Skippered!

Sailing skills are important, they can make the difference between having a great time afloat or having a marine based nightmare. Sue Viney recounts her week afloat going for her Day Skipper Certificate.


Someone said to me that a bad day at sea is better than a good day at the office. I'm still not sure what a bad day at sea is. The six days I have just spent on a Day Skipper course following the south coast of England from Plymouth to Port Solent were all good - even the first one when I succumbed to the sea and unceremoniously threw up in nothing worse than a force 4 to 5.

I had decided to book myself on a Day Skipper course so that I could fill in the gaps in my sailing knowledge and give myself the confidence (and bit of paper) to enable me to charter a boat. I had clocked up a few miles at sea, but only when you have tried to take responsibility for a boat are you forced to think through all aspects of sailing, from which sails and ropes to use through to safety and navigation.

My course was with Sunsail. I had been on a holiday with Sunsail to Turkey the previous summer and was impressed with the size of the fleet and the experience of the staff. The nearest UK base for me is Port Solent and originally I booked the course to start from there and to sail around the Solent area. But Sunsail is opening a new base in Plymouth in March 2002 and a couple of weeks before the course was due to start I was asked if I would be willing to sail from Plymouth to Port Solent for the course so that a photographer could take some pictures of Sunsail boats in Plymouth Sound for the new brochure. The new route was to include an extra day's sailing - six days instead of five - how could I refuse!

Assembling in the drizzle at Port Solent on the Saturday lunchtime to wait for a minibus to take us to Plymouth, I met my fellow crew for the first time. We were a motley bunch - as I am sure they would agree. Two boat loads were heading for Plymouth by minibus, five on each boat, plus a Skipper/Instructor for each boat. The Skippers were already in Plymouth waiting for us, having just taken crews down there on courses. I found that I was the only one doing the Day Skipper course, the others were all doing Competent Crew. This suddenly made me feel extremely experienced, although on the scale of things my experience is still very limited.

Frank and Di were on the course to gain a new experience and an introduction to sailing. Half way through the week Di admitted that if she had fully understood what was involved she might not have come, but by the end she confessed to having thoroughly enjoyed herself. "Flasher" Frank had trouble with the elastic on his trousers, and was convinced he was having an affair with the headsail by the end of the week. Bob was there to refresh his knowledge - he had sailed many years ago but wanted to brush up on his skills. There were some indecisive moments for Bob, but he made it in the end. Chris was the undisputed master of the knots. Everyone managed to invent a few new knots during the trip - Frank was the expert at tying himself in knots - but Chris knew dozens of knots. She had come on the trip to improve her skills so that she could be a more useful crew for her boyfriend Adrian, who was a keen sailor. We never quite established why she had learnt so many knots, although there were many helpful suggestions!

The first challenge of the course was to fit in to the minibus. A fourteen-seater minibus for ten people, their luggage for a week, plus boxes of food, don't go. In a monumental sacrifice we ditched the food. This might mean we would have to eat in the pub more often in the evening.
We thought we could cope.

The journey down to Plymouth was slow and very wet, but we arrived at about 6.30pm with a weak sun trying to greet us. The two Sunfast 36 yachts, Sunsail Eleven and Sunsail Twenty-six, were lying in Plymouth Yacht Haven close to the location of the new Sunsail base. The plans are for a small staff of four or five people to run a fleet of half a dozen yachts for charter from Plymouth. There were no signs of the new base when we arrived. Apparently, initially, the staff will be based in portacabins on the harbour wall, but those have yet to be set up. The facilities for showers and laundry are already there as part of the marina facilities, with security code access to pontoons and shore-based buildings. The setting is excellent. The gentle hills around Plymouth Sound and the forest of masts in the marina made a good backdrop to the waiting yachts.

To greet us on arrival were the two Skippers/Instructors. We were to be guided through our course by Richard, a very experienced sea dog who had clocked up more sea miles in different parts of the world than many people drive in a lifetime. But although his experience as a sailor was never in doubt, it took four days before any of us managed to extract a word of encouragement or praise from him. This was a pity as he should have seen it as part of his job to inspire us and motivate us into a lifetime of sailing. Introducing us to our boat he told us that it would be hard work, particularly for me. My 800 miles at sea were shrugged off as inconsequential. We all felt like INcompetent crew before we had even started to sail.

