Toodle-oo to London town! Hello, St. Louis! After hours of traveling, Leah, me, but especially Brewster (18 hours in cargo made her slightly resentful toward us), made it safely back to St. Louis. Sadly, we’re not here for long though. That’s because, finally, a beginning date for our journey has been written down, albeit on a beer coaster, but it’s been decided. With so many unknown variables though, anything could change, but if all goes well and nothing mucks up the plan, January 8th-ish is when Leah and I will set off to Florida to begin our search for a sailboat. Where in Florida is still up in the air, but when is at least figured out. Anything after that and we’re clueless again.
With the start date in sight, we’ve been fielding a lot of fun questions. Some technical, some thought-provoking, and some aren’t questions at all, but more like advice on how to survive.
Q: Are you excited?
A: Of course! (That’s an easy one.)
Q: Did you grow up sailing?
Q: Have you sailed before?
A: We’ve taken lessons.
Q: Try not to drown.
Q: Will you have Wi-Fi?
A: Not unless we’re in a café or somewhere that offers free Wi-Fi.
Q: Do you feel ready?
The last one’s always my favorite because it’s been a bit tricky to answer. So far the answer has always been a long-winded one with a lot of shrugging, head bobbing, and grimacing involved. Now for those mildly concerned, our preparations for sailing and living aboard a cruising sailboat have been meticulously discussed over and over and over and over; over many pints of ale, over many Sundays in the pubs, and over heated discussions and arguments about anything and everything that we think could possibly happen. And the more we discussed and planned and strategized, the more we realized we’ll never actually be ready ready.
Neither of us grew up sailing, we weren’t raised near the sea, ocean, or lakes, and I definitely wouldn’t consider either of our families as “boat families” – I had a pool and an inflatable raft, but that was about it. We both grew up in St. Louis where sailing wasn’t an extra-curricular club you could take after school. The sailing community definitely exists there, but usually found nearer the larger lakes; Carlyle Lake, Lake Jacomo, Mark Twain Lake, and many more.
Needless to say, our boat knowledge and experience has been minimal up until now.
But we’re willing to learn! So to gain a bit of confidence, experience, and to get ready, in 2012 (still in St. Louis), I purchased a 13’ sailboat (I can’t believe we never named it) for $300. It was priced low and was somewhat shabby, but for what it was and what we needed it for, she was perfect. Creve Coeur Lake was the closest sailable lake to St. Louis and with a bit of a struggle and some clever rigging, I managed to strap it to the roof of my small Mazda.
Oh! She was a babe! She held a six pack in her bow and had a rock for an anchor! And from that we learned the basics of sailing – how to go down wind, how to go upwind, how to sit in the middle of a lake drinking beer while we waited for wind. We didn’t know what we were doing, but it was a blast anyway. There was never a better feeling when a strong breeze would catch the mainsail and she’d heel over to the point of tipping and we’d have to strap our feet in, hold our beer tight, and lean out to counter balance her. There were a few mishaps along the way and Leah fell in once or twice, but luckily we never lost a beer overboard.
Unfortunately, soon after we bought it we had to sell it because of the move to London. The excitement of change and the ability to travel around the UK and Europe pushed sailing on to the backburner, and it became less important than it had before. The idea was still there, it was just waylaid. It wasn’t until late 2015 that we forced a serious, no-shit deadline on ourselves. Early 2017.
As the deadline grew closer, we realized we seriously needed to figure out what we were doing, so in April 2016 we signed up for the RYA (Royal Yacht Association) Competent Crew Course with Waterfront Sailing. Duncan, a real old salt with more random information and stories than we knew what to do with, was our instructor. His style of teaching was patient with a hint of frustrated shouting thrown in – and he was awesome. I highly recommend Waterfront Sailing to anyone interested in taking the course.
The sailboat, Ocean Odyssea (get it?) was a 45’ cruiser designed for comfort and livability. On this course, she was packed full with Leah, me, two others guys we didn’t know, and Duncan, but everyone got along and it was a great time. Three berths (two aft, one in the bow, Duncan on the couch), two heads (toilets), a galley (kitchen), and a salon (living room), gave us a very comfy place to live for five days. At her fastest, we hit 6.5 knots (7.5 mph). The slowest we would sail was about 3kts before we turned on the engine.
Fun Fact: 1 knot = 1.15 mph
Competent Crew Course – total of 150 miles sailed. (Red course)
Duncan charted our course and we followed the coastline, staying mainly in the area between southern UK and the Isle of Wight, which is known as The Solent. It’s normally a very popular place to sail, but for our little group of newbies, the weather was mostly crap and Leah and I agreed we were under-prepared for it, clothing wise. Despite five layers of long-sleeve running gear, gloves, hat, and a waterproof parka, the cold and humid air still managed creep underneath all that and kept us pretty chilled. We had some sun and some good wind, but being mostly cold, rainy, and windy, we agreed that a more tropical climate was a better choice for us. At night, we warmed up and happily ate and drank at the pubs and slept on the boat forgetting all about the weather till the next day. All the marinas had exceptionally clean bathrooms and warm showers and we stayed very comfortable.
