I booked myself on to a 6 day Day Skipper course at the All Abroad Sailing Academy in Gibraltar. I don’t technically need to do it for my Clipper Race but for my own personal learning I want to get as much experience and training as possible before I go. So I arrived in Gibraltar last Sunday on the morning flight from Manchester for a start time of 4pm. A few hours to kill on the Rock but everything was closed, it’s winter, off season, so I had a quick wander around the Casemates Square area and Marina to get my bearings. Then a quick bite to eat and it was time to meet my training Skipper and crew mates for the week. Etu , who goes by Eddie, a 40 something chef/restauranteur from Finland, Dan, nearly 30, a scaffolder from the UK and Robin an 18 year old student from Mozambique plus me a 50 year old gardener from the North West of the UK. A very diverse group all who wanted very different things from the week. The guys were all on an intensive 17 week fast track Yachtmaster course and I was the only Day Skipper. We then met Robin ( I know! you never meet any Robins then all of a sudden 3 in a week, Sir Robin Knox Johnson last weekend at crew brief.)
Robin Skipper I will call him Rob gave us a brief safety briefing and a quick plan for the week ahead and then he headed for home for the night leaving us to our own devices for the evening. We had to go to buy food for the week from the local supermarket and ensure the boat was clean and tidy and ready to set sail the following morning by 9am. I was lead by the guys who had already been onboard for 3 weeks so I had little do do other than help with the shopping and stowing the gear and have an early night. They invited me to the pub but to be honest I was tired from my early start and headed to bed. Oooops! It then turned out that there was no bedding on board for me so Dan very kindly lent me his sleeping bag. Not a great start but I slept like a baby and was up bright and early ready for the first day sailing. Rob and Dan were onboard early and we slipped lines by 9am for a sail in the bay. The wind forecast for the week was dreadful, gale force winds with up to 50mph gusts so we played safe and stayed within the bay, close to home and reasonably sheltered. After a successful day sailing about, putting in a few tacks and gybes we made to Alcaidesa Marina, literally next door to our start point but in a whole different country….. Spain. That is the strange thing about Gibraltar you walk across the border to go to the supermarket, the prices in Spain are way cheaper than in the UK territory. God knows what will happen with Brexit !!!! Alcaidesa was a lovely marina in the town of La Línea de la Concepción, one of the most deprived areas of Spain, I thought it was great. Slightly buzzy with some fabulous little bars and restaurants, all cheap as chips and from what I saw friendly. There is however a very definite police presence there, the proximity to Morocco means there is a steady stream of drugs runners and refugee boats trying to cross the straights. More on that later. Our boat for the week was Voyager, a Jeannau 389, a very different boat to the 70’ Clipper. It is light, short and manoeuvrable and to be honest more of a caravan on water than a racing boat. A cruiser designed for families to pleasure sail, swim and bbq but actually perfect for Day Skipper. I was not on this course to race but to learn the safe way to Skipper a small cruiser by day in familiar waters. The sails on the Jeannau 389 are very simple, there are 2 of them. A mainsail that can be reefed 3 times and a furling jib that can be reefed right down to the size of a pocket hanky. So no heavy sail lifting, rope lugging or even a mainsail cover to remove as the bag stays attached to the boom all the time. I was able to put into practice all the theory that I had learnt back at home, running fix, 3 point fix, course to steer, estimated position, use of the electronic plotter, finding ‘stuff’ in the almanac, tidal streams and graphs, tidal diamonds and pilotage plans. I managed to do the lot over the course of the week. So that was great. I digress, back to Alcaidesa and sailing. Eddie was our Skipper for the day, the guys, Eddie is a competent sailor who is quite quietly spoken but obviously with a lot of history and a very varied backstory. I felt really confident with him especially on the helm. Until the moment we were preparing to berth alongside the wall by the customs office. Eddie had a plan to pull into the safer, leeward side, out of the weather and where the swell smallest. The way he had been taught by his Skipper from the previous weeks, but he was overruled at