By contrast the skipper of the second boat was Jim. Very laid back. To the extent that getting up in the morning was an effort. But it was amazing what a cigarette and a can of coke could do - he could go from fast asleep to hoisting the mainsail in about 30 seconds.

After showing us around the boat, ours was Sunsail Eleven, and sorting out sleeping arrangements, Richard pointed us towards the local pub where we sampled the giant cod and chips. I passed on going to hear a Beatles band and crashed out in my cabin before midnight. Chris and I shared a cabin, Frank and Di as the only couple on board shared, Richard had the biggest cabin in the stern to himself and Bob took the very public berth in the saloon.

We were up early on Sunday morning and had a greasy breakfast in a portacabin cafe next to the harbour. Richard took us through a detailed safety brief on the boat and asked me to plot a course out of Plymouth Sound. I poured over the charts and almanac until I was confident that I wasn't going to run us aground on my first day of the course and then we set off. The photographer who we had been told was going to be busy around us all day had gone home the previous day because the weather was too grey and dull - he had got all the photos he needed from the previous course as they sailed down to Plymouth, so we were not needed as photo fodder after all.

Once clear of the Marina, Richard asked us to put up the mainsail for the first time. It took us a long time, but we got there in the end. The wind was quite strong even in the shelter of the Sound and so the real challenge came putting up the headsail. Richard called constant instructions to us to pull the right "piece of string", loosen or tighten clamps or winch in a sheet. Even though I had sailed before the array of ropes was extensive and confusing the first time - no self-furling sails. Everything was to be done manually on this boat - best way to learn I suppose!

Frank seemed to find himself in the bows feeding the headsail into it's runners and that started a pattern for him. He was often to be found in the bows, whatever the conditions; perhaps it was the only way he could escape from us all.

We practised a few tacks in Plymouth Sound before heading out into the unsheltered sea. The wind was moderately strong, force 4 to 5 and there was a reasonable swell. We managed to put in a reef in the mainsail and change the headsail to a smaller sail in only about an hour and a half.....

My turning point that day was when I was asked to plot a fix and set our course to head to Salcombe. I must have spent about 15 minutes below deck. Big mistake. I hadn't properly found my sea legs and although I am not normally affected by the sea, I came back up on deck and promptly threw up over the side. I was in good company though. Chris had already succumbed and she felt awful for the rest of the day, although her sickness was partially from the sea and partially from something she had eaten the day before, as she had felt sick during the night. I consoled myself with the fact that most sailors have been seasick at some stage in their careers, although I did feel as if I was letting myself down early in the course.

In fact the sailing that day was superb. Once I was back on the helm and could concentrate on the horizon I felt fine and we made very good progress eastwards along the coast towards Salcombe. The conditions were a bit strong for practising manoeuvres so our main objective for the day was just to get to Salcombe. I managed to plot our course into the bay without throwing up again, lining up all of the right transit markers and avoiding the shallow ledge at the entrance to the bay. The tide was rushing out of Salcombe bay at a great speed and Richard took the helm to guide us into a raft mooring next to Jim's boat.

Salcombe Bay is very beautiful. It was very busy with other yachts and dozens of dingies. The dinghies were finding the strong tidal current quite a challenge and I did wonder how often they got swept away. The town of Salcombe nestles at the bottom of some gentle hills and was clearly a popular tourist location. To judge by the number of 'sailing' shops by the waterfront, selling branded sailing clothes and shoes, as well as the chandelries, it was obviously well frequented by sailors as well as the tourists. In some ways it reminded me of Cowes; perhaps it was just the presence of the same chains of shops and the wide choice of sea-food restaurants and bistros.

Once we had moored we packed the boat up for the night. Sail cover, halyards back on the right D-rings, topping lift tightened, headsail zipped up into its bag and ropes delicately coiled into just the right pattern onto the handrail. Our boat looked very tidy every night!

I felt I needed a shower so I followed the crew of Jim's boat to the Salcombe Yacht Club, going over to the town pontoon in the harbour taxi. A gentle walk up the hill to the Yacht Club afforded an excellent view back across the bay. The sky was clearing and the sun tried to come out, brightening up the scene at my feet.

The shower was much needed and I retraced my steps to join the others outside a pub for a much needed drink. We ate a very disappointing meal in a second very smokey pub. A pity - I'm sure Salcombe had better food to offer, but the best places were either full or closed because it was Sunday. I slept like a log that night. The first day at sea had worn us all out.

