Katy Stickland joined an RYA Competent Crew course to find out why instruction can make life as a sailing couple more enjoyable

Why an RYA Competent Crew course can put you on course for cruise harmony

Be honest. How confident do you feel in your crew?

How many of you have thought your sailing partner could benefit from more training? Perhaps you have tried teaching them yourself, only to find it didn’t go according to plan.

Maybe you started together but now one of you sails more than the other, resulting in you always taking the lead, skippering and making decisions, while the other in the partnership crews and defers to your judgment.

While this might work for some, for others it can leave little room for confidence building, resulting in them feeling unsure about taking to the water and even wondering why they should sail with you at all.

Worse, it could result in the ugly scene that we have all probably witnessed – a skipper frustrated with a crew member, berating them publicly.

A crew sitting on the deck of a Dufour

Most sailors in the UK take to the water fewer than a mere five times a year. Credit: Andrew Sydenham

The majority of people who sail in the UK take to the water between one and five times a year. These individuals represent three times the number of people who sail regularly. It is clear that if sailing is to grow as a sport then these types of sailors need to be encouraged and not dismissed.

I have never done any formal sail training, and like many before me, I have relied on my more experienced husband, John, who has ocean crossings and more than 30,000 sailing miles under his belt, to teach me.

This, to be honest, has not always been the smoothest of learning experiences, with the occasional cross word from both parties.

If I ever wanted to feel more confident about sailing then it was time to take control and look for an alternative teacher. John was 100% behind me in this, as ultimately, a more confident crew would make his life easier and make any future cruise as a couple a much more enjoyable experience.

With all of this in mind, I arrived at Universal Yachting at Mercury Yacht Harbour on the Hamble to join an RYA Competent Crew course.

With blue sky and the sun shining down, I met up with Chris Warwick and, once all of the paperwork was completed, he took me down to the pontoon to meet the rest of the participants who were already on board the Dufour 365, Anhinga.

Expert guidance

Our instructor for the next five days was Clive Vaughan – a veteran of the 1981-82 Whitbread Round the World Race and the 1979 Fastnet. He introduced me to Dominic, who was also doing a Competent Crew, and Paul, who was planning to complete his Coastal Skipper ahead of a family charter holiday in the Adriatic Sea.

Having said our hellos, brought all of our sailing gear on board and had a thorough briefing on living on board Anhinga for the next five nights, it was time to head to the local hostelry for a chance to get to know each other.

Chatting over a pint, Dominic revealed he had sailed as a child, but had done little since. Along with a friend, he was planning to buy a 50% share of a boat to cruise the UK and Europe with their partners. Dominic was already looking to step up to Day Skipper.

A dufour yacht on the solent

Courses can help sharpen skills, especially if you are not sailing regularly. Credit: Andrew Sydenham

Paul had mainly skippered boats during family charter holidays. His wife and children had already done a Competent Crew course, which had given them and Paul confidence afloat.

As for me, I had not done much sailing since returning from the Caribbean several years ago, where John and I had lived on his Sparkman and Stephens 34, and jointly run our marine services business for five years before the lure of home finally saw us sell up and return to the UK.

The promise of fair weather sailing to ease us back in disappeared quickly the following morning, with rain and a Force 6-7 forecast.

To beat the worst of the weather, we left early. After a thorough briefing from Clive, Dominic and I helped put in a third reef into the main sail before we each prepared the bow and stern lines so they were ready to slip.

With everyone on board, Paul issued his instructions and we pulled the lines in before motoring from the pontoon and out into the Hamble river. It wasn’t the smoothest of starts but that was surely why we were on this course – in order to brush off our sailing cobwebs.

Continues below…

It was great to be out on the water again, despite the traditional UK summer weather.

Keeping to port, Anhinga made her way to the river mouth and out into the Solent, where the Force 7, now gusting Force 8, meant we got a bit of a soaking while sailing to the shelter of Osborne Bay on the Isle of Wight.

Here, Clive talked us through the technique for anchoring, and assigned us our roles, with Paul at the helm. Once the hook was secure, and the anchor ball tied onto the rigging, it was time to go down below for lunch.

A quick check on the web to get the latest weather updates meant it was time to weigh anchor. Again, Clive gave clear and concise instructions, and took Dominic and I up to the bow to give us a detailed demonstration of the best techniques to use to lift the anchor (thankfully we had an electronic windlass: I have previously been used to hauling up the anchor using my own brute strength) and communicate with Paul at the helm.

Using a winch

The RYA Competent Crew course is five days. Credit: Andrew Sydenham

Underway, we hugged the coast of the Isle of Wight to give us the best shelter before tacking hastily towards Portsmouth.

Once in the Small Boat Channel, we motored until we saw the Mary Mouse, Haslar Marina’s well-known large green lightship, to port.

Clive called the marina to be allocated a berth before directing us to prepare lines, tie on plenty of fenders ahead of Paul maneuvering Anhinga into her berth.

I stepped ashore first, line in hand, and made a turn on the cleat nearest the bow, while Dominic did the same with the stern line.

Once alongside, we secured the lines and set up a bow and stern spring and tied off more fenders to protect the yacht against the surge, which was pushing us towards the pontoon.

A look at the weather forecast confirmed that we would not be going sailing for at least 24 hours.

This did, however, leave plenty of time for theory, such as points of sail and rules of the road.

It also allowed us to tie knots, my own particular demon which had often resulted in marital disharmony when, under pressure, I struggled to tie a bowline at speed. Thankfully, with Clive’s simple steps, I was tying bowlines with certainty in no time.

Building confidence

The next three days saw me increase in confidence as we sailed up and down the Solent visiting Cowes, Yarmouth and the Beaulieu River.

The Force 3-4 and blue skies meant hours of fun and enjoyable sailing. Dominic and I got plenty of practice helming, gybing and tacking, securing lines after coming alongside and picking up mooring buoys, either by lassoing or using a boat hook.

Both of us also got a chance to helm during our night sail from Hamble to Cowes, and learned the finer points of man overboard drills.

A group of sailors sitting in the cockpit of a Dufour 365

There is no minimum age or ability required to take part in a Competent Crew course. Credit: Andrew Sydenham

This, for me, was one of the highlights, having previously only practised as a crew member. When you sail as a couple, coping with a man overboard situation does weigh on your mind. Would you be up to it? We all successfully recovered the ‘man’ during our exercises.

Having a clear understanding of what you need to do certainly made me feel more reassured about doing it for real, although more practice would certainly be required to make me 100% happy.

I found learning without John really quite liberating, and feel much more confident about going sailing as a couple again. It had been a while since I had done more than the odd day sail, so five days of cruising allowed me to relearn skills that had grown rusty and rediscover why sailing really is such a wonderful pastime.

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