On a chilly November evening in 2013, during a second date with my now wife Maria, she told me about her interest in wanting to take the RYA Competent Crew course and invited me to join her for the experience. Eight and a half years later, on a dull, overcast Sunday morning in May 2022 we finally jetted off from London Heathrow with a couple of yachting virgin friends who we had sweet-talked into joining us, to our chartered yacht complete with bedding, food and a skipper to undertake our ‘comp crew’ in the warm Mediterranean waters of Gibraltar.
After a 2½ hour flight and a 15 minute walk from the airport we arrived at Ocean Village Marina where we met our instructor Ian who introduced us to our home for the week, the 38’ Bavaria yacht ‘Brodie Boy’. After a nice dinner and a few drinks, we settled down for the evening and prepared for the week ahead.
Ian arrived at 0930 and we spent the morning going through safety precautions, Mayday procedures, life jackets, fire extinguishers, the do’s and don’ts of the heads, and general familiarisation with the boat. We demonstrated our knot tying inabilities, learned how to lasso dock cleats from onboard, discussed points of sail, maps and chart plotters and how to check the engine with a ‘wobble’, and of the necessity to stay hydrated and apply plenty of sunscreen while enjoying blue skies and 25° in shorts and tee-shirts. After a timely lunch in the cabin, we slipped our lines and headed out into Gibraltar Bay to ‘throw the boat around’. Enjoying a good Force 4 from the West, we flapped about raising the sails, someone was sweating by the mast (well it was quite warm) and we discovered the difference between the halyard, the kicker, the topping lift, and the mainsheet. We practised plenty of tacks ( Ready about, helm over, lee-ho! ) and a few gybes and soon got the hang of ‘flicking the jib sheet off the drum’ on the leeward side and winching in on the other. By late afternoon we were heading back into the marina, practising our lassoing and learning how to secure the yacht to the pontoon with stern and bow lines ably assisted by spring lines, and how to stow the mainsail and the halyard. We then keenly rushed to Bianca’s Bar for our debrief over a nice cold San Miguel or three!
Rising bright and breezy, and following a team breakfast, we pondered over maps, almanacs, tide and current tables to plot a course for Africa. We were heading across the world’s second busiest shipping lane between the Pillars of Hercules to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave seventeen miles away on the North East corner of Morocco. With a rather sedate Force 3 Westerly, we set sail and were soon joined by a pod of porpoises with a couple of daredevils surfing the bow wave from the yacht, a sight to behold. Pretty soon we raised the motoring cone, started the engine and scuttled between the oil tankers and merchant vessels which seem extremely large when they get close to you, and having cleared the traffic lanes we continued our leisurely sail towards the distant Atlas Mountains. Ian the instructor tested our extensive knowledge of the yacht by firing questions at us…..what is the leech, where is the transom, what is the companionway; most of his enquiries being met with vague looks. He even resorted to charades to help the ladies on board, but even he floundered when trying to describe lazyjacks. Backing up against the dock at Marina Hercules, we soon discovered why slime lines are so described, and it soon became apparent that securing them was a boy’s job. Another liquid debrief followed by tapas ended a fabulous day.
Slipping out of the marina, we set a Northerly course of 010° towards Sotogrande in Spain with a feeble Force 2 Easterly, the wind having changed direction during the night. Setting the sails for a starboard tack, we bobbed along at a rather leisurely 2 knots before firing up the engine and motor sailing across the straits to ensure we got there before nightfall. We were soon joined by the resident porpoises and also a powerful Guardia Civil motor boat, whose officers warned us not to track any further east as HMS Cutlass was conducting a live firing exercise in the Straits. We soon heard the dut-dut-dut of distant heavy machine guns and we spied her a few miles away through the binoculars luckily firing away from us. After a few hours and even more questions from Ian regarding parts of the boat, and buoys, and sails, and knots, and rules of the road, and and, we slipped into La Duquesa, a very picturesque marina surrounded by bars and restaurants where we once again backed up against the quay, although this time it was against a solid wall rather than a floating pontoon. Securing the even slimier line to the bow, we all very quickly discovered that we were useless in tying a bowline upside down! We finally managed to secure the stern lines to the dock rings after deciding what was the tree and what was the rabbit hole with our heads turned through 180°. We then set off for our daily debrief with San Miguel at the Dolphin Bar, and we finished off with a tasty Thai dinner before contending with the assault course that was the boat being three feet lower down the wall than it was when we disembarked five hours earlier! Luckily we all made it onboard without anyone taking a late night dip.
Gingerly easing out of our mooring with just a foot of water beneath the keel, we zig-zagged through masses of lobster pot buoys before raising the sails and heading south towards The Rock. After another question and answer session in which we were distinctly more knowledgeable, the girls were getting slightly confused over ground speeds and winds ( the boat can travel faster than the wind speed, apparently ) which led to a lively discussion over why it was speed over ground when it was evidently water! The ladies then prepared lunch down below in a fairly good swell and eaten in the cockpit before we somewhat surprisingly dropped the sails before rounding Europa Point. We soon discovered why. The Katabatic wind rolling down the west face of the Rock of Gibraltar blasted us with 30 knot gusts which for sure would have been a handful to contend with under sail, but as soon as we were North of the airport runway the wind settled and we soon were under full sail practising our tacks and gybes (Ready to gybe, centre the mainsail, helm over, gybe-ho!) The changing of the genoa was very slick now, and what three days previously had been a bit of a palaver was almost second nature now to the crew, with Ian no longer having to issue instructions. We practised Man Overboard and dealt with the situation rather well, before gliding into Alcaidesa Marina where we moored, tidied, and hurried off to the debrief with our new friend Cruzcampo, a cousin of San Miguel. We decided over dinner that we knew enough to take care of the sails in the morning without instruction, and a plan of attack was agreed upon.
Preparing for our last day, we were all somewhat surprised to head over to an uninhabited part of the marina where we all took it in turns to come alongside, moor up and then depart the dock. Although not part of the course, it was very enjoyable and a good experience which everyone handled without mishap. We then headed out into the bay for a bit more boat handling while carrying out the daily question and answer session, this time all question being answered correctly. This is where our plan sprang into action and we raised the sails with no prompting from our instructor before throwing the boat into various tacks and gybes. We learned all about anchoring the boat, and following a nice al fresco lunch at anchor, we all had a go at heaving to…..remarkable how quickly the boat can be stopped. After avoiding numerous container and bunker ships that were flitting around the harbour, we made our way back to the yacht’s berth at Ocean Village where we somewhat wearily moored, tidied and washed down the boat. We then all had a one to one meeting with Ian to reflect on the week, and back with our friend San Miguel we were all presented with our competent crew certificates and our logbooks completed and signed.
It really was a fantastic week, with great weather, good friends and a knowledgeable and helpful instructor.
We chartered the yacht from Trafalgar Sailing for £2,600 including the comp crew course and bought British Airways return flights for £631 which between the four of us came to £807 each. Compare and contrast with comp crew courses in the Solent and for us it was a no brainer to fly off to the Western Mediterranean and enjoy a warm sailing holiday in fantastic surroundings.
If you are planning to take your competent crew course in the future, give Gibraltar some consideration. With over three hundred days of sunshine per year and very competitive rates compared to the UK you may find it a great alternative to traditional sailing grounds. We certainly did…….
Graham & Maria Bourton
Lymington Town Sailing Club