The next day, Monday, we were up very early. We had discussed our plans in detail in the pub and decided that we wanted to try to get back to the Solent to see the main race for the America's Cup Jubilee Regatta that was due to go past Yarmouth at about 2.30pm on the following day, Tuesday. This meant that we set ourselves two long days of sailing, the first from Salcombe to Weymouth - probably as much as 70 miles and the second from Weymouth to Yarmouth, probably another 50 miles. The first of those sails was at least ten hours, even with the tide running with us for alot of the time, so we needed an early start.

Monday was to be my day as skipper, plotting the course and making the decisions about which sails to use. As it turned out, the winds dropped a little and Richard decided that the conditions were ideal to put the spinnaker sail up. This was a sail I had never put up before so this was a new experience for all of us. But once it was up we glided along at over seven knots. Once we had cleared Start Point it was a long run across Lyme Bay. As we approached Portland Bill we took the Spinnaker down and Richard made us practice some manoeuvres. We put in one reef, then two, then took then out again. Then I had to put in a reef single-handed, just so that I would know how to! Then we did it all over again swapping around so that we all experienced different parts of reefing.

The tidal currents are strong around Portland Bill and we had planned to approach just before the tide changed direction so that it would help us in towards Weymouth. We timed it perfectly and the current swept us around the headland and past the furious tidal race which was milling around in all directions and throwing out erratic waves and currents. It was easy to see why many ships had perished in those waters. There are hundreds of wrecks around Portland Bill - sailors who had shown no respect for the power of the sea.

We arrived in Weymouth at about 8pm and moored adjacent to the town quay, but six boats out from the pontoon. You can always spot a sailor by the bruises on their legs in a line about six inches above their knees. They have got these from climbing over dozens of hand-rails to get from their boat to the shore. I acquired a few in Weymouth.

We could see the importance of land mooring lines when we moored in Weymouth. Each boat had moored slightly skew to the shore and by the time we tried to put in our ropes, we had trouble finding a clear sight between the boats to the pontoon.

As soon as the boat was sorted, we tucked into our chilli con carni which had been bubbling away in the galley as we sailed. I then went on a very important mission to find more gin and tonic. Sailing and G & T seem to go together. If you don't drink G & T then there isn't much hope for you as a sailor!! We sat on deck putting the world to rights until quite late. Weymouth very kindly sent up some fireworks late in the evening and we had a ring-side view. A large proportion of the Dorset population trooped home afterwards along the town quay.

On Tuesday morning we were up at 6.30am and I should think by the noise we made leaving, that most of the rest of the harbour was awake by then as well! The day was hot and the wind seemed lighter again than it was the day before. Bob took a hand at some navigating, but we all expressed some concern when he declared that we were approaching the Needles when in fact it was only Old Harry. He went below to start plotting a new course.

We made good time to the Needles and Richard starting testing me on recognising navigational markers and buoys. There are so many markers and buoys in the Solent that having a good understanding is crucial to safe navigation. The cardinal markers and the coloured buoys pop up everywhere and entering the Solent I was able to practice spotting all sorts of different shapes, colours and sounds. The Needles are very impressive from the sea, but also very treacherous if you approach too close. The tide in the Solent is also very unforgiving and if you approach it at the wrong time it can be very hard work trying to make progress. The tide was due to turn at about 3pm and we turned into the Solent at about 1.30pm, timing it perfectly for tide and the America's Cup Jubilee Regatta race. There were hundreds of boats out waiting for the race to pass by. Some had dropped anchor and others were tacking backwards and forwards waiting for the boats to arrive. We continued up the Solent to Yarmouth, passing the entrance and dropped anchor ourselves just past the pier. I thought I would test out my new sailing gloves on the anchor chain. There was no electronic winch so we had to lower and raise the anchor manually. Bob and I fed out about 16 metres of rope and chain and for about five minutes everything looked fine. Then slowly we realised our scenery was changing; the anchor hadn't gripped properly and we were drifting. At almost exactly the same time, the massive spinnaker sail of the first boat in the race appeared around the Needles and we decided to head out into the Solent for a closer look.

