Day Skipper, Been there….Done that!

It seems like some time ago already since we began our Day-Skipper theory course week.  This course is often run as ‘night school’ in the deep dark mid-winter, however in our case; it was a full time five day classroom session.

Prior to starting the whole PST course, I’d done a fair amount of reading around the navigation and weather subjects, as I was expecting a pretty high level of understanding to be required.  In retrospect, as this is the first level of classroom training the RYA offer, I think my expectations were way too high.  The purpose of this theory course is in my view to introduce the student to concepts, implement basic methods and lay the ground work for a longer term study of sailing.  As such, methods are somewhat simplified and the teaching is kept to a pretty simple level.

All things considered however, there is still a lot of information to take on, with a variety of disciplines, skills and a whole cross section of topics, so it’s far from a dull or slow experience.

A couple of days off over weekend and we were back aboard Sunday night for our seven day Day-Skipper practical training.  Normally, this is at best a five day course, but HSY (Hamble School of Yachting) extend this for the PST crews in order to really get the basics ‘home’.

The week covered all aspects of the subjects covered in the classroom.  Navigation, Pilotage and Passage Planning being foremost through the week, with a lot of time night sailing.  All passages were kept within the Solent for this week in order to maximise take-offs and landings (close quarters handling, pilotage, tidal calculations etc) which constitute the most essential elements of sailing

It soon became apparent that as a team we worked very well together, helping each other out and catching each other’s falls.  Despite the very close quarters living (more on this later) we all got on very well and the boat was always alive with chat and laughs.

The biggest challenge for me in the week was undertaking a night pilotage up the Beaulieu river to Bucklers hard.  We’d been up there previously, but this was the first time one of us had planned and undertaken the trip!  GULP!  Once again an exercise for me in managing my own expectations!  Overall it went well, with a couple of slight screw ups ably avoided by Rich our Instructor. We arrived in time for last orders at the Master Builder Hotel and a welcome nights sleep. (sorry, no night shot….way too  busy!)

Being in the Solent and not executing long distance passages meant we were all up and about at the same time.  There was little need for a watch system, with the exception of the ‘next skipper up’ below planning the next leg of the trip; we were all either on deck or below.  This leads to a pretty busy space.  The following week offshore on 12-14 hour passages, the logic of hot bunking and watches soon improved personal space and meant we were active some of the time, with genuine down time in between.  This went a long was to improving all our mind sets, even if it was a very tiring experience by the end of day three with no solid sleep.

The distance sail with Matt followed back to back with Rich’s Day skipper week in the Solent.  We were immediately launched into multiple cross channel passages from the Solent-Alderney-Wemouth-Guernsey-Cherbourg-Hamble.

We battled the elements for much of the week, but mainly the lack of wind!  Sadly the diesel got a right bashing, but it did provide the opportunity to ensure our planning and navigation was spot on.

Wind or diesel, the challenge of the traffic schemes in the channel were the same.  I know it’s a cliché, but the sheer size of the container and tanker ships we encountered was and will remain staggering.  However, with careful thought and a good application of balls, we eventually ‘froggered’ our way passed many and noticeably as the week went on, our comfort zone for getting near these things reduced hugely.

Fog stopped play for us in Cherbourg for 48 hours, which was initially a welcome break, but did slowly begin to take its toll on us.  Sleep catch up turned into a party atmosphere, followed by a bit of cabin fever, but we eventually got away and out sailing again.

The return trip to the Solent provided us with at least some decent wind, which we’d been lacking for much of the week.  Having been so windless however, the sea state was very calm throughout…although those that had been out the night before and polished off a bottle of gin seemed to struggle!

Looking back on the three weeks of day skipper overall, I fail to see how anyone can truly understand and absorb the requirements and put them into use on a ‘part time’ basis.  The quality of experience to be had from a week in ‘school’ followed by a week putting into practice cannot be over stated.  For me it goes a long way to justifying the PST course, not only to myself, but to those that may claim fast track sailing courses don’t work.  I firmly believe all five of us are better qualified now to plan and execute a passage (cross channel or coastal) than we would have been doing this piece meal over winter followed by a holiday somewhere weeks, maybe months later.

One thing I would say in closing, read!  The time I spent before the course reading the texts about weather and navigation and subsequently about sail trim and boat handling (all RYA publications) proved invaluable.  If you are planning to undertake the Day Skipper theory, don’t rely on the ‘course notes’ they are next to non existent, I can’t believe they come from the same organisation that produces the great core texts on each subject.

But most of all, go and do it!