Sunday, February 22, 2009

Getting to the Point

Another two-week sequence of theory and then prac has been completed, all towards the Coastal Skipper qualification. The theory week went very well, offering challenging navigation passages to prepare from our charts and a 5-hour exam at the end of the week in which Rolf and I both did well, happily. The next day (Saturday) was spent on a VHF (radio) course..... our yacht will now be licensed for radio!

We entered the prac week with a fair amount of trepidation, casting our minds back to our recent hectic week on the water. However, this time we had a different instructor, Tavish, and completely different conditions: we received more gentle winds (up to about 25 knots max) and seas more structured and less disturbed than previously. And at last it all fell into place.... So THIS is what it is all about!

We had to get about 300 nautical miles done during the week ... and what a wonderful week of sailing! Picked up the boat in Saldanha – overnighter to Hout Bay, change boats (attended by the inevitable cleaning of heads and bilges) then down the coast and around Cape Point to Simonstown (arrive midnight – and some of us then had to find an open pub! Bed at 3:30am), then leave in the morning and return to Saldanha (overnighter). Got the boat speed up to 13 knots off Cape Point to celebrate.

No tedious repeats and more repeats of procedures, no tension and anxieties over missed buoys or tacks / gybes that were not quite as tight as they should have been.... Of course we all did those procedures, naturally and in the normal course of sailing... and it was a relief to simply adjust sails and the like without someone first admonishing you. Thoroughly exhausted when we finally got home on Friday after two overnighters with the associated watch systems and the Simonstown pub navigation...!, nonetheless spirits were high... we are sailors! So the week was a highlight. We skippered and sailed, we rounded Cape Point, sailing on the seas that are famous the world over; (which fortunately did not give us the treatment for which they are really infamous).

Now what? A final week of Coastal Skipper.... but this brings practice, practice, repeat and repeat: the sailing times appear to be over as we go over to the skills training again. No doubt all of this, with all of the sleepless nights on watch, all the sailing in rough seas as well as calmer, will equip us to be competent as we deal with the point of all this: to sail and enjoy the seas.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

More of that deep end

The Day Skipper prac week got underway on Monday with a 14-hour sail from Hout Bay to Saldanha Bay. The week ended with the reverse trip of course.... but this time 6 exhausted, dehydrated and heat-affected people arrived back in Hout Bay after a hectic 26-hour trip from Saldanha.... but more about the week’s end at the end!

Saldanha Bay is used by all the training schools as it provides a good training ground... or rather, sea... that brings tides into the planning and coping strategies. So up to Saldanha we went.... and some of us found that those Atlantic rollers bring another new challenge: nausea! Pills deal with that adequately, but tend to make one tired: an unfortunate situation when you are trying to learn and keep your head about you. On the way up, we did a fair amount of motoring in patches where there was no wind, but were generally happy with our progress (our departure having been delayed due to problems with the electrical board yet again so we set off late... even then, at no stage on the trip did we have lights in the cabins, saloon, etc).

The late departure gave Irene a very unhappy navigation experience. We each had a turn in the week to plan a pilotage: i.e. prepare the navigation for coming in to a harbour and find your way to a mooring. For this your resources are the Almanac (which actually gives complete routes and advice for all SA ports) and your detailed area chart. So Irene prepared her strategy... and landed deep in the proverbial, as the almanac had failed to mention that a night entry is a completely different ball game, as none of the reference leading lights can be seen amidst the mess of lights that is Saldanha Bay! Let’s just say that having a Royal Navy man as an instructor is not an easy thing: lessons are certainly learned by the person under correction and all those in the “class”, but in a different manner from that used by the great majority of those in the education field. General lesson learned by Rolf and Irene to apply in their future journeys: find another resource to supplement the almanac and charts, most useful being the local yacht club people.... by phone, before you get there!The next two days were spent sailing to and around Langebaan and Mykonos, practicing under sail and under power, catching mooring buoys, doing man-overboard procedures (with fenders as the MOB), coming alongside moorings (i.e. parallel parking) etc. Winds were hectic so the latter was “done” 5m away from the jetty.... a decision taken after the first person leaving the jetty inflicted some damage on the transom of the boat. The effect of wind and tide is amazing.... and provided Rolf with some bad moments. His task was a pilotage into Langebaan, an area which is very shallow but has a few narrow dredged channels. The recommended method is to use visual references that are on the chart and take bearings off them with a hand-held compass (as seen .... and note the schnazzy new foul-weather gear!); you then use these to guide you to your destination. All good as our Rolf is particularly skilled at this.... but yet, after the slowest, most tortuous hour going starboard-side round an island with the shallow-depth alarm going off continuously, we found we were on the wrong side of the island! WHAAT!? Scrambled (slowly) our way back and round the other side (through some pretty scenes, actually, of very skilled kite-boarders) and made it safely in. What went wrong? Wind and tide combinations caused the yacht to crab sideways so that we maintained boat bearing but went totally the wrong way! (PS Rolf turned to me that evening and said, wryly, that Pretoria was beginning to look like a good option!)