One after another the yachts surged past us. To start with we thought we were sitting at the edge of the race, but as the tidal currents grew stronger and the water became churned up by the number of boats out on the water, the racing yachts hugged the shore line closer and closer so that some of them actually went up through the line of moored yachts outside Yarmouth harbour. To stay in one position to watch, we had the engine running forward steadily. Occasionally a yacht would come straight for us and we had to quickly manoeuvre out of its way. The boats were all large, but nothing in comparison with the J boats, of which there were only three taking part in the race. After about an hour the first of the J boats rounded the Needles; it was a magnificent sight with a huge spinnaker sail and an army of people hanging off the side or pulling on ropes.
Unfortunately for us, the boat decided to take a more northerly course through the Solent and so we didn't get a very close view. There was no way we could have caught her, as she was moving through the water at a tremendous speed.

We did see Australia 2 at close quarters and two British crews on the new America's Cup Challenge boats. We became convinced by the end of the afternoon that the boats that were sailing the fastest and most efficiently were those that were dressed in uniforms, such as matching T-shirts.
Clearly the feeling of a team spirit is helped by looking like a team.

After nearly two hours of watching the race, I took our boat into Yarmouth and we moored on a pontoon. I thought I was getting quite good at mooring by now, but I knew there was still room for improvement! We packed the boat up and headed for the showers. Yarmouth is a very picturesque town. We were all too tired to cook so managed to get a table downstairs in Salty's, one of the best seafood restaurants in the Solent. With our G & T's cooled by some fresh ice we rounded off the evening with drinks on deck.

The next morning, Wednesday, we breakfasted ashore and reprovisioned the boat. I was then tasked with plotting our course to Cowes taking into account the tidal set and drift. Crossing the Solent without plotting a tidal vector can take you into dangerous areas or leave you some way from your intended destination. The tide can race around the Isle of Wight at a great speed and carry you off course very easily. I could see that taking the speed and direction of the tide into account was essential when plotting a course in these waters. I certainly found my way around the various charts and tables by the end of the course!

On the way to Cowes we practised making fixes using hand held compasses - we were definitely in the Solent! As we approached Cowes we could see another race preparing for the off and I played dodgems with dozens of sailing and motor boats jockeying for position outside the harbour. Cowes itself was packed and we didn't even attempt to stop at the marina, heading past and up the river Medina a little way to refuel. Another perfect mooring! With full tanks we headed further up-stream to the Folley Inn, mooring on another pontoon. The ferry man was very chatty as he took us over to the pub - a large boat that had run aground a few days before had just managed to slip free on a high tide and he was very pleased to see it move.

Lunch but no G & T. I needed to keep my wits about me. In the afternoon we were to practice "bumps and grinds", followed by a five hour night sail. I was clearly feeling the pressure - I left the pub early to swat up on lights on boats and marker buoys - I knew Richard would test me.

We practised "bumps and grinds" all afternoon. For the uninitiated that means mooring practice! I practised squeezing the boat into the smallest of spaces on a pontoon and then when I had done it I did it again and again. Best way to learn. I would have liked a current or strong wind to practice against as well, but it was a baking hot day with no wind so we couldn't arrange that. The others had a go in a bigger space. Chris was excellent and could have squeezed us into any space without a bump, even stern up to the pontoon. Then we practised some rope tricks. We had been tying ourselves in knots all week, perfecting the bowline, clove hitch or sheet bend, so now we tried some others, including throwing ropes and creating lassos to catch buoys.

Dinner was early and eaten on board. We set off for our night sail at 8.30pm, kitted up in our life jackets and night eyes. I had written out our course for reference, identifying the main marker buoys and lights to look out for to take us to the Hamble. We left the pontoon and put up the mainsail in about four minutes flat - including mooring lines coiled, fenders stowed - we were getting good! Cowes was not quite as busy as we left and we headed off into the darkness.

Actually it wasn't dark at all. There were pinpricks of lights all over the place. On shore the buildings were lit up, some of the big yachts were lit up like Christmas trees and the sky was clear so we could see the moon and the stars. Trying to spot the right marker buoy in that backdrop wasn't easy, but the course I set took us straight to the right marker buoy and we continued on towards Hamble. As we came into Southampton Water Richard announced that he was going to set me a task - to blind navigate our way into the Hamble. I was not to use the GPS system and I couldn't see where we were going. We started on the west side of Southampton Water. I sat below at the nav table and my instructions were relayed to the helmsman (Chris). I gave her a course and she followed it until the depth sounder started to get shallower. When it reached 1.2m we slowly changed tack and I gave new directions every minute or so and we zig-zagged our way following the contour. I found what I thought must be the mouth of the Hamble river and we followed it up the east side at the same contour depth until we reached the marina. "Perfect," said Richard. It was my first word of praise from him and I relished it!

