Here’s a long held secret shame of mine: I don’t do well under pressure when I know I’m being observed and I’m not confident with what I’m doing: my mind goes blank, I make silly mistakes and get my words mixed up. Not the best pattern to bring to a practical Competent Crew course (and definitely not to the following week’s Day Skipper course).
So when I awoke on the bright sunny morning of the first course, sensing Barry bouncing out of bed with glee at learning to be a sailor, I just wanted to hide under the bed clothes and make the churning anxiety in my stomach go away. Oh god, will I remember what I’m told? Will I get it right? In that moment I hated Barry’s enthusiasm; it made my own sense of inadequacy seem that much larger.
“Come on!” Baz urged me out of bed with an annoying tone of excitement in his voice. “The sooner we have a shower, the sooner we can start the course!”
“Oh great,” I tried to inject some enthusiasm in my voice in the hope that it would dissipate my nerves. Just one day. You only have to get through today. Turning those thoughts into a mantra, I got up and started pulling clothes on. Baz grinned at me like a schoolboy who was just about to go on a day excursion to his favourite amusement park. How could I resent his joy?
“We’re living the dream!” he beamed.
“Your dream!” I mumbled, but smiled back because I remembered why I was doing this. Baz wanted to sail and scuba dive around the world. And I wanted to travel and explore new places. And be with Baz.
So as I strode off to the shower block with my excited-puppy-husband, I resolved that my anxieties could take a back step and that I would focus only on why I was doing this, and also stay present with what was actually happening.
That meant no forward thinking to what may or may not go wrong, no pre-judging myself to be a failure when I was learning a completely new skill set and no beating myself up if I didn’t get something perfect first (or even second or third) time. I also decided to give myself plenty of mental praise every time I managed a new skill, or remembered a new term. I recalled all the encouragement I’d given to my meditation group members over the years when I’d been in Australia, and figured it might be a good idea if I took my own advice.
As Mareike Grigo gave us our first lesson that morning, I realised how relieved I was that she would be our instructor. She was warm and enthusiastic, explained everything clearly and logically, and demonstrated what she wanted us to do first before giving us the chance to practise. I knew that if I was going to learn well with anyone, this woman was the teacher for me. I took a deep breath and focused on what she was saying.
The first morning’s lesson turned out to be fascinating. It included learning the different parts of the boat and all the terms that seemed confusing at first – well, for a while if I’m honest – but over the week became clearer until we could differentiate the kicker from the main halyard, put the ram’s horn into the correct reefing cringle, and also realise that ‘Kill Margaret Thatcher’ wasn’t a call to revolution from the seventies, but an acronym of what to address before raising the mainsail. (Kicker – Main sheet – Topping Lift).
That morning we also had a safety brief, including what to do if there was a gas leak. Who knew that gas sinks into the bilges and you have to waft it out if you don’t want to blow up the boat next time you turn on a light switch? Best not to let gas leak in the first place. We also learned that if you leave the sea cocks for the toilet and basin open when you go out sailing in high seas, you could inadvertently sink the boat as water could pour in through, essentially, open holes in the hull. My desire to stay alive ensured that even in my anxiety-mind-blank prone condition, I committed those two points to memory immediately.
I was initially baffled by the amount of flares that you could choose to use in an emergency, but each one included a description on the side of how long they burn for, how far they can be seen and whether they are red parachute, orange floating smoke or red or white hand-held flares. (There are other types: Baz and I are considering the laser flares which are more expensive but safer to keep, deploy and discard). Electronic Visual Distress Signals (EVDS) – often referred to as ‘laser flares’ are hand-held non-pyrotechnic devices used as alternatives to hand flares). Traditional flares must be stored upright in a dry waterproof container and also be disposed of correctly when out of date as they contain explosive and toxic chemicals. They are only to be used in an emergency, burn extremely hot and can damage skin and your boat if not used correctly. That was the reason there was a thick safety glove and goggles stored with the flares on our boat; to protect the user.
