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Barry's Blog #18 - Herding black cats in a dark room at midnight

The skipper on the boat berthed next to us said to me "You'll have to walk around to the other side of 'Sunborn' and you'll see a white door in between the sports bar and the Irish pub. Follow the passage to the end and there's a unisex toilet with a shower in there."

Gibraltar marina with sunborn hotel & casino

It seems that my high praise of the marina facilities in Gibraltar in my previous blog, had been slightly premature. Sometime overnight between day 2 and day 3 the toilets in both the men's and women's facilities had become blocked and the hot water system wasn't working either.

To me it wasn't a big deal, it just meant an extra 5 minute walk to answer the call of nature and have a hot shower and as an early riser I was able to walk right in, do what I needed to do, and walk back to Rockefeller without meeting another soul. But as the morning wore on and more yachties clambered off their vessels to make use of the usual, but now none functioning marina facilities, it became quite apparent that the temporary fix of using a single unisex toilet wasn't going to be enough to meet demand and I later heard mention that a small and impatient queue of yachties had begun to form in the passage leading to the loo.

After stowing my towel and toiletries back in the V-berth, I climbed the companionway steps and as I stood in Rockefeller's cockpit taking in the marina surroundings and staring up at the many seagulls slowly circling the great Rock of Gibraltar I wondered what our first day of the RYA Competent Crew course would entail. Rockefeller was tied up bow to onto the pier and as my gaze slowly turned in that direction I could see several of the skippers from Rock Sailing Gibraltar, including our own Mareike, involved in what looked like a very sombre conversation led by the boss man Peter.

After about 10 minutes Mareike came back on board and gathered all three of us novices into the cockpit to announce that because it was unknown how long the marina facilities would be out of action, we were going to take Rockefeller out of Gibraltar and 'around the corner' to the Alcaidesa marina in Spain. I knew it wouldn't be a long sail because that's where Aannsha and I had parked our rental car just a few days ago, before walking ourselves across the border into Gibraltar. However there was a lot to do before we took that short sail and it all began with a full safety briefing beginning below decks and culminating back in the cockpit learning about how to deploy the life raft and under what conditions to use the various flares.

All of the safety briefing information Mareike imparted sunk in quickly and easily for me, because it was all very much common sense, logical and practical. Then my whole world took a 180 degree turn as Mareike started talking in a foreign language and I'm not talking about her native German language, I'm talking about yacht language.

The boom of a furling mainsail

Let me give you an example; In order to raise the mainsail you first need to attach the main halyard shackle to the cringle in the head of the mainsail. Point the bow close to the wind, but not straight into it, then open the jammer to ease the kicker. Release the topping lift, then ease the main sheet to allow the boom some movement. Only then can you hoist the mainsail by hauling on the main halyard, keep hoisting until the sail is up all the way or to your required reef and manually check that the luff is tight. You can also have a crew member sweat the main halyard at the mast to make raising the mainsail a bit easier. Once the mainsail is up, close the kicker jammer and tighten the kicker strap. Open the main sheet jammer and ease the main sheet to whichever point of sail you want to be on and leave the topping lift slightly slack, because now it's the sail that's holding up the boom. And that's just raising the mainsail. When sailing you'll generally also use a headsail and if it's a furling headsail it can be a working jib or a Genoa, depending on how much you unfurl it. For hanked on sails, there are many different sizes of sail which can include a storm sail or a drifter. Easy eh?

We also had to understand what direction the wind was coming from so that we could set the point of sail to make the most of the wind depending on our required course and the wind direction. A yacht can be sailed close hauled, on a close reach, on a beam reach, on a broad reach or on a dead run. The physics of this was easy for me to get my head around, but once again when it came to getting the yacht language associated with the physical actions, I found myself fumbling around inside my head attempting to tie it all together. I felt like I was trying to herd black cats in a dark room at midnight.

The good news at this point dear reader is that I'm not going to turn this whole blog into a technical sailing 'how to' because it would make for boring reading and even just writing this is beginning to make my head hurt. So let's move on to the fun stuff. Knots!

Getting tied up in knots

Actually it should have been fun but it wasn't for me. The only knot that I've ever had to learn was a shoelace knot. So when Mareike informed us that in order to pass the following week's RYA Day Skipper course we would need to name and demonstrate a figure-of-eight, a clove hitch, a bowline, a reef knot, a rolling hitch, a single and double sheet bend and a round turn with two half hitches, I was almost ready to throw myself overboard. Although that would have been a bad idea as we were still in the marina and marina water is notoriously polluted, plus there's always the potential to get electrocuted if someone has a dodgy shore power cable. So I gritted my teeth and began practicing the first two knots, the figure-of-eight and the clove hitch. After several fumbling attempts both knots finally clicked inside my head and I felt a small surge of confidence, I can do this, I said to myself. Oh how I would eat those words just a few day later when I met my nemesis the rolling hitch. But let's not jump ahead. We still haven't actually begun sailing!

The galley on Rockefeller

We broke for lunch of ham salad sandwiches prepared in our galley, which we all happily devoured sitting in Rockefeller's cockpit under the February sunshine. After the lunch items were cleared away Mareike showed us how to prepare the yacht for leaving the pier, especially how to change out the mooring lines to slip lines and more importantly which line/s would be the last to slip depending upon the direction of the wind (and/or current and tide). Again I really enjoyed the hands on practical learning of it all, especially the physics of how the yacht would swing in relation to the wind and whether we were moored stern to or bow to, which is really bemusing because I totally sucked at physics at school.