the last moment by Rob. Disaster! We were alongside with a too short line around the bollard on our port side and the swell was heaving us up a down. Blinking pandemonium! a bent cleat and an unsatisfactory situation all round. Not a great end to what had otherwise been a reasonable day. Rob went to the office to check us in and didn’t check throughly our eventual berth, so we didn’t know which side to put out the fenders and with the wind gusting hard and getting dark crew moral plummeted. How could we be prepared without the information? The guys knew that it would be necessary to put fenders high on one side and low on the other depending on our berth. Eddie handed Rob the helm disheartened after his day as Skipper. That evening after Rob had gone home we had homework set. I was to do the passage plan for the following day from Europa Point, right on the tip of Gibraltar up to Marbella. Robin to do the pilotage plan to get us out of Alcaidesa and past Europa Point and Dan to do pilotage plans for our destination and for a refuge port along the way. It was a late night after putting the boat to bed and preparing a meal our planning took us past midnight. A crew chat and we decided to start the next day fresh, put the berthing incident aside and with the words ‘benefit of the doubt’ and ‘see how tomorrow goes’, we made sure our planning was spot on and wanted to get it double checked the next day before we set off. The weather next day was forecast with even more severe high winds, strong gusts and a gale on the way. The weather looked better to the East so it was decided that we would head to Marbella as planned and potentially cut short if necessary, keeping a close eye on the weather as we went. We slipped lines and I was designated Skipper for the day and initially on the helm, which was cool. I acknowledged my lack of experience and asked for help as I was unfamiliar with the effects of the wind and tides around Europa Point. The guys had said that their previous instructor told them to stay well off the point as the wind can do strange things, vortex and gust in very unpredictable ways. With the strong gusting winds that we were experiencing that was the plan we had agreed, until yet again at the last minute Rob over ruled and told us to put in a tack, go inside an anchored container ship and we took a course in close. Around Europa Point we went straight into the vortex, WOW, it was exciting and terrifying all at once. After battling for about 20 minutes, with the third reef in the main we realised it was nuts and getting more so. Constantly easing the main to depower it and heeling threateningly we decided to lower the main completely and sail using just the jib reefed to its maximum. It was a rollercoaster of a sail up to our refuge port Estapona. There was no way we could make it up to Marbella in those conditions safely. That is what this course was all about safety and making the correct decisions for your crew and boat and also looking forward to the weather forecast for the next day. The wind was still building with a absolute hooly forecast for Friday and we needed to be back in our home marina of Gibraltar. That evening a similar talk occurred, ‘what were we doing taking the route so close to the point? Why was our passage plan overruled at the last minute?’ As a crew we were feeling disheartened. Taking the positive, we had proved the boat wasn’t such a caravan on water but sailed safely through the challenging conditions, it bonded us as a team who worked well together but alienated Rob still further. It did give me especially the chance to test my Navigation skills and plot our positions along the way and put all that theory into practice, even though the passage plan wasn’t totally adhered to we learnt some valuable boat handling skills that day. Another early night for me, I was exhausted and knew that the next day was going to be just as challenging. Eddie was in charge of the passage plan to Ceuta in Morocco and I was doing pilotage plans for arrival there and Dan doing pilotage for departure. Robin was to be our Skipper to get us across the TSS, traffic separation scheme, which is effectively the highway for the large tankers, cruise ships and container ships in and out of the Mediterranean . We needed to make a swift crossing at right angles and make sure we kept a good lookout. Eddie needed to take the tides into consideration and ensure we had a course to steer to get us across the straights. The idea then was to get up super early on Thursday and make the dash back to Gibraltar in the dark, with the wind and be home well before the major storm hit on Friday.
