Magazine – WOT
“Ahoy there” by Johnathan Bull

Back in the early eighties with the Gibraltar border still closed I can remember Wednesday afternoons learning to sail in Optimists down at HMS Rook. It was an optional extra on the curriculum from St Georges School, but the most enjoyable. The first lesson was the best: capsize the boat and learn to pull it upright again having swum out from underneath. Once you were in there was nothing much to it, although we never got out of Coaling Bay and just tacked up and down.

Although I remember the experience, I had forgotten the theory and practical side. There’s more to sailing than meets the eye, as I discovered on invitation by Trafalgar Sailing based in Marina Bar Gibraltar.

08:45 Dark levanter clouds hung over as I pulled up in Marina Bay car park. The weather didn’t look too rough but I felt a touch of apprehension for the unknown. Not sure what to bring with me apart from the instructed trainers (no black soles) and my passport, I had come prepared with a thick jacket. You just couldn’t see what the weather was going to do.

09:00 Punctuality is everything and I found the pier where “Kilima II” was anchored. Jim strolled over bleary eyed with towel in hand and welcomed me along. Trafalgar Sailing have three boats. They have been sailing the waters around Gibraltar and further afield for over 20 years and have invested in two Bavarias, which are perfect for the local environment and up to 60 miles offshore

Jim is taking his crew out on one Bavaria and I’m going to join the other boat as crew with Mike as tutor and Skipper. Two of the crew were sitting on deck sipping a cup of coffee as I jumped onboard. Mike was finishing up two weeks of RYA courses covering “Competent crew” and “Day Skipper”, whilst John had been aboard for a week and was finishing the Day Skipper course too. A few minutes later Louis, Johns son emerged red- eyed from below. He was finishing “Competent crew” but I got the impression that “competent” kicked in sometime after 10:30am – I was right. Unfortunately for Mike, he’d lost his flip flop and his footing jumping from the stern of the boat to the dock. Unfortunately for me I had not been there to capture the moment, but it was a good ice breaker for conversation.

10:30 Both Skipper and crew have what seems a relaxed attitude to the start of the day, each going about his own business. I soon realised that there was a routine which each knew and followed in checking and preparing the boat for sea. We weren’t going to just push off and go. Mike as “the Skipper” explained the plan for the day. First a leisurely sail into the bay, a couple of three point fixes (something like a three point turn maybe?) for the two more experienced crew members. Wed be doing some tacking, jibing and a few other things too. Whist we were waiting for Louis to get back from the showers, Mike gave us a brief explanation of the GPS and radar system.

10:45 Jim is all set to leave and we are all instructed to watch. His crew are using a different procedure to us in that although they’re going out astern too, the boat alongside is close enough for them to use a mid-ship slip to help guide them out from the mooring. This entails joining the two boats with a rope, which is slipped as the boat moves off. I realise I’m learning three things here; 1 that everything is based around ropes and knots. 2, that it is quite normal to take advantage of another boat, not only is it acceptable, but it is expected- the boating community seems to have it own culture of sharing; and 3, everything is beginning to sound double-dutch to me. I’ve explained the above more or less in English, but I am sure that wasn’t how it was explained to us at the time.

11:00 At last it our turn and the waiting is over. As we leave the mooring, I’m given my first job – to hold onto the oat next to us to help us slide out of the mooring straight. I was surprised to learn that for the size of the boat, the diesel engine was only 35hp – this was also the same for Jims boat. Apparently this is sufficient for all needs. We used the engine to back right out of the harbour and as we turned, the crew hoisted the main sail and we headed into the bay under both sail and power. Once we hit open water, we cut the engine and pulled out the Genoa (the sail on the bow of the boat). In true Gibraltar style a plane came in to land nearly on top of us and then we were free to sail.

12:00 we’ve had a few tacks up towards Algeciras and John has successfully completed his three point fix. I soon discovered that it has nothing to do with moving the boat around, but it is a system used to pinpoint our position in the water. John took the bearings of three fixed points which appear on the chart of the bay, for example Europa point, Punta Carnero and the Rocamar Hotel (believe it or not it is on the chart). The positions are plotted onto the charts to determine our positon within a triangle know as a cocked hat. I will assume that when there is no land the position is plotted form the position of the stars?

I must say I was impressed by the way no-one had any problems with ducking in and out of the cabin while the boat was regularly being tipped up 15-20 degrees to one side. And, although it seems scary and dangerous at first, Mike assured me that the boat is designed to go over 180 degrees (half way under water) and still pop back up the right way. The really good thing though, is that the stove is on a gimble keeping it always upright. That means you can always boil a kettle without the water falling out.