With Rockefeller prepped to leave, it was time to don our wet weather gear and our auto inflate life jackets. The wet weather gear had nothing to do with any potential for rain, they were worn mostly for protection from sea spray and for warmth because even though the sun was shining it was still only early February and the wind definitely had a chill to it, which would be enhanced once we were out of the protection of the marina and into Gibraltar Bay.

The engine purred enthusiastically in idle as I was instructed to slip the lazy line, or 'slime line' as it's also know, from the starboard quarter of Rockefeller. I watched as the line sank and announced that it was out of sight and therefore clear of the propeller. "Ready at the bow lines." Mareike shouted forward. "Ready" was the reply from both Aannsha and Dan. Mareike engaged reverse and ordered the bow lines to be slipped, once the double shout of "clear" came from the bow more reverse revs were added to the engine and Rockefeller was eased expertly out into the marina fairway and pointed in the direction of the marina channel.

Up until that moment in time I'd never realised how much had to be done after a yacht has untied the lines and is leaving the marina. I don't know how the single handed sailing men and women manage it all. Once clear of the fairway and other berthed yachts we had to bring in the port and starboard fenders and tie them all off the stern rail using the previously mastered clove hitch knot. Then we had to coil and stow the lines we'd used to slip from the pier. Once that was done and the bow was pointed close to the wind we began carrying out the previously mentioned actions necessary to raise the mainsail. It was all fairly hectic as Dan, Aannsha and myself tried to remember our earlier instructions, actioned our received prompts from Mareike at the helm and generally became aware of which task each of us was doing and what needed doing next, in what was an initially unsuccessful attempt to become a team. I am certain that from an onlooker's point of view the three of us noobs looked like something out of a comedy circus act. Oh how things would change by the end of day 17.

Finally with the mainsail and the headsail set Mareike switched off the engine and asked who'd like to take the helm. Dan volunteered instantly, which I think was a bit of a relief for Aannsha and I as we knew that Dan at least had some experience after crewing on his friend's yacht. Plus it would give the both of us a chance to observe whatever lessons Mareike was going to impart before we would actually have to do them ourselves.

Gibraltar Bay is a very busy place. There are lots of big tankers, cargo and freighter ships laying at anchor, or coming into or leaving from Gibraltar port and the huge Spanish port of Algeciras across the bay. Then there are numerous high speed ferries, pilot vessels, customs, police and pleasure craft all doing their own thing in almost every direction. It was so very different from the uncluttered waters off the coast of South East Queensland in Australia.

That first afternoon out sailing on Rockefeller we just sailed back and forth across Gibraltar Bay, learning how to set the sails for different points of wind, easing and tightening the main and jib sheets as needed and whenever it was our turn at the helm getting the hang of giving the instructions to the crew whenever we were changing course, changing the point of sail or tacking.

Baz at the helm of Rockefeller

I distinctly remember my first turn at helming and feeling the way the wind and water pushed the bow around and how eventually I felt it become a rhythm that I could almost predict which allowed me to pre-emptively make small adjustments to the rudder to keep the bow pointed where I wanted it to be. It was exhilarating and I knew right there and then that we'd made the right decision with our radical lifestyle change. I felt so very much alive and very much at home.

As the sun started to head towards the horizon Mareike announced that it was time to make our way to Alcaidesa marina for our evenings berth. I was slightly torn at this point, a small part of me wanted to stay out sailing, but most of me was mentally exhausted and ready to stop. It only took about 15 minutes before we were at the huge manmade breakwater that marks the entrance to Alcaidesa and because we were about to enter Spanish waters it was necessary to fly a Spanish courtesy flag off the mast in conjunction with our British Red Ensign at the stern. I volunteered to go forward and raise the courtesy flag. Even though the waves weren't that big it certainly made me pay attention as I snapped my harness onto the safety of the jack line running along Rockefeller's side deck and made my way to the mast. Outside the relative protection of the cockpit every little motion of the yacht felt as if it were threatening to throw me off balance and over the side.

Entering the calm waters behind the breakwater we furled in the headsail and dropped the mainsail and were instructed to put all fenders at toe rail height along the starboard side and prepare starboard bow, mid-ship and stern lines ready to throw as Mareike gently brought Rockefeller, under engine power, alongside the marina office to check us into Spain and find out which berth we'd been assigned for the evening. After 5 minutes or so and with Mareike back onboard at the helm we slipped the lines and slowly motored our way through the marina. While this was taking place we had to redistribute the fenders to both the port and starboard sides and reposition them at water line level. With all the moving around of the fenders I was rapidly becoming very proficient at the clove hitch knot.

Coming into our berth things were a little different because we would be mooring stern to in Alcaidesa, so we only had to ready a bow and stern lines. Once the initial mooring lines were attached to the dock it took us another 50 minutes to 'put the boat to bed' which involved securing Rockefeller with bowlines to all the dock cleats, flaking the mainsail, putting the covers on everything and getting her attached to shore power just as the last of the evening light faded from the sky.

After dinner on board, Mareike gave us a short debrief of the day's events and outlined what the plan was for the day after. I was particularly excited to hear that we'd be doing a long sail to one of two places, either to Puerto de la Duquesa, one of the Costa del Sol's best marinas on the southern Spanish coast or across to north Africa to the Spanish territory of Ceuta. That evening I fell into bed mentally and physically exhausted and drifted off into a contented sleep picturing myself standing at the helm with a crazy grin on my face just enjoying the feeling of the sun, the wind and the waves.

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