Purchasing a yacht is one thing, actually getting to grips with the minutiae of sailing is quite another, as Monty Halls discovered during a Day Skipper course

Now, before you horny-palmed ocean conquerors give a rum-laden snort of derision, I’ve just emerged triumphant from my Day Skipper test. Let me be the first to point out that I found it moderately cheeky. There’s no substitute for decades of experience, and – as it turns out – no way can it be faked, cuffed, or ad-libbed.

One puff of a decent breeze, and all of your failings are brutally exposed as someone shouts, ‘Quick, sweat the topping lift.’ In this situation you have a few clear choices. These are: immediately punch whoever says it, fake seasickness, jump overboard, or stand there with your mouth open. I chose the latter, and, as such, our splendid instructor Simon quickly spotted that there was a bit of work to do. In fact, the course started at 0900 on Monday, and by 0903 he was already giving me the side eye.

But here’s the joy of the course. You just do stuff over and over again. And by stuff I mean coming alongside, stemming buoys, tacking (good), gybing (bad), anchoring, and – most important of all – sailing from place to place.

There’s also an energising session of close-quarter manoeuvring in the marina. As the vessel in closest proximity to us was a superyacht, this created a perfect storm of white knuckles, glazed expressions, and vigorous over-revving.

When you’re drifting elegantly towards an object that is worth millions and is possibly owned by someone dodgy whose ‘team’ may already have you in the crosshairs, then it’s amazing how shrill your commands become.

The presence of a crewmember with a lone, roving fender seems somehow inadequate, particularly as any significant connection will result in re-mortgaging the house (if you’re lucky) or waking up with an equine bonce in your bed (if you’re not). Anyway, we all survived even if the pistons on the yacht’s engine may not have.

Monty Halls at the helm

There were many stand-out individual moments on the course, but one overarching impression. Getting the sails up is one thing, but sailing is quite another. The nuances of understanding the wind properly, of sailing close to the breeze, of suddenly – bafflingly for me – losing way because you’ve strayed a few degrees off an optimum course, that is the real art of it all.

A tweak here, a turn of a winch there, a little slack, a squint up the mast, some lower lip chewing, and the milking that extra half a knot – that was what defined the experienced sailors (everyone else) from the muppets (me). But to understand such nuances there really is no substitute for doing lots and lots of sailing, so now I have the perfect excuse. Although – and this may border on the heretical – is the extra half a knot really that important I wonder?

On that very note the Sail GP event was on in Plymouth during our course. If you look at the television coverage, you’ll see the global elite battling it out, shrieking along in featherlight vessels that are a tribute to man’s ability to harness the wind. Their skill is a monument to teamwork and years of training on the very edge of human ability. And in the background you’ll just be able to make out a white yacht crashing into a buoy repeatedly at one knot, with all the crew shouting at each other and waving their arms around as someone tries to get a line round it. That’s us.

I’ll finish with a nice wee tale if I may. There were only three of us on the course, and whilst chatting to one of my fellow aspiring skippers (a ninja dinghy man as it turned out) he revealed that during the course of his work as a respiratory consultant he’d had to insert a breathing tube into a truly broken and battered cyclist only a month before. A cyclist who just happens to be one of my great friends. Amazing who you meet on a sailing boat.

Monty Halls is a former Royal Marine, a marine biologist, and an expedition leader. He has organised numerous conservation and filming projects globally but none of them under sail. It is a situation he is keen to rectify with his Colvic 34. He lives in Dartmouth with his wife Tam, and his two young daughters Isla and Molly. All are deeply suspicious of his new venture.

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