A Bear in a Boat: RYA Level One beginner’s sailing course

See the barge behind me? That's the one.
See the barge behind me? That’s the one.

My latest adventure was a RYA Level 1 course – that is, a sailing course for an absolute beginner and this time I really am an absolute beginner.

I finished my climbing course on Friday night and first thing on Saturday morning, I was heading down to the harbour. I’ve lived within half an hour’s drive of this harbour for my entire life and I’ve been saying for years that it’s terrible that I’ve never done any sailing. I had a friend at school who was at least a third generation sailor and he took us out on his/his parents’/his grandparents’ boat in the summer, where I learnt “pull this rope when I say ‘now’ and duck so that boom doesn’t hit you.” It meant I knew the names of a surprising number of parts of the boat (it took me by surprise; I genuinely didn’t know that I knew the name of the painter) but it didn’t mean that I knew anything at all about sailing.

As I’d suspected, it was one sailor, one instructor, one boat. My instructor was an eighteen-year-old girl called Dominique and my boat was a Wayfarer dinghy, fifteen feet long, a bit big and heavy for the two of us to haul between the centre and the water but reasonably stable on the water. I’d been expecting a tiny little thing like a bathtub with a matchstick mast but Wayfarers are pretty big – the biggest dinghies the centre had, anyway.

Now, Dom was great – only eighteen and we’re sailing around the harbour and she’s responsible for teaching me and not letting me die and she obviously knows a lot about sailing and is a very able teacher – but she’s only eighteen. We talked a lot – you can only say things like “take the sail in now”, “pull the steering towards you”, “ok, turn now”, “let’s have a look at the back of the lovely pontoon now!” etc for so long and I was totally taken by surprised when she casually asked “How did you do in your GCSEs?” Pretty well, actually, but it’s been a very long time since anyone asked me that.

On day one, on Saturday, wind was around force four, so we reefed the sail, I showed that I knew the reef knot and discovered that this precise use is where it gets its name from and we sailed backwards and forwards on a beam reach between a pontoon and a particular buoy. I crewed for the first few lengths and then I was given the helm and once I’d realised that I don’t move until the boom moved, I got on ok with it – with tacking, as it turned out to be. I had a vague idea of what tacking was but I didn’t realise that’s what we’d been doing. Over time, I got used to the idea that the boat leans a bit away from the wind and made fewer small noises of alarm.

We carried on with that after lunch, only in a slightly different location because the tide went out and the harbour is spectacularly shallow at low tide. International shipping goes in and out of this harbour and it averages three metres deep. I’m going to assume that as it’s so shallow it’s a sea of mud down our end, it must be much deeper in other places to make that average. We scraped the bottom of the boat on the seabed a few times and had to pull up our centreboard in a hurry and try to swing round as Dom had no desire to get out of the boat to unground us.

On Sunday – today (as I write this, I’m still salty and smelly and planning a bath soon) – there was no wind so we spent the morning inside doing theory. The trouble was that we’d covered a bit of it last thing yesterday and revising it and learning the new stuff took about fifteen minutes, so we got the boat out and did some land drills in which I practised gybing while Dom played the part of the wind and swung the boom over my head and then had a look at some of the Level Two theory and then, since there was still no wind I sat outside for half an hour with the Beginner’s Handbook. Actually, it was helpful. I learnt a few of the proper words for things I’d seen or experienced, I looked at diagrams, I learnt the points of sale (but that goes to pieces when I’m on the sea because the wind doesn’t come with a helpful big red arrow to show me where it’s coming from) and as soon as the wind started to pick up even a little bit, we rigged the boat and got back out there.

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Dom showed me how to rig yesterday and I’d got enough of it to be able to help today. We were towed out to the pontoon by our safety boat, who was also delivering a masthead float to a pair who’d forgotten theirs, and then we hoisted the sail and went off to practise the gybe on the water – no problem when planned and ok when not planned as long as you duck in time. Possibly more of a problem when there’s more wind. I tried to count how many times we gybed but then the boat kept making us do it unscheduled and I lost count. Anyway, one on-the-water gybe was all I needed to complete the practical assessment and we did lots.

We also ran into a barge. The MOD keep a few massive barges chained up on the water and we were sailing around them, no problem, until the boat started drifting towards them and although I pulled the tiller as far as I could, we just kept getting closer. We hit. We bumped. We pushed off as best we could and just kept bumping along the side of it and then the tide pushed us around the end of it, Dom pulled the centreboard up quick as lightning and we had no choice whatsoever but to try and cross its massive anchor lines, in which we succeeded. The safety boat came flying up as we pulled ourselves across ropes as thick as my arms but we assured them we were fine and the barge was fine and we’d just wanted to have a good close look at it all. We kept a very good distance from the barge from then on it case the tide decided to arrange another close look.

As the tide was against us and then wind behind us and we had to stick to the channel because of the shallow water, we went in reasonably early, gybed our way over to the channel and then drifted down at walking pace. There were quite a few of us all landing at once so we borrowed three big strong men to help us haul our big heavy Wayfarer up the slipway and then we dragged it back to the centre a few short feet at a time. Wikipedia says those things have a hull weight of 169kg, plus all the other stuff, plus the water that’s caught in it (when we took the bungs out on Saturday, water poured out for at least five minutes as if we’d turned on taps and although we couldn’t get the bungs out today to empty it, there was probably at least as much in there again) it must weigh nearly twice that. Even on a trailer, no wonder we struggled with it.

Once it was out and everything was tidied up, folded away etc, I got changed, hung up my salopettes to dry, put my jacket (lovely, lovely, waterproof hoodie-thing – I want one!) and buoyancy aid back in the store and then went to meet Dom in the office as ordered, to be presented with my certificate. I have completed Level One and can now go on to Level Two if I wish. That can’t be until April now, so we’ll see how I feel in six months’ time.

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