It would be a better story if I started this post saying I’d always wanted to sail, but sadly it wouldn’t be true. Despite growing up by the sea and having dozens of opportunities to learn, the pastime held no interest for me whatsoever until recently.
I got into boats by walking the marina at St. Katherine’s docks in London, near where my Dad lives.
I always thought the huge luxury power boats looked nice, with their white sofas, sun decks, and kick-ass levers. Just for fun I decided to see how much one of these things would cost, and quickly realised that unless I am suddenly approached by a Premiership football club wishing to obtain my services for the next decade, I’ll never own one. And it occurred to me that the sailboats looked awfully nice too, and it turned out they were a bit cheaper. True, they were not exactly cheap, but they were at least within reach of the ordinary citizen (or engineer). So I spent a couple of years just looking at sailing yachts, thinking it would be nice to get out on one some day.
Most of this time was spent in Nigeria, where there was a yacht club, but when I went down there a very pissed bloke who represented the club told me they were hopelessly in debt and they would need me to cough up my membership fees ASAP. I’d not been on the premises more than 10 minutes at this point, and when I asked him about sailing courses he looked confused and then laughed. So I decided this probably wasn’t the best place to learn to sail. Plus, I took one look in the water of Lagos harbour…
When I came back to Melbourne for my second trip in July, I got online and found the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron at St. Kilda was offering all sorts of training courses, and so I got myself signed up for the most basic one. The course consisted of 3 sessions of 4-5 hours, held on Sunday mornings. I had no idea what to expect, and so was a bit surprised to find myself and 3 other students chucked into a small sailboat with a wild and enthusiastic instructor and expected to perform the basic tasks expected of a crew member. It was pretty confusing, as there was all sorts of stuff going on and not much room to do it in. We spent 4 hours on the water sailing the boat around, being bombarded with instructions and information, until by the end we were all pretty disorientated and not quite sure how we managed to get out and back again. But it was an excellent introduction, as by the time the second lesson came around we knew what it was really like to be on a yacht under sail. No hours of theory in the classroom before being allowed near a boat on this course! This was as hands-on as it gets, and you learn quickly.
The main thing I learned was that Melbourne in winter, especially early in the morning, is bloody freezing and I was hopelessly under dressed. All my wet-weather and warm gear was (and still is!) all in Lagos, and I’ve only got with me that which I could fit into a few suitcases. I got a bit wet, and the wind was bitingly cold. By the time I did the second lesson I had bought wet-weather gear, knee-pads, gloves, and was wearing several extra layers underneath. It was much more comfortable.
The other thing I learned was that sailing yachts cannot generally be sailed by one person. Well they can, but usually you need a crew. For some reason I’d assumed a bloke on his own could just climb aboard and happily sail any random yacht about all by himself, but in fact ideally you need a crew of about 4-5 people. There are people who sail by themselves, but they are familiar with the yacht and have it rigged up specifically for this purpose, and are working their arses off for most of the time. The idea that a guy can just take off in a yacht, point it where it needs to go, and sit back and enjoy a pink gin is a bit fanciful.
The reason being, as I learned, is there is one hell of a lot to do when keeping a yacht sailing on course. There are a hundred different adjustments that need doing: you need to man the tiller, control the mainsail, control the headsail, and tack or jibe when required. And you then need to make the continuous fine adjustments necessary to keep the boat moving at maximum efficiency given all the conditions such as wind direction, wind strength, course, sea state, etc. These controls and adjustments generally involve pulling or releasing one of several dozen ropes at any given time, using winches where additional force is necessary, and moving yourself from one end of the boat to the other as well as from side to side. If you’re not familiar with it all, it is one hell of a lot to think about and quite hard work. The problems come when one adjustment is forgotten or done wrongly, and the boat starts doing something you don’t want it to. At best it will head off in the wrong direction, at worst it starts to lean over to an alarming degree with the sails flapping all over the place. First time this happened I had a momentary panic as I thought we were going to capsize, but I soon learned that keelboats are designed to be able to heel right over at silly angles without flipping over completely. Once I’d realised this, heeling over became good fun.
It can all seem a bit chaotic on a sailing boat, when you’re doing something but not entirely sure what the rest of the crew are doing, but if everyone does their job, it all somehow comes together. I found it pretty important to concentrate on what you’re doing: there are ample opportunities for a rope to be caught on the wrong side of something, and when that happens the results are usually obvious and often quite difficult to rectify. The power of the wind is immense, and if a sail is full of wind and a rope is attached to the sail, you’re not going to be able to do very much with it unless you depower the boat. By the time I finished the course I knew how to tie basic knots (including the bowline, without which you’re seriously stuck) and the basic role of each crew member, such that I would not be completely useless on a boat. At this point, I learned another important thing about sailing yachts: you don’t need to own a yacht.
I had originally assumed that anyone who wanted to sail on a yacht had to either own a yacht, or have a mate who owns a yacht. Time for a joke:
Q. What’s the only thing better than having a yacht?
A. Having a mate with a yacht.
Where was I? Yes, that’s right. Turns out you don’t need your own yacht, or even a mate with a yacht, to be able to sail. As I said earlier, each yacht needs a crew, therefore for each yacht owner there needs to be 4-5 people who are willing to crew for him. As a result, you have more skippers looking for crew than you do crew looking for a spot on a yacht. Once the course finished, we were encouraged to go down to the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron before a race (there is one most Wednesdays and Saturdays) and make yourself known that you are available to crew, and you’ll be guaranteed a sail. So this I did, and got picked up by a likeable chap who owns a very nice racing yacht, and has an established crew of 5 others who I joined for the afternoon. There wasn’t much wind and the going was slow, which gave me time to get myself orientated on board and to figure out each task I was assigned. Naturally I was given the donkey-work to do, and my height made me useful when positioned at the mast, but given it was all new I learned a lot. And I didn’t fall overboard. The racing environment is good for learning as a lot of the tasks are repeated in a short space of time, and it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it.
I gave a good enough account of myself to be asked back the next weekend, and since then I’ve been a regular crew member of the same yacht, and a member of the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron. The club is situated in a prime location right on the St. Kilda beach, and from the description conjures up images of hooray-Henrys in blazers braying at each other as they drink gin. It’s not like that at all, it is very egalitarian and much less formal than would be expected. In fact, the stereotypical image of a yacht club is something they work hard to dispel, with the result that it is a very friendly and welcoming club. I enjoy myself there at any rate.
I’m here until at least January, and I’ll be sailing most weekends until I leave. I don’t know where I’ll be posted next or whether I’ll be able to sail when I’m there, but I’ll keep doing this wherever and whenever I can. So far, I’m really enjoying it.