December 28th, 2007 | 10:09 am

Passions: Sailing the High Seas

filed under Passions

193636096_1f34d7a78d_m.jpgThe idea of taking to the high seas never really occurred to me before. I’m not the kind of person who likes being cold and wet, for one. Sailing just didn’t really push my ‘I want to try that’ button. I had a head filled with misconceptions about what it was really like, with no reason to challenge them until recently.

Life has a habit of throwing the unexpected my way, however, so when my husband developed a sudden and irrational longing to pursue yachting, I sighed. Why doesn’t he have a yearning to lie by a sun-drenched pool with an exotic drink and a stack of books? Still, if he’s going to have a mid-life crisis, I suppose I’d rather be there for him (lest he run out and buy a sports car while I’m not looking). So, with a quaking heart, I signed up with him for a five-day ‘Competent Crew’ course in the Mediterranean.

Turns out, we had a ball. Yes, there were scary moments. Like when we were in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in Morocco, and I was manning the helm and came out of the lee of a large rock and hit a force seven wind with all sails up. The boat heeled over to a 45 degree angle, I yelped and struggled to keep our course as the churning sea rushed up over the stanchion rails and we were tossed around like a cork in a washing machine. We graduated from that watery baptism without mishap, only to encounter an even stronger wind, with a tidal tug around Europa Point on Gibraltar, but more of that later.

The big thing about yachting is that it all happens in a foreign language. You don’t have ropes to pull the sails up and down, you have sheets and shrouds and halyards and lanyards, and you tie these various thingies around winches and jamming cleats using a series of highly specialized knots (hitches, sheet bends, bowlines) and heaven forbid you confuse your headsail sheet from your spinnaker or mainsail. You count speed in knots, both yours and the wind, and a compass becomes your new best friend. No more left or right, front or back. Start thinking about port, starboard, forward, aft and stern. Challenged the little grey cells, believe me.

In the past, my impressions of seafarers tended to the romantic – scrappy old sea dogs with a pipe clenched between their teeth and far-seeing blue eyes scanning the horizon, sitting in a harbor and telling tall tales. The truth is very different. Our crew consisted of me and my other half (both forty-something novices), a youngish brand manager guy, a woman who runs a building society branch and an eighteen year old boy known as Sleepy Al. Our teacher was Clive, a yachtmaster instructor who displayed infinite patience with a gorgeous leavening of wicked wit. We laughed our way through five days, and learned a huge amount as we sailed to Spain and Morocco, and back to Gibraltar. Hearing a different language in every port enhanced our experience of life in other cultures.

Of our crew, two of the six were women, which I suspect is pretty representative of the gender split in sailing generally. It’s not so much a macho sport as one where women can flourish if they want to. Over here in the UK, we have Dame Ellen MacArthur to fly the female flag, a solo world-circumnavigating yachtswoman who has done wonders for introducing the sport to women, demystifying the Heroic Sailor myth that it’s only men who can conquer the ocean waves.

The best part of the experience came in some of the wildest seas, when I was feeling a long way from my comfort zone. We spotted dolphins! These Labradors of the sea frolic and surf the bow wave, diving out of the water, criss-crossing the boat to catch your attention. You can’t be scared when you are laughing at a dolphin, after all. They’re a complete lesson in joyfulness, and made the sailing experience one that I will always treasure.

In case you are put off by the potential expense of the sport, you don’t have to own a boat to sail. Now that my husband and I have our Competent Crew certificates, we are an attractive proposition for any sailor needing competent hands on deck for a voyage, especially with me doubling up as galley cook (it’s an interesting exercise in itself, producing six mugs of soup in heavy seas on a stove which rolls around). I will be more inclined to opt for gentle cruises in the Ionian or Caribbean seas, to soak up sun and experience new pastures and harbors, but if you’re very keen, you can take courses up to the level of Ocean Yachtmaster, and get into the whole racing yacht business.

I might content myself with taking the next one or two courses (Day Skipper and Coastal Skipper), but the man in my life wants to go hog-wild and earn the yachtmaster qualification. I have told him that I’ll cross the Atlantic as crew only if he promises that sun-baked pool and pile of books waiting for me when we get to the other side.

I’m very proud of my new Competent Crew qualification – apparently it’s rather unusual to achieve this in the Straits of Gibraltar in a Force eight gale, at Europa Point, which even our instructor described as “a bit bouncy.” Hearty thanks goes to Hot Liquid Sailing School for teaching us so well we did it without breaking a sweat.

From a corporate or business development perspective, sailing together is probably one of the best ways to learn how to work as a team. If everyone learns to do his or her job properly and carefully, you will sail your boat beautifully, which is of course a lovely allegory for how it should work in the office, but seldom does.

When sailing, your comfort and safety are totally dependent on you and, inextricably, your crew. You will learn valuable lessons about your crewmembers and, perhaps more importantly, about yourself. A short sailing course is a terrific off-site training ground for effective teamwork. If you sign up for the watery, wet and windy option if and when a team-building exercise is suggested, I promise you won’t regret it.

Next stop for me: a bare-boat charter and some more lessons.

2 comments

  1. OneDesignTalk.com

    great post. you aren’t the only one.

  2. Niki

    Sailing is a great sport for women! There are many owners who need crew, so get out there and enjoy the bliss of peace on the waves. Every day is a challenge, as weather, wind, and tide give us something new to think about. And children love it too. Fair winds.