Preparing the boat for sailing
Mareike also showed us how the boat had to be prepared before sailing: on deck as well as down below. Baz has
explained very clearly what needs to be done on deck in his blog, so I won’t repeat that here. Down below, apart from closing the sea cocks, we also had to check the bilges to ensure they were dry. If not there may be a leak, which would have to be traced back to its origin and fixed. Check the gas flow lever is closed and gimble the stove.
Gimbling lets the oven swing so the stove top is parallel with the floor and allows you to use the kettle or cook during passage. Turn off lights, close hatches. Just before leaving, switch off and disconnect shore power, turn off the fridge and water heater and turn on navigation instruments. Turn the squelch up on the VHF radio so the hiss disappears and turn the volume down to a reasonable level. Make sure the radio is tuned to channel 16.
The other important part of getting down below ready prior to sailing is checking the engine. Mareike showed us how to gain access to it by removing the steps (and also via hatches in each of the cabins on either side). She then explained how a diesel engine works and the important parts of the engine that needed inspecting each day to ensure it worked, and would run efficiently. To help remember what needed checking, she gave us another acronym WOBBLE, where the letters stand for:
W = Water filter – check that it is clean. Check level of water coolant is correct.
O = Oil – check the engine and gearbox oil levels are correct.
B = Belt – check tension is correct and there are no cracks.
B = Bilges - check they are clean with no leaks.
L = Leaks in bilge. If there are leaks, identify them: oil, coolant, diesel, or water – fresh or salty.
E = Electrical system – check the wires and connections are in good order. Exhaust – check good flow of water comes out of the exhaust once the engine is switched on.
(Apparently there are slight variations to the meanings of WOBBLE but this is the one we used).
Learning the ropes – and knots
We also had to learn a series of knots which are essential for sailing. Mareike started on day one with three simple ones: a figure of eight, which stops lines (ropes) from slipping through the jammers (rope locks); a reef knot (used to tie reefs in the mainsail in place; and a clove hitch (used to keep fenders in place). I also remember her showing us how to tie a bowline (to secure a mooring line) that day. To my surprise and delight, these came easily to me. Whether it is because I work with my hands a lot when I’m making crafts, or had some memory of knots that my dad taught me when I was very small, I can’t be sure. So even though my mind was getting pretty boggled with a lot of the new information I was taking on board, I do know that I was thrilled that here was at least one aspect of sailing – okay small, but significant – that I was a natural at!
One other ‘knot’ we learned was ‘making fast to a cleat’ which is used when you’re securing the line from a mooring bollard to a cleat on the yacht. This is tied like an o-x-o shape and holds the boat really fast: An important one that one. We also learned that it was important to pass the line under the guard rails first or you could seriously stuff up the guard rail.
At this point, I realised from what I’d learned so far, there was a lot that you could seriously stuff up, potentially endangering yourself or the boat to a greater or lesser degree. Nerves twanged in my guts as I feared that I’d forget something important when it counted. But I didn’t have time to dwell on my feelings (thank goodness), Mareike took us onto the jetty so we could learn more rope handling.
We began by learning to coil lines properly so they didn’t twist, followed by how to lasso a bollard. There’s a specific way to coil and throw the line so you actually capture the bollard. Do you know what though? It works! And it’s a very useful technique to know because when the skipper is approaching a mooring, you need to get your lines around those bollards as fast as possible. I was pretty good at that too, as it turned out. I think I only missed 2 or 3 throws during both courses!
After we’d finished playing with the ropes (my phrase, not Mareike’s), we learned to coil and secure them so they could be stowed, ready for use next time. As we stowed them away in the lazarette (aft locker), I hoped the rest of the day would be as enjoyable.
Following lunch we donned wet weather gear and life jacket/safety harness so we could actually take the yacht out for some sailing manoeuvres. The wet weather gear (foulies) were more to keep us warm than dry, as once out of the marina, the wind would be stronger and as it was February, there was a definite winter chill. Putting on the life jacket and harness reminded me of the dangers of sailing. I’d grown up with a tale of my dad losing his 60ft yacht when he hit an unmarked buoy during a freak storm on a night passage. Would we be okay when we went out sailing? Would I be seasick? Would the boat heel over and capsize?