On Thursday afternoon, after doing “evolutions” (i.e. series of manoeuvres) and prepared meals for the passage back to Hout Bay, Irene was helming under power when ....nothing happened. A significant moment, when the boat does nothing despite your increasing the throttle desperately. Turns out (after sending Shane underwater ... short straw!) we no longer had a prop. We were towed to a mooring buoy where we discussed options and Graham decided we would go anyway, but set course to go way out to sea (don’t want to be carried onto land if the wind should die!)

We set off about 3:30 pm, with watches set for 2 hours on then 3 hours off throughout the passage. The wind howled (25 knots), the sea boiled (very disturbed sea with 5m swells, some breaking), we all dressed in layers and layers under our “foulies”, above which we wore lifejackets of course which we harnessed onto stays or clips on deck.

I wish I had the verbal skills (or a video... but you are too busy surviving to think of that) to describe the experience! On deck it was astounding to be helming or on watch (always two together) as we mounted amazing waves, surrounded by white swooshes on a broiling dark sea, through the night as we saw the sun set, stars glitter on, moon rise, moon set, stars and milky way brighten then finally dim as the sun rose and birds swooped over us... Down below it was hell. Get into a large washing machine (start off nauseous for good measure) with giant bags, ropes, cushions, people; (allow yourself some handholds, but just you try to grab them....ha!), start the cycle BUT it must be on the “random, unpredictable” setting, and have a few giants slam the outside with hammers while you are in there. That’s about it. Now sleep (remember, you must be on duty again in a few hours). Oh, and for good measure actually toss in some water (salty)... the hatch above the heads lost its seal and “the one who needs to sit” got it down the back just before watch duty. Not a lot of fun. Rolf took a bad fall in the saloon but fortunately (after initially suspecting a cracked rib) now just has impressive bruises to boast (the 102nd Dalmatian). But we have learned that we are not frightened by these seas, you can cope with discomfort, one can sail in such conditions.... and we will NEVER CHOOSE to sail in them!

Of course, we also became becalmed. With no motor, that was frustrating. But this is the Cape... and of course the wind came back and took us back to the previous paragraph. One needs power to berth so ultimately we were rescued sea-side of Robben Island; that was a great experience as our rescue vessel was the super power-trimaran that broke the round-the world speed record recently. It towed us in to the Royal Cape Yacht Club where Benguela was lifted, given a new propeller, and we were underway again. We eventually got back to Hout Bay... go to paragraph 1!

Saturday was spent doing nothing at all in a timeshare apartment (in which we can take at least 10 steps in one direction at any one time!) which we have until the end of the week, when we will finish our Coastal Skipper Theory course ... before setting off on the next prac week to Saldanha. Going “cold turkey on the norm” as it has been expressed has been a real learning curve that has not been fun but we would not have done without.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

In at the deep end

So our first training week (19 Jan) started off quietly enough.... eager anticipation was quickly eroded by time-wasting as the 6-week old training yacht had no power at the board: meaning that there were no lights, battery, VHF.... anything! This allowed us plenty of time to get to know our instructor, Graham (48-year old UK Royal Navy guy and sailor) and fellow students Shane and Leon, young guys in their early twenties who did not seem to mind their two old ballie companions! The extra time in the classroom at the offices of 2 Oceans Maritime Academy supposedly afforded us the time to “learn the ropes”... i.e. how to tie the prescribed knots on the ropes we were all given!

