22 November 2020
People we meet often ask us how long we’ve been sailing as though the idea of embarking on a life at sea must surely only be for those who have been sailing as long as they’ve been walking.
10,152 nautical miles does seem an awfully long way to have sailed for two people who until 10 years ago had never set foot on a sailboat together and barely separately before then. Truth is we are not alone. Of course we have met many people who have been lifelong sailors, with tales of multiple ocean crossings, decades of cruising and terrifying sounding Fastnet races, but we have also met many others, like us, who in years might seem like novices but in hours on the water must now at least be semi professional!
Something about arriving back in Gibraltar, the place where we learnt to sail together has made us reflect a lot on just how far we’ve come – and not just the distance.
It was a pretty grey day on the Medway in 2012 when our friends Jane and Martin took us out with them in their beloved SV Oystercatcher. It was windy and we heeled over a lot. I had little idea of what was going on and remember bracing my feet against the cockpit and trusting we wouldn’t tip over. Encouraged by Jane to take the tiller, it was she who first taught me to feel where the wind was on my face to ensure we stayed on course. That trip out into a blustery Thames and to Southend is possibly responsible for where we are now and we have been so grateful for Jane and Martin’s guidance, support and encouragement on our journey.
Because after that, and Stefan having got his Day Skipper licence, we booked ourselves a flotilla in Turkey with Clive, our favourite sailing mate. Flotillas are not known for their challenging sailing days but that was fine by us. With the exception of the day we emerged from the protection of Serçe and with full sails up nearly got blown over, we don’t really remember much wind at all. Certainly Clive’s relaxed helming position suggests that conditions were very calm. It was all good experience anyway and we couldn’t have dreamed that we would be revisiting the coastline around Marmaris in our own boat only 6 years later. And who better to invite onboard to share it with us but Clive!
Stefan having already done the hard work, it was time for me to get some qualifications under my belt and so I signed up to do my Day Skipper theory at night school. Doing this in an office building in the middle of the City of London, far away from the sea or a boat, made learning navigation as a complete novice a bit bewildering. Tidal vectors and compass variation calculations seemed unfathomably remote and it would not be until our early days sailing Pintail in the Thames Estuary that it would all start to make sense. Experience or not, I somehow passed and was ready to move on to the practical course.
Only now, having been back here a couple of times, do we really appreciate just what a brilliant training ground the Gibraltar Strait is for student sailors. I don’t actually remember taking much of my surroundings in, so intense was our week onboard our training boat. There was no time to marvel at the Pillars of Hercules or the fact we’d sailed across to another continent. There was only a fleeting moment to wonder at the dolphins. It was drill after drill with our ex Army instructor to get us to our licences. And get them we did, me my Day Skipper and Stefan his Coastal Skipper.
Those bits of plastic gave us the confidence to book a flotilla in Croatia for just the two of us and one of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful (not to mention most expensive) coasts served us well as another training ground. It was the first time we were free of instructors and extra hands and on our own we felt a sense of that freedom only sailing can give. In one of the busiest sailing areas we learnt how to squeeze a boat into the tiniest of marina spots and we remember the last leg of 15nm from the island of Solta back to Split feeling like an epic voyage.
But there are sailing lessons and then there is owning your own boat – that’s when the real sailing lessons start.
And ours started in March 2014 when we took ownership of Pintail. Our first trip down to Gosport having bought her was accompanied by a buzz of excitement and a whole bunch of confusion. As Stefan buried his head in the boat’s manuals, we realised how little we knew.
We definitely weren’t ready to take our 47 foot baby out on our own in some of the busiest waters on the south coast. So we again enlisted Jane and Martin to give us that extra bit of confidence, those years of experience and importantly two extra pairs of hands to take her out. After an anxious day negotiating all the ferries, tankers and Clipper Race training boats the Solent could throw at us we returned Pintail unscathed to her berth. The Solent was not to be her playground. It was too busy, too far from home and too expensive for us!
So we had to get her somewhere where weekend visits would be more feasible and mooring fees less budget busting. That place, we decided, was Essex Marina on the wild and beautiful Wallasea Island on the River Crouch and that meant a delivery trip of 167nm over three days and we definitely weren’t quite up to that short handed. So again we roped in Clive, his girlfriend Carolyn and Stefan’s colleague (and the most experienced sailor) Mark. That’s more people than we’ve ever had as crew on board. This was the first time we had sailed any distance in tidal waters and even after much calculation, and our first sighting of Knock John Tower, we found ourselves pushing against the tide into the River Crouch and arriving several hours later than planned. It was the kind of baptism of fire we needed to get us out on our own.
To get some more miles under our belts and to get some more confidence sailing with just the two of us (and before we knew we were going to already own a boat of our own), we booked to do a delivery trip, taking the Neilson flotilla boats from their winter base in Nidri on Lefkas in the Ionian to Napflio on the eastern side of the Peloponnese. A trip of 308nm then seemed extraordinary and one which had the Corinth Canal to navigate in the middle was nothing short of epic. It definitely gave us a taste of things to come.
Slowly but surely we took Pintail out into those muddy, brown and perilously shallow waters of the Thames Estuary, sometimes on our own, sometimes with friends on board. Navigating sandbanks and wind farms became part of our average sailing day as we started venturing further afield to Brightlingsea, Bradwell and Levington until eventually we felt ready to leave UK waters.
I remember that as we turned left at Dover on our first planned channel crossing Stefan gave me a veto. The weather was a little feistier than we had thought it would be and he let me decide if we should continue. But there was something about this rite of passage that meant I didn’t want to turn back. That or the promise of good cheese and wine! Safely tied up in Boulogne several hours later we experienced a the sense of achievement that belied the mileage of the trip. This was another country and we had got there all by ourselves.
Subsequent trips to France taught us many important sailing lessons and ones we will never forget. Lessons like what to do when you get caught in fog, are refused entry to a port because the fishermen were on strike and when you unintentionally embark on your first night passage. Watch systems were alien to us as we tackled one of the busiest across the Channel on no sleep whatsoever.
We got some more night sailing practice as crew on friends’ boats. Delivering SV Aliayh from Essex Marina to Brighton with Adrian and Aline meant sailing in the dark through the Thames Estuary, a trip which would have passed entirely without incident had it not been for unnoticed loss of their dinghy from its tether in the dead of night.
A trip out to the Canary Islands to visit another former Essex Marina berth holder, Robbie, gave us the kind of introduction to Atlantic sailing which might have put us of it entirely. The swell which pushed us from Lanzarote to Fuerteventura was so big that we couldn’t believe the boat would float over it. Huge walls of water towered over us and yet somehow we stayed afloat. Getting back to Lanzarote was, however, a different story of an upwind sail, much seasickness and a tack almost across to Africa. But despite that memorable night we hadn’t quite learnt the lesson that sailing should not always be done on a schedule.
With a few more formal lessons under our belts, we were as ready as we thought we would ever be to embark on our biggest adventure yet but it turns out we had a lot more to learn…