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Donkin on Sailing

August 2009 - Sailing practical - Day Skipper

Part III of start sailing series

Motoring in to the river Hamble late at night, green lights to starboard, red lights to port, I can just make out a sandbank ahead in the gloom. "The power boats don't always see that one. If they hit it they can take off," says Mark Light, an instructor at UK Sailing Academy in Cowes on the Isle of Wight .

"At the height of summer there might be 10,000 boats on the Hamble in any one day. It must be the busiest boat park in the world," He says. In the darkness it's like sailing through a forest of masts. 

Sailing at night is an essential part of the Royal Yachting Association Day Skipper course. One of our exercises was to find an unmarked buoy using skills acquired in the previous few days. We follow a transit made by two flashing buoys for one of the tasks but a second search is proving tricky until we come across the dark marker just visible against a charcoal grey sea.

In the distance we can see cruising lights of a large ship. "How far away is it?" asks Mark. "Less than six miles, more than three," I say. This is because we can not see some lights that become visible when the large boat draws nearer. 

"This is the kind of information you can get when you know your lights," he says. "In the Solent we have just about everything that you are likely to encounter on a sea passage condensed in to one stretch of water. That's why it's so good to learn here," he adds.

Night sailing in a crowded waterway can be a confusing experience, picking up the light sequences of buoys and lighthouses, but the lights are there to help and each tells its own story. The moon is missing tonight but when it reveals itself on a calm night crossing in a gentle breeze there can be few greater pleasures in sailing. Sometimes you can see the phosphorescence in plankton as the boat cuts through the waves. But not this night. 

Sailing our Sweden 39, a reliable and tidy boat, has been tough in the past few days with consistently high winds under a slow moving low pressure system. Few yachts have ventured out in conditions that are far from ideal for learning routines such as the man-overboard drill. On the other hand people never fall overboard at convenient moments.

Every skipper - indeed anyone helming a boat - should know the moves for handling a man overboard. First, we learn the manoeuvre with our engine running, but we must also be able to undertake it under sail, just in case the engine has failed. It's good practice for boat handling as it's impossible to make it work without an understanding of how the wind shifts the boat at low speeds when trying to bring a yacht almost to a stop alongside the fender thrown overboard as our dummy sailor.

A good slice of time in the course, rightly, is spent on the manoeuvres needed to berth and cast off a sailing boat. "If possible you should always arrive at and leave the pontoon against the tide since it ensures a flow of water over the rudder allowing the boat to steer," says Mark.

We practice a ferry glide where it is possible to angle the boat in such a way that it can be guided in to the tightest of slots. "It looks cool too," he adds. 

One evening I'm guiding the boat alongside the grey hull of Gipsy Moth IV, the late Sir Francis Chichester's historic yacht that pioneered single-handed round-the-world sailing. "You do realise this is an iconic boat known all around the world," says Mark, just to put me at my ease.

Boat mooring is one of my weaker skills as I have been happy to go through the motions of tying and untying ropes in the past without thinking too much about the principles that insist on four ropes to make a boat secure - one on the bow, one at the stern and two "springs." The springs, secured from stern and bow amidships on the pontoon, prevent the boat from moving backwards or forwards.

On paper the exercise seems simple, but imagine parking a car when the road is moving, where you can only use the engine as a brake and when a gust of wind can blow you away from the kerb. Now try it at night with poor lighting by the pontoons.

Working in the dark can test your knot-making skills to the limit. Of all the knots required in sailing the one which matters most is the bowline. This is the knot that creates a loop that won't budge - ideal for placing over cleats and tying the foresail to its jib sheets. A clove hitch and the round turn and two half hitches are useful for tying fenders, while a rolling hitch comes in to its own when there is a need to take the strain off another rope. It's best to learn these knots before turning up for a course. 

Winch work is also a skill that needs to be mastered early. Even then, there will be times when the winch catches you out. Look carefully at the hands of many professional sailors and you will find tell tale signs - a mashed finger nail or a missing finger end - of a careless encounter with a rope and a winch. On big boats the hazard is multiplied as winches are subject to tons of pressure from loaded sails.

It's easy to forget when going to sea in a good sized boat that this is effectively a home on the waves. But it's a home with an engine and a gas oven in an environment that is constantly on the move.   This means that safety systems are not something acknowledged occasionally, but that are built in to every trip and everything involved in sailing. They are part of what is understood as good seamanship. 

Knowing how the life-raft works is one thing and knowing when to leave the boat is another. Lessons learned in the aftermath of the Fastnet race disaster in 1979 when many sailors lost their lives after abandoning their boats, mean that today crews are encouraged to stay with a stricken boat awaiting rescue as long as it remains afloat.

We leave the course with renewed confidence but must acknowledge that no certificate can replace experience and practice. What a course can do is to ensure that sailors adopt good habits. You don't need to walk far along a pontoon or sail very long in the Solent to notice plenty examples of sloppiness.

My fellow course members are keen to put their new skills in to practice - one as a racer and two in cruising boats. I'm keen to skipper my own cruise too but not yet without someone to hold my hand when I need it.

The nine-day RYA Dayskipper & Practical Combined course at UK Sailing Academy.

Part I: Learning the ropes

Part II: Richard Donkin begins his day skipper course

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