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Donkin on Sailing

June 2009 - Back to the classroom

Part II of start sailing series

Richard Donkin udertakes his Day Skipper CourseA gang of youngsters, huddled cat-like in their black wet-suits, are lashing together poles and buoyant plastic boards to make rafts for a race between the pontoons at the UK Sailing Academy on the Isle of Wight. I have to pinch myself but they really are focused on their job and there's not a mobile phone or a hand-held device in sight.

Other young people - teenagers with disabilities - are getting ready for some dinghy sailing while yet another crew, mostly in their twenties are filing down towards the rows of moored boats at the beginning of the first sailing phase of an intensive 12-week Yachtmaster course.

It's a calm spring day with hardly a ripple on the water, but streaming strands of brown seaweed reveal an ebbing tide as the River Medina drains itself of seawater like an emptying bath. Tides are important to sailors. They influence the time of leaving, time of return, speed and direction of a course, the approach to a mooring and the potential safety of a prospective passage.

This is why I'm heading away from the pontoons and climbing some stairs to the classroom on day one of my Royal Yachting Association Day Skipper course - four days theory and five practical. I'm joined by four others, Nina Bulley, a jewellery maker, Judy Salmon, a former university lecturer, Rob Mathieson, a property developer and John Thompson, a health and safety consultant.

All have previous sailing experience at various levels and all want to build their knowledge and confidence to plan and embark on their first sea passage in charge of a boat. "I've only had my boat a little while and I'm looking forward to the day that I know enough to take it out on my own," says Nina who sails a 21 ft Corribee called Wild Goose.

The Day Skipper Course is a big step on the ladder for those who are seeking proficiency in sailing at sea. The first rung, ideal for those with limited or no experience, is a competent crew course that equips people with basic boat handling skills. But assuming responsibility for a boat and its crew is no small undertaking.  

  "It's important to remember that this is a skippering course, not a sailing course. Anyone can sail but this should equip you to keep yourself out of trouble when you take a boat out to sea," says Dick Saltonstall, our course instructor, a sailor for the past 55 years who stopped logging his sea miles when they passed the million mark some time ago.

"When you leave you should be able to navigate like Christopher Columbus. He didn't know where he was going, didn't know where he was when he got there, and when he came back he didn't know where he'd been," he says.

No-one should go away from one of these courses without the understanding that sailing experience is accumulated on the water. But significant chunks of knowledge to support that experience can be learned in the classroom with course plotters, dividers, charts and tide almanacs.

For too long I have shied away from navigation, opting for a life on deck in preference to the seasickness-inducing conditions of working below on the chart table. Long night passages, trying to distinguish the different lighting systems on cargo ships and trawlers, only confirmed my belief that there was a lot to learn.

We start with buoys - a relatively small part of the course, made more complicated by the existence of two buoyage systems used in different parts of the world, the result of a compromise between the Americas and the rest of the world when the systems were last simplified in 1973. Before that date there had been 30 different systems leading to confusion that became apparent in a series of accidents in the English Channel in 1971 when the wreck of the Texaco Caribbean was struck by two ships in separate incidents at a cost of 51 lives, including those lost in the initial sinking.

This means that today there are eleven buoys to learn and remember, in addition to the principles behind their lighting patterns.

A little more complex is the influence of magnetic variation and deviation on a boat's compass that, together with tide and winds, will influence the course you wish to set between any given points.

Charts, therefore, must be used in combination with a tidal almanac that gives the tidal variations in different places on different dates. Tide ranges are influenced by the position of sun and moon. Spring tides - those with the highest high tides and lowest low tides are at their strongest two days after the new and full moons, while neap tides with the narrowest ranges occur just after the half moons in the lunar cycle.

The names almost certainly have an Anglo-Saxon derivation - springen meaning to bulge and nep meaning "lacking." Then there are the super spring tides at the time of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Ride up one of those at the wrong time and your boat could be stranded for six months.

So the first calculations we must do are working out tidal heights at various times so that we would know how far we could come in shore, for example, if seeking an anchorage.

The white bits on the chart, says Dick, are showing a safe depth of water. "When you're out there skippering there are things to be worried about. I call them the three Rs: rocks, wrecks and reefs. These are the hazards that can damage your boat," he says.

Sailing theory leans heavily on the use of mnemonics. We learn that Cadbury's Dairy  Milk is Very Tasty is a good way to work out the order of calculations needed for turning a compass reading (C), subject to deviation (D) and magnetic (M) variation (V) in to a true (T) bearing on the chart. I prefer this one to true virgins make dull company, suggested for the reverse calculation.

After four days learning how to set courses we're becoming familiar with the fictitious sailing charts assembled for the training. It's difficult to believe that there are no such places as Namley Harbour, Hiscock Sound and Farlow Channel. In and amongst the course setting exercises we are tested on our knowledge of the highway code at sea. Even the best sailors can overlook this as New Zealand yachtsman, Grant Dalton discovered in 2001 when he was fined $17,000 for sailing the wrong way up the Dover Strait's traffic separation channel.

By the time we're kitted up for our five days at sea a large area of low pressure with gale force winds has settled over southern England. We're led to our yacht like press-ganged ratings - except that we all signed up for this. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Additional information

Some 11,000 people all over the world complete a RYA Day Skipper course every year. Courses are run by more than 320 RYA training centres in the UK and overseas.

Useful books and course notes:

Day Skipper Practical Course Notes.
Day Skipper introduction to navigation, theory, safety and seamanship (these notes are issued with the course but can be purchased separately.

A Seaman's Guide to the Rules of the Road, Morgans Technical Books, 12.50.
International regulations for preventing collisions at sea (RYA publication)
The Colregs Guide, by Klaas Van Dokkum, Dokmar 27.50.
Coastal Navigation, A Programmed Learning Course, by Gerry Smith (Third Edition), Adlard Coles Nautical. 

Part I: Learning the ropes

Part III: The Practical

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