12:45The next lesson is the jibe. The difference between the tack and the jibe is the direction of the wind. If the turn takes the head of the boat through the wind, this is a tack. If the boom is slack, there’s no problem as the wind in the sail loses pressure as you turn the boat. So for the jibe, the boom is pulled to the centre and only then could we swing the boat through the turn and adjust the Genoa.

For the sailing school the main lessons you learn on the course are safety related. The safety of those around you is paramount, but also the safety of the boat. The jibe manoeuvre is a classic example – it doesn’t matter if you mess up a tack, but if you get the jibe wrong you could cause serious damage.

13:30 We anchored off La Linea harbour and upped the Spanish courtesy flag. John had prepared sandwiches and we sat on the deck with mugs of scalding coffee and dug in. Again John took bearings to make sure the anchor chain was holding and checked again 15 minutes later. The anchor chain is 50m long and with a ratio of 4:1, the boat could anchor in up to 10 metres of water. We found a nice safe five metre mooring just off the leeward shore.

14:00 Lunch over, Mike showed us how to sail off the anchor. The basic idea is to pull up on the anchor, host the sail and go – easy really. Not quite. First, the boat needs to be facing the anchor with the wind on the correct side to swing the boat into the correct direction. The boom is pushed right out and as the anchor is raised, we gently sail off in silence. This all needs to be co-ordinated between a guy on the anchor, the man on the sails and the person on the helm. That was my job on this little exercise as John and Mike worked the anchor, Mike (Skipper) kept check of the boom, Louis manned the ropes and I just had to keep the boat pointing in the right direction.

One thing you find on a yacht is that everything happens in an orderly but leisurely fashion. We took ten minutes to explain and make sure we were all happy with our roles and with everyone else’s. Then quite suddenly and silently it’s done. We are sailing again and heading out to the bay.

Sailing off an anchor is not the simplest way to come up on the anchor. Its more usual during the day to use the diesel rather than the sails to get underway, but if you are moored at night and there are other boats around you, it is courteous to sail off the anchor so as not to disturb them if you are leaving in the early hours (or, as Mike joked) if you do not want to pay the mooring fees).

14:30 I found I was left at the helm and we went through a series of tacks and jibes as we went around the bay. At one point, we found a school of dolphins, or they found us, but as soon as we grabbed the cameras from below deck they were gone. The steering was interestingly different from a car. Everything works on a delayed reaction and it is easy to overcompensate for the wrong steering (or even for steering correctly, but thinking you have under steered – if that makes sense).

14:45 Most of us have heard the phrase “heave to, but do you know what it means and how to do it? I didn’t have a clue. Obviously, now as an enlightened sailor I can share the secret. John asked Mike how to perform the manoeuvre, and we were taken through the paces. John took the helm and soon found it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. The basic theory is to face the boat into the wind and swing it across on the tack without pulling the Genoa sail around. This creates a situation where the wind is trying to push the boat one way on the main sail and the other way on the Genoa. Result: you stop! Or as close to stopping as possible on the water – there’s always the element of drift from currents. As I said, it sounds simple, but each boat is different and it takes practice (and more than a few attempts in our case) to balance the sails correctly so that the air pressure is the same from both sides. The adjustments are made on the Genoa, either pulling in or taking out more sail to balance them. It is about now I realise that sailing isn’t so much about wind, but air pressure. Mike explained it to us:
If you think about how you can turn the boat into the wind and make headway tacking at an angle, you realise that the wind is not pushing the boat, as it is coming towards you – so what is happening? Sails are designed to curve for a simple reason. As the sail fills with air it creates a different air pressure on each side of the sail. Exactly the same as an aircraft, wind creates lift from the air pressure difference; the pressure on the sail tries to push the boat sideways through the water. To compensate, the streamlined shape of the hull stops the boat from going sideways, but instead squeezes it through the water in the direction you’re trying to go. (Although I am sure someone out there will tell me there’s more to it than that).

16:30 Mike, the Skipper took the helm and guided us back into the marina. As we approached, the sails were quickly stowed by the more than competent crew, (that means I did not help), and Mike turned the boat up-wind turning on the diesel engine to guide the boat in to the dock. For the crew onboard it was the final day of their RYA courses and Mike called us down to the cabin for a de-briefing session and certificate hand- out. The four had been living together for five days in a confined space and I found an interesting mix of companionship, together with respect for Mike as a tutor too, although throughout the day it had just been fun sailing, the time served a purpose. The students had passed with flying colours.

17:00 The day was over, and as usual I was left with that flavour which makes me feel I want to do that again.

Thanks to Cathy, Jim and Mike for an excellent day out.

As a learning experience and a short holiday to take your mind off the stress in the office this is one sport which is worth every penny.