“We are sailing” An article by Nicko Franks.

Ellen MacArthur and Dee Caffari’s round the world exploits have shown what women can achieve at sea. The annual Round The Island Race (a yacht race once round the Isle of Wight on a Saturday in June) attracts over 10,000 individuals as crew members, with an incredibly large proportion of females. So there is a huge interest in learning how to do it.

After 34 years in the Royal Navy, I managed a sail training project for under privileged young people for seven years. At the same time I qualified as a Royal Yacht Association Instructor. The title sounds grand, but in fact there are plenty of us (upwards of 2500) and we have to re-qualify every five years.

The benchmark yacht sailing training scheme is the Royal Yacht Association one, there are others abroad but the RYA is the “market leader” and is recognized worldwide as being the best. If you want to learn how to sail a yacht properly as a beginner or hone your already assimilated skills into something better, log on to the RYA website to see what’s available.

The basic RYA course takes five full days so normally, candidates join a boat on a Sunday evening and complete on the following Friday. On a standard course there will be at least four candidates and five is the maximum allowed by the rules. The first morning is taken up with a comprehensive briefing and walking around getting to know the boat. After that it’s practicing all the way with boat-handling, sail-hoisting and trimming, man overboard practice etc. Long passages are not undertaken as sailing in a straight line from A to B only tests the helmsman. Each day is a long one with all the activity involved (both physical and mental) so nights are spent at anchor or alongside, apart from the obligatory four hours night sailing (and navigating) in the dark.

There are four “grades” in the RYA yacht training scheme. A complete beginner will expect to emerge as a Competent Crew; able to steer a course, handle sails, tie basic knots and so on. Of the approximately 70 candidates I have taken on courses only two have given me serious doubt as to the wisdom of awarding them a Competent crew Certificate. The next jump to Day Skipper is the big one and a good benchmark to aim for, as yacht charter companies expect a potential hirer to have at least this qualification before they will allow you to take away one of their boats. A Coastal Skipper has more experience again and then at the top of the tree are the Yachtmasters Coastal, Offshore and Ocean qualifications. The tests for these qualifications have to be undertaken separately under the aegis of an RYA examiner rather than an Instructor.

Where to take a course…Until about 5 years ago, these RYA courses could only be taken around the UK as there was considerable emphasis on navigating and handing a yacht in tidal waters.  However, it is now possible to do a course anywhere and there are RYA sailing schools all over the world, from the Med to Australia. There is a feeling that if one is taking a five day break from work; one might wish to take a course in the sunny Balearics rather than murky old U.K. the Solent is the Mecca of the industry and there are numerous schools there. The RYA website will give you plenty of information.

The majority of Instructors either own their own sailing schools or work full time in one- it’s an attractive (but badly paid) job for a University student during vacations or someone seeking to make a full-time career in something to do with the sea. However, I’m one of quite a large number who work freelance and my routine is to run a course on behalf of Plymouth Sailing School in the spring and Trafalgar Sailing in the winter.

As far as I’m concerned, our West Country sailing to Salcombe, Fowey and the Fal Estuary rivals the Solent and it’s less crowded.  In autumn, when the weather is turning iffy, I fly down to Gibraltar and run a course using a boat and facilities provided by Trafalgar Sailing.

What it costs
Approximately £500 all found (use of boat, food onboard, marina fees, engine fuel, etc) except for alcohol. This does not include travel costs abroad.

I invite you to get out there and try it if you haven’t already. Yacht sailing has very accentuated highs and lows but that’s part of its attraction and is basically very convivial and great fun.

By Nicko Franks