A short deviation: as sailors, you become paranoid by the weather and follow predictions closely. We were given South-Easters for the week. Turns out these hit Hout Bay with a vengeance, funnelling through the hills above little Chappies and blasting onto the waters of the bay. Benguela, the 42 foot yacht (monohull) the five of us were sharing in close confines (understatement), had an outside mooring, so we were woken at 12:30 on our first night by the most fierce rocking and rolling, loud whacks and general mayhem (the wind makes the most hideous noises in a marina, with all the masts and rigging). Upshot: spent a good part of the first night re-positioning bow lines, stern springs etc (good way to learn what they were!). At one stage Rolf was on the floating pontoon holding onto it like spider-man and almost came off as it veered up at a perilous angle but then it crashed back down (onto the bow of the yacht behind). We learned on the first night that even sleeping on board is not all plain sailing and we don’t get sea-sick in bad seas (well, not yet).

Tuesday saw a beautiful, gentle start to the day, with great promise for getting out of the harbour safely. Unfortunately the electrician from Johannesburg sent to fix the power only arrived at about 9:30 and pronounced all complete at about 3:30pm. The wind was now howling. So the instructor decided we had to get away from Hout Bay and move to the Royal Cape Yacht Club in Table Bay.... and we did. We simply (?) powered/pounded our way out of the harbour into the oncoming waves with winds gusting at 50 knots (regarded in the RYA training manual as above gale). The strangeness of the Cape weather is that around the headland it was ok to put up sail... and when we were in the lee near lion’s head we were practically becalmed!

We berthed happily at the RCYC for three nights and the area provided us with reasonable winds so we got a lot of learning and sailing done. What a change in life style and what a steep learning curve we have experienced! Irene went from being uncertain of which side was port to being at the helm of the yacht, sailing in Table Bay, tacking, gybing and sometimes putting the crews’ toes on the lee side in the water! Rolf did all of the above (and more) but started from a better base! Learning to sail comes with its tough sides (very physically demanding and causes, in our case, sore muscles, backs and knees.... not to mention cleaning the heads and the bilges...) but has great upsides: we anchored off Clifton for lunch, berthed alongside Quay 4 at the V&A for supper and had the most unbelievable whale, dolphin and seal-sightings.

Southern Right whales at play and a huge pod of travelling dolphin
The first week was physically, emotionally and mentally extremely demanding and exhausting, but thankfully we did not get sea-sick and have not yet been afraid of the seas we have been in. Our experiences went from exhilarating to stressful and nerve-wracking, but the whole thing has been really awesome.... and we got the Competent Crew ticket (whee....haaa!)

The tough physical comp crew week was followed (after a brief weekend respite at a timeshare dominated by laundry, SLEEP and R&R) by the first week of the 2-week Day Skipper course: the theory week. Leon was not going further with sailing and returned to uni, but we were joined by Andre (who runs fishing charters from Villancoulos) and Jason (an American who has been working and sailing in Japan).... both fresh from one of SA’s entries into the Cape to Bahia yacht race. Another bout of insecurity overtook Irene (felt like a REAL appie, yet again, in the face of all this testosterone and knowledge... what were they doing here, with bozos like me who knew NOTHING!?) but pretty soon we settled into a routine: 8:30 to 4:30 learning, lots of homework every night, and turns out we were all in the same place re the theory parts of this RYA training.
Buoys, lights, collision avoidance, rules of the “road”, safety issues, tidal and wind factors, choosing your route and bearings: all this knowledge and theory became our currency and we spent hours plotting courses on charts. The exams on Friday were fine (passed well) .... and tomorrow we leave Hout Bay for Saldanha Bay where we will stay for the week getting experience of sailing with tides and putting all this theory into practice! We will each have a turn being navigator and also skipper for the day (the latter receiving the pilotage from the navigator and giving instruction to the helmsman and crew). Thank heavens the instructor is with us: surely HE doesn’t want to be grounded or in a collision!?

We spent the week sleeping on the boat in Hout Bay harbour. Our garden was the sea (which, granted, did not always allow us to sleep more than fitfully), our walkway the floating pontoon, our neighbours really close to us.... our ablutions some distance away at the yacht club! We have become fond of the harbour, its activity and colour... but there are only so many times you want to walk up and down to the ablutions, which are less than perfect, and we are glad to have a timeshare WEEK for the next theory week, the start of the Coastal Skipper course.

It has been wonderful meeting with local friends and some who have been down from Gauteng: this has been our first really relaxing weekend as friends stayed with us at the timeshare and we did the Cape holiday thing: wine farm, beach, movie, eat out. YAY! It forced us to focus on relaxing and stop running around organising things! So tomorrow (2 Feb): start of the Day Skipper Practical course... more interesting times ahead, but we have a feeling that the deep end may not be as deep as first thought.... watch this space!