This Is Sailing

January 10th, 2012 § 0 comments

“This is sailing,” I thought as I stood behind the helm of the 40ft yacht Sunstar as it cut through choppy Mediterranean waters. It was a fresh morning with a dull sky and the wind was biting with enough force to keel the vessel over to a sixty-degree angle.

Only moments earlier I was white-knuckling the side railings and watching in horror as another crewmember ousted the contents of her stomach all over Sunstar’s upper deck. The chocolate coloured upheaval clung stubbornly to the pristine white fibreglass much to the embarrassment of the up-chucker and the quiet disgust of the rest of the crew.

I was oblivious to the commotion. For the first time since my arrival on the yacht, two days earlier, I felt in control. The force of the wind, the sway of the sea, the power of the boat, all previously perceived as potential threats, now conspired to thrill me. To my left the southern Spanish coastline, to my right Africa and in my hands the means to visit whichever shoreline took our fancy. Such freedom! Now I understood the allure of sailing.

My fascination with sailing began some years previous. Captivated by the BBC’s seasonal series “The World of Yachting” I aspired to race through raging waters on-board one of those graceful sea-challengers. The dream, however, was confined resolutely to my imagination. Up until now.

On the recommendation of a friend, I signed up to an introductory course with a school in Gibraltar, Alfer Sea School. This beginner level course is suitable for those who wish to sample life afloat whilst learning preliminary seamanship skills such as rope-work, sail handling, sailing manoeuvres and the basic joy of sleeping and eating in close quarters with fellow crew.

The date of departure arrived and I met with Fergus, Sunstar’s skipper and qualified yacht-master, in Gibraltar’s marina. His first words of advice were, “Remember, the most important thing is to enjoy yourself.” I smiled nervously, guided my way to the hatch and lowered myself inside. I was immediately impressed by the unexpected comfort of its interior. Dark teak cabins, countertops and table matched with blue velvet soft furnishings invoked a 5-star ambience and quickly dispelled any notions that boat-life compared to camping at sea.

Safely on-board and below deck, introductions to the other crew began. They were four with varying levels of sailing experience. Paul and Jean, a middle-aged couple from the north of England, had taken the same trip three years previous and wanted to brush up their skills. Bruno, a thirty-something Portuguese marketing professional raced laser boats in his hometown of Porto and Toby, a twenty-something graduate from Essex with ambitions to join the navy.

I awoke the first morning to clear blue skies and gentle activity. The cool breeze was perfect for cruising around the bay and literally learning the ropes. “Does anyone know the first rule of sailing,” Fergus piped up in his typically enthusiastic manner. The crew looked at him blankly. “Sail against the wind,” he informed us. “How do we know where the wind is coming from?” he asked. “Lick your finger,” I suggested. He looked at me sympathetically and proceeded to point out a number of features on the yacht which tell us the direction of the wind; tail-flies on the head sail, wind-cock at the top of the mast, flag at the back of the boat.

An onslaught of terminology ensued. It’s akin to learning a new language, but a physical and active language. Standby, mayday, heave-to, about turn, gybe, tack, ahead, astern – each word is a call for action, that by the end of the day all crewmembers could understand.

The following day we were ready to tackle open water. Paul and Toby plotted a course for Sotogrande, 40 kms up the southeast coast of Spain. This trip was however cut short by the unfortunate fate that befell Jean’s stomach. We decided to have lunch on-shore instead and headed directly for the exclusive marina of Sotogrande.

This marina is a unique spot along the Spanish coastline. The 5,000-acre custom-built resort was inspired by the vision of American Joseph McMicking in the 1970s. It offers more than five hundred berths, first-rate facilities and exclusive eateries. But the best part for us was the chance to have a hot shower. That night, after a dinner prepared on board, I sat up on deck enjoying the calm and realised how easily I could get use to this way of life.

The destination point for the next day’s sailing was Ceuta, which involved crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. There are several hurdles to overcome when navigating the Strait such as the wind, the traffic and the unpredictable currents. Managing to avoid all large vessels and blessed with a light easterly breeze, we enjoyed a smooth sailing across and were happy to be greeted at the mouth of Ceuta’s port by a small school of common dolphins rising and dipping at the bow of the yacht.

Ceuta is a Spanish enclave in the northern Moroccan coastline. Its ramshackle appearance belies a colonial heritage dating back to the fifteenth century when it was first taken by the Portuguese and then ceded to the Spanish a couple of centuries later. Crumbling relics of Spanish rule pop up around the small town centre. Yet Ceuta possesses a distinct charm, shaped by its utter lack of pretension. Plus as a duty-free shopping zone with a network of cobbled streets selling a mix of high-street fashions and shoes, this little known treasure is, in fact, any shopaholics paradise.

Our mission for the next day was a night sail in the bay of Algeciras. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Sailing at night the sea’s texture resembles treacle and a whole new host of challenges appear out of the dark. Strategically placed buoys with coded lighting systems warn against approaching danger. Knowledge of these flashing sequences was reserved for a more advanced sailing course so I was content to enjoy the radiance of the starlit sky.

For our last day, back in the bay of Gibraltar, the skipper decided the weather conditions were perfect for practising a few safety manoeuvres such as man overboard. I learned how to stop the powerful yacht and rescue the poor buoy we had willingly abandoned to the sea for the purpose of the exercise.

I did the manoeuvre twice, perfecting it on my second try. Afterwards we sailed the boat closer to the harbour, let the sails down, switched on the engine and motored to the pontoon where I duly parked the boat.

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