Day 01: Brighton – Newhaven – Brighton [15mi]
Despite the cold and rain, this was the most exciting, yet confusing day since it was our first time out on Ocean Odyssea and we knew nothing. This course is designed for beginners who want to crew on someone else’s boat and teaches the absolute basics of how to sail, how to steer, upwind/downwind sailing, winching a line, knot work, and terminology. Everyone had a chance at the helm and no one fell in, so afterwards we all enjoyed a well-earned pint.
Day 02: Brighton – Gosport [45mi]
This was our first lesson in tidal times and the reason they’re important. In the UK, a high Spring tide can have a shift of up to 40’ in some areas. When we tried to set off from the marina that morning, the tide wasn’t yet deep enough and the keel was stuck in the mud. Eventually, we pushed, pulled, and motored her out, but more than likely she broke free because of the extra hour of waiting.
Day 03: Gosport – Yarmouth [20mi]
Crossing the Solent into the Isle of Wight was our best day of sailing on this course. This portion of the trip is where we each took the helm and learned how to tack. Kitesurfing relies on the same concept as a sail and luckily I already had some knowledge of the process. Since a sailboat can’t sail directly into the wind, the boat has to zigzag (tack) through it at < 45° angles until forward progress is made. It’s also where we discovered the importance of reading the wind from feel and not by staring at the gauges because more often than not, we overcompensated during the tack and found ourselves spinning in embarrassing circles.
When we arrived in Yarmouth, Duncan treated us to drinks and great views at the yacht club he belonged to.
Day 04: Yarmouth – Bembridge [25mi]
Confidence was building up in all of us and Duncan was enjoying sitting back and watching us play at the helm. A quick and easy sail got us into the marina and then it was about a half mile walk to the one pub in Bembridge – cozy!
Day 05: Bembridge – Brighton [45mi]
Brutal rain, big waves, and a long way home made this last portion of the trip exhausting and difficult. Rough waves were enough to warrant a safety line attached to a harness, ourselves, and the boat, but we all still had smiles smeared across our faces knowing we were almost finished and we were about to be certified as competent crew.
The bottle of “train wine” afterwards on the trip back to London was well earned.
Day Skipper Course – total of 185miles sailed (Blue Course)
The Day Skipper is much more intensive, and the purpose of the course is to teach you how to captain a boat yourself in the daytime and in familiar waters. On this five-day live-aboard trip in August, we were alone with Duncan, so we were able to helm the entire time. The whole time, he was happy to sit and chat or simply stare at the scenery. We practiced man overboard (with a float, not ourselves), docking a 45’ boat, we plotted the course, navigated through a busy shipping channel, did some radio work, went over emergency procedures, and shown minor engine maintenance.
After how miserably cold I got during the Competent Crew course, I told myself that would never happen again so I purchased this sweet, heavy-weather gear for the Day Skipper off eBay for next to nothing. Luckily for us it never left the bag.
Day 01: Brighton – Sovereign Harbor [25mi]
The first day, at least I thought, was the toughest sailing we’ve done so far. The wind was behind us at 30 knots (approx. 35mph) bringing with it 7-10’ waves that continuously lifted, dropped, and rolled the boat with this super-awesome sickening rollercoaster motion for a good four hours. I don’t get seasick (or haven’t yet), but that day I thought I might. Leah learned that going below in rough conditions increases her chances at vomiting so she stayed topside the whole passage. We each dealt with it like pros and in our own way and luckily it was a short trip. With enough burping and a level eye on the horizon, the green-faced feeling passed and both of us made it to the pub without retching.
Day 02: Sovereign Harbor – Boulogne-sur-Mer [55mi]
Before this trip I’d never heard of Boulogne-sur-Mer nor in my life have I ever imagined that it’d be a town I’d end up in, but when Duncan told us that we’d be crossing the English Channel to stay in port there, I became absolutely thrilled. It wasn’t because I’ve always wanted to cross the English Channel or stay in France. Hell, four years ago I probably couldn’t have found the Channel on a map. I became so excited because this passage was the first time when I actually felt like we had set sail and gone off on a real voyage. The idea that I’ve been holding onto for years and years now was slowly becoming an actual reality, and during the passage I came to the conclusion that if I could cross the English Channel then I could find my way from Florida to the Bahamas. Before then, cruising the ocean had always been a pipedream and a crazy concoction in the back of my mind, but when we set sail that morning, it all became possible.
