When Covid derails Josh Lindley’s gap year, he takes a demanding 5-month sailing course instead of qualifying as a skipper
When I was 14 I attended an open house at a small sailing club in the village of Cookham on the River Thames. I got hooked as soon as I got on a boat and quickly became a member of the Cookham Reach Sailing Club (CRSC).
I progressed in 12ft dinghy racing and won many trophies which encouraged me to get my dinghy instructor qualification at age 16 and teach cadets at CRSC .
After my high school diploma, I planned to travel to Asia. However, due to the Covid pandemic, I was unable to go. Instead, with financial help from my grandparents, I embarked on a five month RYA Yachtmaster crash course with the British Offshore Sailing School (BOSS).
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I passed my RYA Yachtmaster Offshore exam in December 2020 and the qualification has been commercially approved. I am now qualified to captain a commercial sailboat with a capacity of up to 200 gross tons up to 150 miles offshore – that doesn’t mean the owner of a Â£ 3million luxury superyacht would trust a 20 year old boy to drive it. But technically I can!
The Yachtmaster course begins
The course started on August 02 in Southampton where we were based in Point Hamble Marina. I met the other Yachtmaster trainees there: Joe who was 17 and had never set foot on a boat; and Peter, 20, a school friend and dinghy enthusiast.
Due to 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 the Covid restrictions. This meant that we couldn’t have contact with anyone else except for a few weekend visits to the house and an occasional change of instructor.
All of our training was carried out on Sigma 38s, owned by BOSS. These were built around 1980 and each had a slightly different set of flaws, from toilet plumbing to engine malfunctions. That said, they were fantastic boats to sail, perfectly balanced at the helm when tilted and apparently faster than other boats of similar size in the Solent.
This was a bonus when building miles, especially when you had to accumulate at least 2,500 nautical miles of sea time to meet the exam prerequisites! After familiarizing ourselves with the basics, such as tacking, reefing, trim and sails, we could quite easily average 7 knots for the duration of a 60 mile passage.
Until October, the weather was perfect, with sometimes three or four days of sun at 20 degrees. The water was still warm and we took every opportunity to go swimming when we were stopped, without the need for wetsuits. In Poole Harbor we were able to swim to a nearby beach, but in Langstone Harbor in Hampshire we had to hang on to a safety line to keep the strong ebb tide from pulling us away from the anchorage.
Although it was a lot of fun, we agreed to go to bed salty as there wasn’t enough water on board for a shower. Hot showers were one of the comforts of home that I missed when living on the ship 24 hours a day. I also missed sleeping in a normal bed, having a refrigerator rather than a smelly cooler and ‘have my own space because we lived on top of each other.
Seasickness and gusts of wind
As the months passed, we said goodbye to sunsets and dolphins and a miserable hello to seasickness, high winds and freezing temperatures. For me, the hardest part came at the end of an 18 day cruise around the South East Coast, when we encountered a storm on our way up the Medway.
With the sails up and the engine full, we were barely moving in the face of 55 knot winds and the force of the tide. The rain droplets hit so hard they looked like gun pellets, making it almost impossible to keep your eyes open. During this time, we had been making watches day and night, which, combined with the cold, was exhausting. Despite this, we knew how important it was to stay alert and watch, having become entangled in a lobster trap a few days earlier off Dover.
These conditions, combined with a strong dose of seasickness, made me wonder why I was there; the reality was far from my dreams of sailing in the heat of the Caribbean Sea. However, the experience made arriving safely at a marina even more rewarding. We could enjoy a meal and a night’s rest sheltered from the elements, ready to face the cooler next day.
Although the course was mainly practice-based, it was also very demanding in terms of theory. We learned everything from household skills like meal planning and water management (i.e. not eating all the food on day one!)
I found it difficult at first because it was very mathematical. We learned equations and techniques for calculating tidal heights and heading to follow. As we gained more experience, we found that the accuracy of these calculations was critical to our planning. For example, if we were even half a yard with the height of the tide, we could risk stranding – especially in places that are already shallow to enter like the Beaulieu River and Newtown Creek.
As for traditional boating, if you were following a course that was only 1 degree, you could be a mile from where you wanted to be after an hour, which is not what you want. you want if you expect bad weather!
Soon I was able to navigate blind from the lower decks in a fog simulation exercise where I kept track of our speed, depth, heading and time to connect our actual position to a position on the map, although this can be very confusing at times.
The yachtmaster final exam
The RYA Yachtmaster exam consisted of two days where we sailed from 9am to midnight, during which I was very nervous as it was the highlight of the last four and a half months of training. Our examiner gave us tasks ranging from random man-overboard (MOB) exercises, presenting planned passages or putting us in foggy scenarios. I was asked to go up the Beaulieu River by boat in the dark!
This was difficult as the wind was light and the channel was narrow, containing unlit channel marks that were only visible when they got a little too close for comfort. Despite this, I put into practice everything I had learned during the course and was delighted to be successful. It was sad to leave the boat and others I had 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 would like to work. So far, it hasn’t been easy due to travel restrictions due to the pandemic, but I hope there will be plenty of opportunities in the future.
Find out more
To learn more about professional courses, exams and trade mentions, visit: rya.org.uk/training
For more information on RYA Yachtmaster, obtain a copy of the G70 RYA Yachtmaster manual from the RYA online store.
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This feature first appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Convenient boat owner. For more great items like this including DIY crafts, money saving tips, great boat projects, expert advice, and ways to improve your boat’s performance, subscribe to a subscription to the UK’s best-selling boating magazine.
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