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Donkin on Sailing

May 2009 - Learning the ropes

Part I of start sailing series

Richard Donkin Learning the ropes, SailingIn 1966, Sir Francis Chichester sailed around the word on a 54 ft ketch called the Gipsy Moth IV. He was 65 years old. I still remember the grainy black and white television pictures of the Gipsy rounding Cape Horn with storm-battered Chichester at the helm. For me, the sight of that tiny vessel, heeled against those giant waves, epitomised a part of the human spirit that is forever demanding to be tested.

Appropriately for a boat with such inspiring heritage, the Gipsy Moth is now owned by the UK Sailing Academy, based on the Isle of Wight. On a chilly April day Jon Ely, UKSA's chief executive, shows me around the cabin.

"We bought it for 1 and a gin and tonic. But it has cost us an awful lot more than that over the years," he says. Not all of the aspiring sailors who come to UKSA will get their sea legs on the Gipsy Moth. But the boat is still a potent reminder of sailing's appeal.

Over the next few months Pursuits will devote some of its sailing coverage to a series on taking up the sport for the first time. Perhaps, like me, you've seen holiday brochures of yachts anchored in azure blue seas, and envied the idea of private, peaceful leisure. Or perhaps you have visited the Isle of Wight during the annual regatta week in August, marvelling at the hundreds of boats dodging under sterns, converging on marker buoys and hoisting their spinnakers.

To get a piece of this action, the first thing you need to do is choose a course, and decide on what kind of sailing you want to pursue. Here are a few suggestions.

CHOOSE YOUR COURSE

The UK Sailing Academy in Cowes has a roster of courses that covers everything from familiarisation days to full-time maritime education. "People come here to do something as a one-off and others come to embark on a new career. We have a wide range of choices," says Ely.

But before choosing a course, it's worthwhile spending some time working out just what you're looking for in sailing. Is it single-handed dinghy racing, big boat crewing, Caribbean cruising, or all of these?

People become hooked on sailing in different ways. Round-the-world sailor, Steve White, who skippered his yacht, Toe in the Water, to eighth place in this year's Vendee Globe race, was a comparative late comer to sailing, starting just 12 years ago, almost by accident.

"I had a good friend who had built a 17 ft Lysander trailer-sailer dinghy from plywood but he didn't have a tow bar on his car and I did, so we took it down to Weymouth and launched it," says White. He had no previous sailing experience but four days later he had bought his first boat, a 21 ft long Tucker Ballerina sloop.

Two years later he crewed one of the Challenge yachts around the Fastnet Rock. It was around that time he picked up a copy of Yachting World, read about the first Vendee race and decided he wanted to sail for a living. He packed in his career restoring classic cars, and started a new job in a boat yard.

Not everyone is going to experience such a dramatic conversion. Probably the best thing is to start simple with dinghy-sailing or a taster course that will give you some idea of how quickly you will adapt to this demanding and technical sport. 

TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY

I learnt the basics in dinghies on a former gravel pit down at the nearest sailing club. Even here, however, there are issues to consider. Is it best to own or to hire? I opted for ownership and, at the advice of the commodore, bought a second-hand GP 14. The idea was to learn with my children and the GP 14 is a stable, well proven, dinghy that lends itself to family use.

The problem was that the club concentrated on racing, not cruising, and only one of my boys was interested. We passed the basic dinghy course and raced briefly for a season before my son lost interest. Most of the club's racing fleet comprised middle-aged men - just like me - competing alone in Solo dinghies, so the two-handed GP 14 felt a little redundant. In retrospect hiring a dinghy would have been the better option as a first step.

"There's a lot of choice in starter dinghies," says Ely. "I like the Wayfairers, and Picos are good for youngsters, but I think it also helps to try something a little bit challenging early on which is why we encourage some of our younger learners to try the Lasers.

"We have a range of different yachts in various sizes here and we try to get people into as many types as possible so that they can compare them and understand the differences in yacht design.

"I started out cruising with my dad in a Westerly 22 that didn't go much above 3 kts, and mostly sideways. It's all about what you want from your sailing. I still sail with my father most weeks and although we're not very competitive it gives us an excuse to do something together and I think that's important."

If buying a boat it might be an idea to choose a used model and take someone with experience with you. A reasonable second hand dinghy might be bought for not much more than 1,000 and possibly less. You should also consider materials. If the boat is going to be left out all winter under a cover, a composite or plastic construction might be preferable to wood.

CAPTAIN OR CREW?

If you believe that sailing is a social pastime, you might think of crewing as a way in to the sport. I started ocean racing through invitations to join a crew competing in the annual Royal Ocean Racing Club cross-channels races, interspersed with more demanding events such as the Fastnet and Round Britain and Ireland Races.

When Sir Chay Blythe extended an invitation to join his BT Global Challenge, a round-the-world race against the winds and currents, he asked me which leg I would like to do. "The one with Cape Horn," I said, with Chichester in mind.

There is no "best way" to start sailing. But I suspect there may have been better ways than undertaking a 6,000 mile 43-day voyage from Rio to Wellington across the Southern Ocean.

Race sailing is a good way to build specialist and team working skills but there is rarely time when competing to work on all-round skills. This is why the Royal Yachting Association courses, delivered by UKSA and other reputable training organisations are ideal for those who want to learn the basics of sailing and navigation.

What are these basics? There are more than you may think: first there are nautical terms, rope work, anchor work, safety, maritime regulations, navigation, including compass readings and charts. Then there are the tides, weather knowledge, preparing a passage and pilotage, plus understanding of a boat engine, leading to tests of theory and practice.

These are the basics of the day skipper course that I will be undertaking in  forthcoming issues. One day I'd like to think I might be confident and knowledgeable enough to gain the Yachtmaster qualification, recognised around the world as a demanding level of proficiency. But first the groundwork. It's safer than the Southern Ocean.    

Part II: Richard Donkin begins his day skipper course

Part III: The practical

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