17 essential tips for your RYA Competent Crew sailing course
Mike and I have just completed our RYA Competent Crew sailing course. Here are 17 things I was glad that I knew – or wish I had known before we set off
1. Take plenty of warm clothes – and waterproofs if they are not provided
We were lucky not to have any rain, but I did wear waterproofs sometimes to stay warm. We sailed in mild summer weather, but there is a lot of windchill when sailing into the wind, especially at night. Sailing involves a lot of sitting doing nothing, followed by a flurry of activity when something needs doing. I thought it would be a bit wussy to wear my thermals when it was barely even September. My blue hands and white feet told me that maybe I should have done!
2. Use plenty of sun cream
The UV reflects off the water, so you get a bigger dose than normal. I chose not to put any on when it was cloudy – and have rather a red nose to show for it!
Please be careful - some underwater plants have been found with a coating of suncream, which essentially kills them because they can’t photosynthesize. Please use an ocean-friendly variety.
3. Check what kit you need
We were sailing on a modern boat with a white deck, which meant that we needed to wear shoes with non-marking soles. We splashed out on new boat shoes just to make sure we had the right kit, but as it happens, my white-soled trainers would probably have done the job just as well and been more comfortable. Ho hum…
4. Be prepared for spartan conditions
On a small yacht, there is, of course, a limited amount of space. That includes space for water, so you may be encouraged to take water-saving measures – like not showering and washing up in as little water as possible.
You might find that your yacht has a ‘marine toilet’ like ours, which discharges straight into the sea. If it does, you will not be able to flush toilet paper down it. I had to steel myself to put dirty toilet paper into a bag with other people’s, and in fact, my system became rather shy for the first few days!
5. Be prepared to have little space or privacy
Only pack what you need and use a squishy holdall. There is little soundproofing on a boat, so you may not be able to hold any private conversations. Most of us could at least retreat into our cabins when we needed a bit of time away from the group, but one of our crew was sleeping in the dining area, so he couldn’t even do that.
6. Try out your life jacket and understand ‘man overboard’ procedures
I don’t mean by jumping in the sea to check it inflates and see what everyone does, but enough to understand what is going to happen if you hit the water. Our lifejackets would inflate and hold us face up. They also had clear hoods to pull over your face to stop yourself from being splashed as much. It took a while to work out how to pull the hood over my face – it’s worth having a go when you’re safe and warm, rather than struggling with it after falling out of the boat!
If you’re on a Competent Crew course, you will cover man overboard procedures. If you’re not, I recommend asking the skipper what they are. I was surprised to find that you should just float, not swim, and that the crew will not try to pick you out of the water the first time the boat passes you. They will throw you some buoyancy and visibility kit, then come back for you. Please check the plans on your boat BEFORE you need to put them into practice!
7. Boats can be noisy at night
Our bed was on a wooden platform that squeaked loudly every time one of us moved – even bending or straightening a leg! We barely slept at all on the first night. That might be unusual, but all yachts have a mast with ropes that might knock against it and other things that will move a bit in the wind or with the movement of the waves. You can minimize this by listening to the boat before heading to bed and tightening any loose ropes that are knocking. Attaching a rope to the anchor and taking the tension off the winch can also help to reduce anchor noise during the night.
Having said all of that, the boat will still make some noise, as will your fellow sailors. I recommend taking earplugs if you are a light sleeper.
8. Try to understand knots rather than just tying them
When we were taught how to tie knots, I found it useful to understand why each is used for a particular purpose. For example, a reef knot used to be used to reef the sails. It holds firm under tension but is easy to remove by pulling, rather than having to untie it. It’s not wise to use it when the tension might be eased, as it has a habit of loosening off or coming undone in those circumstances. I think that having this basic understanding of each knot will help me to choose which one to use – rather than just being able to tie the knot I am asked to.