It was a good decision and after our previous day battling around the point this way was a good route. We had a battle with the winds and tides and we were prepared, Robin as Skipper filled us all with his enthusiasm and energy. A bit of a boy racer he wanted to go faster and faster. He will make a great sailor, he learns fast and puts what he has learnt into practice, with more experience he will be fantastic. Ceuta, my first time in Morocco and the first thing I saw was a huge pile of confiscated refugee and drug running boats on the end of the quay. Rubbish floating and murky oily water it was very different than on the other side of the straight. We were leaving at 6am so there would be no time to explore. After doing the pilotage plan for departure in the dark and a course to steer for our passage in the morning it was another early night for me. Robin and I pooled resources ie our brains to pull off a perfect course to steer, using all our learning and plotting hourly tidal vectors for our estimated 3 hour sprint home. Dan was to be our Skipper and he took the helm to slip out of Ceuta in the dark, we had a quick coffee and planned a big hearty breakfast on the other side. It was fantastic, a great fast sail, using all the watch methods at our disposal, those big container ships move fast and it was a great experience identifying the lights, using the handheld compass and backing all that up with the electronics down below. Dan feels the motion and was puking all the way home but still skippered on. With Eddie our best helm taking us most of the way back, Robin our whizz on the electronics bobbing up and down the companionway to keep on checking and me with the handheld compass taking bearings as we went. It was perfect and the sunrise with some angry clouds brewing was fantastic. Back to Gib for a huge breakfast and a plan to get out again in the bay to do some anchoring, mooring buoys and manoeuvres before back to the safety of the marina early and battening down the hatches for the storm to pass.
The weather was biblical that night, as was our drinking! I joined the guys in The Hendrix for happy hour, we were alive!! We had battled around Europa Point, crossed the channel and back again in difficult conditions. With definitely no sailing the next day and the end of dry January in sight it was time to let my hair down. Oh dear, it was messy but all’s well that ends well we bonded, regaled each other with our tales of adventure and huge winds. Thankfully Rob joined us for a pint or two and we were able to share our worries and concerns about how the week had panned out. The guys who still need to work with him for the rest of their course made their peace and acknowledged the need to communicate their concerns much sooner rather that let them build up and start bad feelings. A really good lesson for me too on the Clipper Race we will have months at sea together with no getting away from each other. Niggles and concerns MUST be dealt with early other wise unrest can build and spread like wild fire in a tired and unhappy crew. I saw how lack of confidence in a Skipper can, over just a few days, turn a happy bonded team into a miserable pack of individuals.
I still had one more day of training to complete and All Abroad put on an extra day on Saturday for me to compete the balance of my course that I couldn’t complete on Hangover Day, I mean Friday. So a new team for the day, an experienced crew Michale, Chris and Mat who were taking their final assessment the following week. A day with me was good for them to get in some extra practice and a new Skipper Lee. He was very different from Rob, very descriptive and he put me through my final paces, the last bit of the course and the bit I was most worried about. Close quarters manoeuvres in and around the marina, berthing alongside, using springs to leave and reverse berthing, picking up mooring buoys under sail and generally driving about not bumping into expensive stuff in the marina, where all eyes are watching. Lee was perfect for the task, making me feel at ease and his straight forward teaching style was clear and concise .His constant use of diagrams and visuals made the bit I was fearing most thoroughly enjoyable. At the end of the day, I passed, proud and tired I packed up my bag and walked across the border into Spain, to the hotel room I had booked for the night. After a delicious, grilled fish and salad, a chat with Lee and his wife Kirsty in the marina bar and it was back to the hotel for a sleep on a real bed as wide as it was long. Lee and Kirsty are a fabulous couple, they have sold up in the UK and now live on their boat. Follow their blog www.wetbums.com and watch their slow but steady journey around the oceans. A perfect life, a few months here and a few a months there.
Thank you everyone who made this week so eventful and interesting.
Robin, Dan and Eddie….. you guys learnt more than you think!
Rob(in) who’s teaching style might not suit everyone, but who pulled the cat out of the bag on the final sail home from Ceuta.
Lee and the rest of the team at All Abroad who enabled me to have a varied week and taught me the skills I needed to complete my Day Skipper practical whilst enabling me to put the Yachtmaster theory skills I learnt into practice.
Nearly home now, I have been writing this on the plane back to Manchester, back to the snow and Darren. I have really missed him this week.