for the dectet (plus a couple of stringplayers as we took the same two berth boat) and realised that chartering a boat was actually no more expensive than a weekend away with friends. The details of that trip are even hazier as brass players like to drink and I was in charge of the shopping…

Testing out the essential equipment on an early voyage.

Unfortunately, my Cornishman accepted a position for postdoctoral research in America which threatened to make my sailing trips quite a bit more expensive.I realised that to keep the price of my trips down, I would need to get to a sufficient level that I could charter boats myself. But I had not been born on the Cornish coast, so I turned to google and the RYA.

The RYA do a series of courses from the rank beginner right through to instructor level. There range from a) start yachting, 2/3 days, b) competent crew, 5 days with no prior experience, c) day skipper, with 100 miles and 5 days logged, d) coastal skipper to e) yachtmaster and f) yachtmaster ocean.

I felt I had already been introduced to yachting and becoming a competent crew would not solve my skipper dilemma, so I opted to become a day skipper, finding an intensive 9 day course with Start Point sailing in Dartmouth (no longer in business) for around £400.

As I hadn’t really had much hands on experience of sailing, in the weeks leading up to the course following completion of law school I was camping round the coast of France. I figured I would get chance to hire a boat off the beach and perhaps have a lesson. It wasn’t until we got to the South of France that I came across a rental place that would let us take little Hobie catamarans out from the beach. Of all boats I had admired, catamarans had always been my favourite so this was great. Even better, my (then) girlfriend said that her Dad used to take her out on holidays so between us we should be able to work out the basics.

The French owner explained the limits of the sailing area and to avoid a certain area downwind where lots of expensive boats were moored. We agreed that avoiding this would be wise.

It was a very windy day so we had no problem setting off from the beach and picked up quite some speed (catamarans are very nippy). We naturally headed downwind and as we left the wake behind I realised that maybe I could sail after all. However, as we approached the designated danger area my girlfriends (lack of) knowledge quickly became apparent. Come what may, we couldn’t seem to turn away and ended up spilling the wind and drifting towards some weeds to avoid the more expensive boats. Fortunately one of the clubs motorboats saw us drifting and towed us back to the beach, giving some words of advice in French…

The Day Skipper course involves a theory course, learning to calculate navigation and other intellectual aspects and a five day practical course where you have to learn practical navigation, sail setting, steering and parking the boat. My 9 day course sandwiched the practical between two weekends of theory, an efficient but fairly intense way of doing it.

The first two days in the classroom were fairly straightforward, I was fresh from study at law school and navigation is basically just mathematical vectors, but with only two “jolly” weekends I was finding putting it all into context a little difficult (the Cornishman was so experienced at the area we had gone sailing that he didn’t worry too much about strict by the book navigation). There I was introduced to my fellow dayskipper candidate, (who I will call Trevor) who was an experienced motorboater who was thinking about saving on petrol.

After two days in the classroom I was chuffed to finally get onboard the yacht, meeting our instructor, Richard, and the fourth member of the group, Gemma, who was an experienced dinghy sailor looking to make a move up to larger boats and so doing her competent crew course.

Richard's food is better than this...

Our skipper was Richard Haig, late 40s/early 50s and a very experienced instructor who I ended up staying in touch with and have now done several deliveries and other trips with.  I can’t recommend Richard enough and he now runs his own little operation in Wales doing a mixture of sailing and outdoor activities called Celtic Crusing up the West Coast of Wales, England and Scotland together with better food than your average sailing weekend (my itinery generally includes pizza, pasties and bacon but Richard trained as a chef)The boat itself was a Gibsea 32 and I haven’t sailed on more of a floating wreck since! I learned more about yacht maintainence in that week than I have done since but sadly most of it went over my head as I tried to focus on the difference between sheets, halyards and lines, tacking and gybing and the various points of sail.  Gemma grasped all of the sailing aspects easily but got fervently seasick as we put off from shore and wanted to get off the boat – apparently she had done dinghy sailing quite offshore but it was the closer confines of belowdeck that made her more seasick – I often now tell people feeling queazy to stay on deck and focus on the horizon.  However, Richard refused to give up and we didn’t get to a point where she could get off the boat for two days, by which time her seasickness had subsided (it is well know that even Admiral Nelson suffered seasickness but overcame this in the early days of each voyage and then went on to do some pretty good things).Trevor was very good at maneuvering under power but became very frustrated when the sails were up, and snored like a walrus with a head cold.  Then there was me, erstwhile skipper…

It's great when you've just got to steer...

Day skipper was a very steep learning curve for someone who had only previously spent two (quite drunken) weekends on a boat.  However, whilst there is a strict curriculum to be covered, this is taken at your own pace and I think that a week as competent crew would not have pushed me hard enough – perhaps I would recommend it for someone who wanted a taste of sailing (although a better taste would be to try and tag along with a friend, I know not everyone is that fortunate – I certainly waited long enough for the chance!) but I think that anyone with basic experience of sailing should push on to Day Skipper, it is certainly a challenging week and not a relaxing holiday but the sense of accomplishment at the end was great.  I word of warning though, as future blog posts may show, the Day Skipper course is really just teaching the rudiments of skippering and I would (now…) not advise anyone who had just a Day Skipper experience that they could gleefully charter a yacht with an inexperienced crew and decide to circumnavigate the Isle of Wight.

From → Sailing

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