I also found it useful to understand how the construction of the knot felt in my hands. If you sail at night, you may well need to tie a knot by feel. Try closing your eyes and feeling the knot in your hands when you’re first learning. Does it help you as much as it did me?
9. Beware of hurting yourself!
To my eyes, sailing boats are a health and safety nightmare. There are ropes to trip over, winches to catch fingers (or whole hands) in, holes with the anchor chain in and very low barriers at the sides. And a boom that can knock you out and overboard simultaneously.
When under sail, the boat can tilt alarmingly – and then when you tack, it tilts the other way. It’s not easy to manoeuvre yourself – be prepared for some slips and bruises.
Having said that, please don’t panic! A lot of effort has clearly gone into making sure they are as safe as possible. For example, the gas is turned off when not in use, there are emergency escape hatches all over the place, and safety issues are covered early in the course.
10. Secure everything well
When the sails catch the wind and the boat heels over, anything not safely tucked away is likely to go flying. And if it’s on deck, obviously the wind can catch it too. Our skipper lost his hat – a great excuse to practise our man overboard procedure – and we broke a mug that flew across the galley. Luckily, it wasn't anything more valuable!
11. Take a couple of clothes pegs
The best place to dry things (on our boat, at least) was over the rails and wires on deck while the boat was stationary. If you have pegs with you, you can secure your towel and not worry about it ending up wetter than it started.
12. Take a head torch with a red beam
When sailing at night, you are not permitted to have any lights on onboard, except for your port, starboard and stern sailing lights, so it’s pretty dark. If you need to find your way around, using the red beam of your head torch will, allegedly, not ruin everyone else’s night vision in the same way that white light will. A headtorch could also be useful to find your way to the loo in the middle of the night if needed.
13. Pack a pair of binoculars
You are bound to see some wildlife when sailing, but it’s not always up close. It’s great to have a pair of binoculars to hand, but please do keep them well secured, per point 10. One morning when we were at anchor in a bay, we saw a couple of seals hauled out. We could see what they were with our naked eyes, but it was thrilling to be able to see their features more clearly with the binoculars.
14. Be aware that you might spend the whole course on the boat
We nipped into a supermarket one day and a pub on another, but could just as easily have spent the whole time on board. If you get seasick and your tablets don’t work, there may be no relief!
15. If you do get seasick, make sure you are downwind of everyone else
This may sound obvious, but doesn’t always pan out. If the sails are full and the boat is leaning, the downwind side is the side closest to the water. You don’t want to be the crew member apologizing for being sick on someone else – and you certainly don’t want to be that other person. Nuff said!
16. Leave your notebook behind
I can’t quite believe that I’m saying this – I’m a total fan of making notes about everything and usually carry a notebook with me. That said, this is an experiential course. At the beginning of the week, everything is new. By the end of the week, more of it is second nature. There’s always the book to refer back to if you forget anything.
17. Relax and enjoy yourself!
At the beginning of the week, I had to think about everything. I was exhausted from concentrating so hard all day, having to work everything out. The first time I took the wheel, I was terrified that I would mess up and sail straight into something, break the mast, or bring some other catastrophe down on us. Judging by some of the choice language used by my crew mates, they had the same fears when they took the helm.
Have faith! The tutor will not let that happen. By the end of the week, activities like steering and sheeting the sails (making them tight) were beginning to come naturally. There’s no way I would have turned my head and looked behind me like this while steering the first time I tried!
What do you wish you had known before learning to sail? Or what would you like to know? Tell me in the comments below.
I have created a YouTube video to illustrate some of these points and more – check it out on my YouTube channel here.
If learning to sail is on your bucket list, but something’s stopping you from taking the plunge, check out my book – Live Your Bucket List: Simple Steps to Ignite Your Dreams, Face Your Fears and Lead an Extraordinary Life, Starting Today. It includes chapters on identifying and smashing potential stumbling blocks, finding the time you need and finding the money you need to achieve your ambitions. Treat yourself to a copy today!
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