If you’ve never been to Boulogne-sur-Mer, I highly recommend it. It’s a lovely little French port town with a cobbled-street town center – and the wine was fantastic!
Day 03: Boulogne-sur-Mer – Dover [30mi]
On this passage we sailed near the famed Cliffs of Dover as we arrived back into England. Although in my opinion, they aren’t as impressive as the Seven Sisters along Eastbourne. At the pub, Duncan explained that the Dover cliffs became famous after WWII because that was the first view of home the bomber pilots would see when returning from Germany. If you need to see one or the other – Seven Sisters are better.
Shockingly there was no passports check either in France or when we got back into England. You’re supposed to hoist a yellow “Q” (quarantine) flag when you arrive from a foreign country, and customs is supposed to check your boat. However, we were told that unless you have thirty families with suitcases leaving your boat, no one can be bothered to check. Good to know!
Day 04: Dover – Sovereign Harbor [50mi]
Absolutely beautiful weather was forecasted and the sailing was great, but moving at 4 – 5 knots can make for a heck of a long day when you have 50mi to go.
I also learned an extremely valuable life lesson today. No one person is perfect and there are too many variables in the world to control everything. It came to me rather abruptly when Duncan, Yacht Master, instructor, old salt, and the guy teaching us how to sail, crushed his 45’ sailboat into the dock when he misinterpreted the tide and wind coming into the marina. There was no damage that couldn’t be buffed out, but the swear words will live in my heart forever.
Don’t worry; we still made it to the pub!
Day 05: Sovereign Harbor – Brighton [25mi]
The last passage left us just a short sail back into Brighton. After we docked the boat, high-fived like crazy, filled out some papers, and said our final goodbyes to Duncan, we exhaustedly took the bus to the train and the train back into London. From there, we enjoyed many well-deserved pints at The Victoria where we discussed everything we learned and loved or disliked about the trip. Besides the joy of feeling a strong breeze catching the sails and the freedom to travel anywhere in the world without any fuel costs or time constraints at all, we also learned that there is nothing better – nothing! – than a well-deserved pint after a good sail.
Day Skipper Theory – Online classwork
Day Skipper Theory wasn’t necessary to earn a certificate, but I recommend it if you’re going to take Day Skipper Practical because it was extremely helpful in understanding certain technical aspects of sailing. It was much harder than I imagined it would be, but in the end I’m glad we decided to take it because we learned a lot in the process. The course consisted of a lot of random information, but mainly:
*How to calculate tide times and depth *How to chart a course *Taking bearings with a compass *The meaning of certain symbols on a chart *Navigation lights *Buoyage *Right of way *Weather *Safety *How to radio in a mayday *Situations that prompt a mayday call (I was surprised to find out your mast breaking off your boat isn’t a reason) *Helicopter rescue
After the lessons there were two online tests. Both were difficult and we were fairly nervous to take them, but we ended up passing with flying colors. Leah’s chart work was even praised as the finest the instructor had seen! Look at those beauts! She deserves a pint!
After all the lessons and course work, we still have plenty of anxiety about certain aspects of our trip. If we didn’t, I’d believe we hadn’t thought enough through. Leah has concerns about docking a boat into port and finding safe bays to weather out storms in, whereas I’m definitely thinking more about maintenance and funding. The courses were excellent and extremely helpful in building confidence, but we still haven’t done it by ourselves yet. We could go on and take more classes, but we think that two, plus an online one, were enough for us to be in a relatively comfortable place to set sail. In the end, there are no necessary licenses or certificates to sail a boat. You don’t need to prepare. You don’t need any qualifications at all. Sailing is easy. Hoist the sail and go. People have been doing it for thousands of years. Surviving when a problem arises, however, is the difficult part. Years of experience can help, but even old salts had to begin somewhere.
Laura Dekker, a 16 year old girl has circumnavigated the globe alone. Only 16! Too young people said.
A chicken named Monique is sailing the North Seas with Guirec Soudée, a 24yr old French guy! A chicken can’t sail! It can’t even read! (In French, but you’ll get the idea.)
So the question remains, are we ready?
To me, setting out on your own and traveling in this manner simply depends on personal confidence, how comfortable you become in certain situations, and how resourceful you can be. The reality is we’ll never know everything and we’re going to have to figure some stuff out for ourselves. Whether on accident, on purpose, or in tough and scary situations, we’ll find out what works for us. We’ve come to the conclusion that if we sat around continuously preparing, worrying and discussing every little problem that could arise, then we’d never go anywhere.
So, are we ready?
A: I have no idea.
Next Blog: Place your bets – the odds of success.