It was about 1am and we couldn't raise the Hamble Marina security over the radio, so we took pot luck and found a vacant pontoon to moor up against. The night sail had been exhilarating and we were all still wide awake. So once we had packed the boat up for the night Richard cooked us treacle sponge pudding and custard and we did some serious damage to another bottle of gin. I don't think the residents of the boats around us could have had a very peaceful night - we didn't turn in until about 2.30am.

Thursday was the turn of the boat to have a wash courtesy of Chris and with a clean boat, we set off at about 11am to head for Portsmouth. The day turned wet and grey with a heavy drizzle, but there was plenty of wind for sailing. As we headed for the south side of the Solent to pick up the best tide we bumped into another race from the America's Cup Jubilee Regatta. This time it almost was 'bumped into'. Richard took the helm and we played an unintentional game of tacking and gibing between the boats. The response had to be very rapid and it was actually very exciting sailing. We also got our first close up view of the J boats. They were very impressive - massive sails, beautiful teak decks with dozens of crew members crawling all over them. They swished past us very fast doing a great speed. The money that must go into equipping and maintaining them must be phenomenal, but I expect they are exhilarating to sail.

It was starting to get late in the afternoon, so we turned on the engine and motored a direct route into Portsmouth. Another sight greeted us as we came into Portsmouth Harbour. The tall ships and navy warships from around the world were gathered for the International Festival of the Sea and the harbour was a mass of masts and flags. Official looking RIBs were buzzing around the water organising everyone into the right place, but we skirted around all of them to head for the quieter waters to the north of Gosport. Here, between the rusting hulks of abandoned navy destroyers, we practised our man overboard routine.

Firstly we practised under sail and then under motor. Our 'man' was a bucket and a fender and we definitely lost him a couple of times and had to come around for a second attempt. A full bucket of water weighs quite a lot, but I'm quite sure a waterlogged person would weigh more. I hope I never have to put that routine into practice for real.

We were all feeling a bit brain dead by 7pm so we motored round to Haslar Marina and found a mooring - quite neatly done I think! The green lighthouse moored next to the marina is quite a landmark in Portsmouth Harbour. Deep in it's hold it houses showers and toilets and above, a pub, which serves food. For some reason that was never really explained to me, Sunsail run the bar on the Lighthouse boat. I know G & T's and boats fit together well.....

Washed and changed we ate and drank on the lighthouse boat and Richard broke the news that we had all passed our courses. I was now a Day Skipper and the others were very Competent Crew. We propped the bar up until we were thrown out and then found the last of the G & T and other strange concoctions which had to be finished off on our boat. It was another late night.

For some reason I woke very early the next morning and headed into Gosport to get bread and milk for breakfast. Chris was then tasked with inflating the dingy. With only a foot pump to inflate it this was hard work, but she was not going to be defeated and finally launched it over the side. She and Bob took it in turns to row around the marina, getting soaked in the process. Di was also set a challenge. Somehow she had managed to avoid putting up the headsail for the whole journey. So she went through everything she needed to do to hoist the sail and when we finally set off for the last short leg of the journey she succeeded in raising it. A personal milestone that was marked by the Red Arrows flying over - part of the Festival of the Sea!

We headed back to the same stretch of water north of Gosport and practised close manoeuvres around buoys, short tacks and gibes, pulling in for close haul, letting the sail out for a goose wing, putting the spinnaker pole out for the headsail and mooring on buoys. We gently pulled into the mud to have lunch. By the time the tide lifted us off it was also time to head for Port Solent. As we followed the channel up to Port Solent we passed all sorts of boats heading out on the wrong side of the channel. It made us reflect that there must be alot of people out there who sail or take out a motor boat who have never had any training. We had learnt an awful lot in six days - it is definitely worth learning how to be safe. The sea can be very unforgiving to the incompetent sailor.

I took the boat in for its last mooring. With a large audience of Sunsail staff I expected to make a complete mess of it, but fortunately I didn't. We packed the boat up for the last time, disgorged all of our possessions onto a groaning trolley and headed for the bar.

The week had been great fun. The sailing had been excellent and we had all learnt alot. We all felt very satisfied at completing our courses. I can't wait to get out and try my newly acquired skills for real - in fact I've just booked a boat for a weekend's charter for about four weeks time. As we sat on the balcony in the bar and reflected on our week we all had different memories, but we all decided that it beat a day in the office anytime!