Looking at Baz, he appeared positively animated and was the first to go up on deck! I shook myself out of my crazy negative imaginative mind-shit and thought instead of how the life jacket reminded me of preparing to go scuba diving. That reminded me how much fear I’d already conquered so recently, when I’d overcome a panic of drowning in order to become an Open Water Diver. I was obviously more courageous than I allowed myself to see. If I could overcome true panic attacks in the ocean, I could learn to sail. It was in my blood. Hopefully.
Once we were out of the marina we began by bringing all the fenders to the stern, then hoisted the mainsail and headed out to into the busy bay. We spent a few hours learning the important basics including how to use the winches without losing fingers, how to open and trim the headsail (gib) and mainsail, and got the feeling of how to steer and tack on a close haul.
Mooring at Alcaidesa
As early evening closed in, we headed across to Alcaidesa marina on the Spanish side of the bay. Baz was sent to raise the Spanish flag at the mast and Mareike rapidly called out a series of things we had to do to prepare to dock at the customs office to check into Spain. That was quite nerve wracking (for all of us I think) as we fumbled our way through putting fenders out, getting slip lines ready (oh gawd, did I really have mine on the wrong side of the guard rail?) Fumbling some more I re-tied it and got ready to lasso the bollard once we had the go-ahead from our skipper Mareike. Somehow, we all managed to get those lines secured and Mareike disembarked for the customs office. She soon returned with directions on where to moor for the evening – right next to the other two school yachts – Rock Star and Rock On.
We were pooped, but we still had to untie the slip lines so our skipper could spring off the dock; we had to rearrange the fenders again so they would protect Rockefeller once it was moored; and we had to get the slip lines ready to catch the bollards at the mooring. We fumbled in the fast approaching darkness. I was nervous about whether I’d tie the oxo tight enough, whether I’d miss the bollard, or whether I’d fall in between the boat and the dock, I was that tired. Again, once I began doing, there wasn’t any time to be worrying. I just got on with it. But my stomach remained in knots. No pun intended.
Somehow, with Mareike’s patient, steady and ongoing instructions, we moored. The other two boats had already arrived and the cabin lights suggested they were already enjoying their evening meal. We still had to put our boat to bed. That took nearly another hour. Over the course we got quicker, but we were all nearly brain dead at this point and bone weary – well I know I was – but our tireless skipper took us through the routine step by step.
The routine in no particular order as it was a blur to me was: Change the slip lines for permanent lines. I knew how to tie a bowline, so I got to do that. I felt pretty stoked about that! Someone connected shore power and someone else turned off the navigation instruments and reconnected the fridge, lights and opened sea cocks. Movement around me was all a haze as I concentrated on getting the bowlines right. I didn’t want to be responsible for drifting off our mooring! We also had to re-flake the mainsail and put its cover on and also cover the table and wheel, put up the dodger and tidy the lines.
Boat put finally to bed, we practically fell down the companionway steps into the bright warm cozy saloon, where we made dinner, drank wine and had a debrief of the day with our skipper. We were noobs, but we hadn’t done too badly. Mareike and I went off to discover the shower block and found it was pretty good with clean, warm amenities and a launderette next door.
Later that night, Baz and I flopped into our bed, exhausted, satisfied with the day, and so ready for sleep! Baz said his brain was overloaded. I felt emotionally overloaded. But it was a familiar feeling. Where had I felt that before? Oh, that was right: every day at school. That inner need to get things right, to perform and not fail. The fear of being told off or being found to have done something wrong. The concern of forgetting something important when I needed to remember it most. But it hadn’t just been at school that I’d experienced that. Every job since then had prompted this kind of apprehension to a greater or lesser degree, depending on circumstances. Eventually, when the stress in those jobs had become too much, I’d left for greener pastures. But the lesson had always been there.
This time though, I couldn’t leave. I had to continue. And just like having to continue with the scuba course had pulled me through a childhood fear, I knew these two sailing courses would prove to be another learning curve. At the very least, it would mean that I’d be competent crew, and hopefully day skipper. At the most, it would see me overcoming an ongoing level of self-doubt and anxiety over the next two weeks of intensive 12-hour days.
I had done well on day one. So what about the rest of the course? How would I get on? We’ll see next time.