Who would have thought this time a month ago I would be stepping on a 72 foot racing yacht as a crewmember. Tomorrow I fly to Valencia to meet the boat at the America’s Cup marina and then we are off to Majorca for a week. The story starts under a palm tree at Bianca’s restaurant in Gibraltar.
That was the meeting point for the first day of my RYA Competent crew course, which I had been looking forward to for weeks. The other four students and the Instructor introduced themselves and then it was off to the yacht, which was to be home for the next 6 days. Although I had done a bit of dinghy sailing I had never been on anything with cabins and saloon before, but was soon making my way around the boat like a local.
Day one, Monday, was a safety brief and then a few hours in the Bay of Gibraltar where the instructor gave us a gentle run down on the parts of the boat and the basics of sailing. I never realized quite how a sail worked, but with the simple explanations and seeing it in practice I was amazed at how much I learned, even on the first day. A couple of cold beers in the marina bar in the evening and then a great home cooked meal onboard rounded off the day perfectly, no one had trouble getting to sleep that was for sure.
Tuesday morning awoke to the smell of toast and coffee and after the instructor’s famous toolbox talk i.e. briefing, we were practicing mooring up and docking every way possible. Then it was on to lots of tacking and gibing practice and boat handling under sail. I never realized a yacht could be so maneuverable and our confidence was building all the time. After a nice lunch at anchor and a swim around the yacht we were ready for an afternoon of more sailing. Man overboard drills were gently introduced using Bob the fender as the unwilling volunteer.
Wednesday morning saw us planning a trip to Morocco and the more advanced students were talking a strange dialect of waypoints and tidal streams that presumably had some bearing on where we were going. Soon we where sailing out of the Bay and across the Straits of Gibraltar accompanied by dolphins, sea turtles and even a big sunfish, It was amazing.
Africa was only fourteen miles away, but we were going to another continent and the excitement on the boat increased with each mile. Having tied up in Ceuta marina a well-earned meal was prepared by the Instructor while the rest of us explored ashore. A maze of little streets and alleyways hid its long history of Barbary pirates and other nautical skullduggery, but the McDonalds on the corner brought us straight back to the twenty first century.
Thursday morning’s preparation for sea was accompanied by the hot sun and the destination of marina Smir in Morocco was eagerly anticipated. A few hours down the coast dodging fishing nets and numerous seamanship exercises, the marina hove into view. This was Morocco proper, the lazy camels on the beach, hot dusty roads and taxi drivers haggling for trade all contributed to the atmosphere. We went ashore that night and tried the local tagines, a little stewing pot of whatever you like, lamb, chicken, beef. All, had that lovely exotic taste that you could probably find in the back streets of London, but the fact was we were in Morocco and that made it taste a whole lot better.
The marina turned out to be a great place for practicing mooring and motoring around with its many long jetties, so the morning was taken up with what the Instructor called “Pontoon Bashing” Luckily there wasn’t any bashing as we all carried out our duties with increasing confidence and ability.
We awoke on Friday morning to a hot African sun and a passage plan was made to return to a marina in Spain called Sotogrande. Another Straits crossing through the busy shipping lane saw us heading up the Costa del Sol. My duties of updating the ships log and plotting our position every hour as well as making the tea kept me busy. We all took turns in helming, steering the yacht, and finally made the marina in the afternoon. There was none of your Watneys red barrel and fish and chips in this classy marina. It was a mixture of understated elegance and rather nice boats, but the prices ashore were still reasonable for an aspiring yachtie on a budget. The crew were all best mates by now and the banter testified to the team spirit. The Instructor was always there if you needed him but allowed us more and more freedom to apply our newly found skills, sometimes showing monumental patience when our ambitions exceeded our capabilities.
Saturday morning was the usual boat preparation, but tinged with a hint of sadness that this was our last day of a week to remember. We sailed back to the marina in Gibraltar and all talked of how much we had learnt. It seemed like weeks ago that we had first stepped on the yacht and now it was all coming to an end. We were all determined to moor up faultlessly to show the instructor that we were all now salty sea dogs worthy of his respect.
After a wash down and debrief came the moment of certificate issuing, we felt like school children in the headmasters study, but were delighted that we had all passed. I had attained my RYA Competent Crew qualification along with a couple of other students and the others had gained their Day Skipper.
It was all swapping emails and promising to invite each other on our next nautical adventures as we packed our kit and made our final farewells. The Instructor with his usual irony stated that we were the best students he had ever taught, but somehow I suspected that he said that every week.
By Jack Hooper Field