When Covid scuppers Josh Lindley’s gap year, he takes on a demanding 5-month sailing course instead to qualify as a skipper
When I was 14 I attended an open day at a small sailing club in Cookham village on the river Thames. I was hooked the minute I got on a boat, and soon became a member of Cookham Reach Sailing Club (CRSC).
I progressed to racing 12ft dinghies and brought home many trophies, which encouraged me to get my dinghy instructor qualification when I turned 16 and teach cadets at CRSC.
After my A levels I planned to travel around Asia. However, because of the Covid pandemic, I couldn’t go. Instead, with financial help from my grandparents, I embarked on a five-month fast-track RYA Yachtmaster course with the British Offshore Sailing School (BOSS).
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I passed my RYA Yachtmaster Offshore exam in December 2020 and had the qualification commercially endorsed. I am now qualified to skipper a commercial sailing vessel of up to 200 gross tonnes up to 150 miles offshore – that’s not to say that the owner of a £3m luxury superyacht would trust a 20-year-old lad to drive it. But technically I can!
The Yachtmaster course begins
The course started on the 02 August in Southampton where we were based in Point Hamble marina. There I met the other Yachtmaster trainees: Joe who was 17 and had never stepped foot on a boat; and Peter, 20, a school friend of mine and avid dinghy sailor.
Because of the Covid situation all Yachtmaster trainees had to maintain a bubble for the duration of the course as part of the measures put in place by the school to ensure compliance with Covid restrictions. This meant that we couldn’t have contact with anyone else, with the exception of a few weekend visits back home and an occasional change of instructor.
All of our training was done on Sigma 38s, owned by BOSS. These were built around 1980 and each one had a slightly different set of faults, from toilet plumbing to engine malfunctions. That said, they were fantastic boats to sail, being perfectly balanced on the helm when heeled over and seemingly faster than other similar sized boats in the Solent.
This was a bonus when mile building, especially when we had to accumulate at least 2,500 nautical miles of seatime in order to meet the prerequisites for the exam! After we became familiar with the basics, such as tacking, reefing, sail trim and sail choice, we could average 7 knots for the duration of a 60-mile passage quite easily.
Up until October the weather was perfect, sometimes with three or four days of 20-degree sunshine. The water was still warm and we took every opportunity to go swimming when we were stopped, with no need for wetsuits. In Poole harbour, we were able to swim to a nearby beach but in Langstone harbour in Hampshire we had to hold on to a safety line to stop the strong ebb tide taking us away from the anchorage.
Although it was great fun, we accepted we’d be going to bed salty as there wasn’t enough water onboard for a shower. Hot showers were one of the home comforts I missed whilst living on the boat 24 hours a day. I also missed sleeping in a normal bed, having a fridge as opposed to a smelly coolbox and having my own space as we were very much living on top of each other.
Seasickness and gales
As the months went on we said goodbye to sunsets and dolphins and a miserable hello to sea sickness, gale force winds and freezing temperatures. For me, the most challenging part came at the end of an 18-day cruise around the southeast coast, when we encountered a storm going up the Medway.
With the sails up and the engine on full whack, we were hardly moving against 55-knot winds and the strength of the tide. The rain droplets hit so hard they felt like gun pellets, making it almost impossible to keep our eyes open. During this time we’d been taking watches day and night which, combined with the cold, was exhausting. In spite of this, we knew how important it was to stay alert on watch, having become entangled in a lobster pot a few days earlier off Dover.
These conditions, combined with a heavy dose of seasickness, made me question why I was there; the reality was far from my dreams of sailing in the warmth of the Caribbean Sea. However, the experience made arriving at the safety of a marina even more rewarding. We could enjoy a meal and a night’s rest from the elements, ready to face the next day more refreshed.
Although the course was mainly practical-based it was also very demanding in terms of theory. We learnt everything from domestic skills such as meal planning and water management (ie don’t eat all the food on Day One!) to passage planning, collision regulations, tidal calculations, meteorology and traditional navigation, along with more modern forms.
I found this difficult at first as it was very mathematical. We learned equations and techniques to calculate tidal heights and courses to steer. As we gained experience we found that being accurate with these calculations was critical in our planning. For example, if we were even half a metre out with the tidal height, we could risk running aground – especially in places that were already shallow to enter such as the Beaulieu river and Newtown creek.
As for traditional navigation, if you were following a course that was just 1 degree wrong you might be a mile away from where you wanted to be after an hour, which is not what you want if you’re expecting bad weather!
Soon I was able to navigate blindly from below decks during a simulated fog exercise where I kept track of our speed, depth, course and time to relate our position actual position to a position on the chart, although this could be very disorientating at times.
The final yachtmaster exam
The RYA Yachtmaster exam consisted of two days where we sailed from 9am until midnight, during which I was very nervous as it was the culmination of the last four and a half months training. Our examiner gave us tasks which would range from random man overboard drills (MOBs), presenting planned passages or putting us in fog scenarios. I was asked to sail the boat up Beaulieu river in the dark!
This was challenging as the wind was light and the channel was narrow, containing unlit channel marks which were only visible when they became a bit too close for comfort. Despite this I put everything I had learned on the course into practice and was delighted to pass. It was sad to leave the boat and others I’d met, but also great to come home to relax and see my family.
My next challenge is to find a job in the yachting industry where I’d love to work. So far this hasn’t proven easy because of the travel restrictions due to the pandemic, but I am hopeful that there will be many opportunities in the future.
Find out more
To find out more about professional courses, exams and commercial endorsements visit: rya.org.uk/training
For more information about RYA Yachtmaster pick up a copy of G70 RYA Yachtmaster Handbook from the RYA webshop.
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This feature appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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