School's In For Winter
Sextants and Sunshine
Some sailors detest chart work; they think it unnecessary nonsense. I enjoy plotting courses the old-fashioned way and making landfalls at new anchorages. Lured by visions of Tahiti’s legendary lagoons and a 100-mile passage through the South Pacific, I signed up for Modern Sailing Academy’s 10-day trip aboard a Beneteau Oceanis 473, which offered an optional ASA Offshore Passagemaking certification course, and met skipper John Connolly and the rest of the crew in Papeete.
My shipmates were a mortgage broker and a financial-services specialist from San Francisco and a massage therapist and a retiree, both from Florida. We represented a variety of expectations, aspirations, and sailing experience, but all of us hoped to gain valuable knowledge in a location far removed from our normal cruising grounds. An advanced course like this one examines every aspect of life aboard, from provisioning (which we did in the market at Papeete) to assigning watches; it can be somewhat intense, but John took care to make sure that it was fun.
Provisioning accomplished, we set out for Moorea, a good afternoon’s sail to the west. For most of the year the easterly trade winds make for consistent and predictable sailing conditions. Moorea hove into view not long after we left Tahiti, and most of us were happy to navigate from the fresh air of the cockpit while we activated our sea legs. The swells picked us up and swept us forward, giving us a fast and exciting sleigh ride.
I was glad it was still light as we went through the pass in the reef and into the anchorage at Cook’s Bay. Each of us checked and rechecked the course on the chart and in the pilot book since navigation marks are few and far between, and a good pair of binoculars proved to be as important as any electronic gizmo. This is just the sort of navigation I like, and an anchorage gained through skillful piloting brought all of us a warm feeling of satisfaction. The next day some of the crew explored while I practiced with the sextant. Celestial navigation is a requirement for Offshore Passagemaking certification, though not part of this cruise; however, everyone had a go at taking a sight. I‘ve always been fascinated by the idea that with the aid of some simple tables, a sextant, and a clock, you can find your position anywhere on the earth’s surface.
The following evening we set off on our longest leg, 130 miles to Raiatea, a northwest course almost dead downwind. John split the crew into watches, and I tried to get some sleep once we were clear of Moorea’s reef. I appeared on deck at the appointed hour and relieved Chad, the mortgage broker, at the wheel.
It was a rough night, and the boat slammed in the short, steep waves. Things jumped off shelves and doors crashed open and shut as we raced along. In the rain and dark of the night, the only indication that Raiatea really existed was the dot on the chartplotter screen and the track line tracing our path toward the eastern pass in its encircling reef. Although we used the chartplotter for checking our position, for much of the time we turned it off and relied on dead-reckoning, updating our position hourly on the chart. I was on watch when the mist lifted long enough for me to get a bearing on Huahine, which we passed to the south. At dawn we were close to our objective, and everyone came up on deck for the tricky piloting through the reef. Raiatea and neighboring Tahaa share a reef, making it possible to sail completely around both islands without leaving the safety of the lagoon. The smooth water and breezy conditions seemed ideal for the Beneteau, and we took advantage of the opportunity to practice anchoring and close-quarters maneuvering.
Bora-Bora lay shrouded in clouds to our north. Although the distance is short, the navigation can be tricky, and the only entrance to Bora-Bora’s lagoon, on the far side of the island, requires a dogleg around the southwest corner of the low reef. Underestimating the time it would take us to get to the pass gave us a demonstration of the importance of passage planning; we arrived late and had to fight a strong ebb current to get through. Those of us unaccustomed to the European cardinal marks (“green right returning”) got an additional lesson. Fortunately, we had a few days to relax and play in Bora-Bora’s lagoon before returning the boat to Raiatea.
The main objective of this adventure was for participants to gain insight into offshore passagemaking. I had the option to take the ASA Offshore Passagemaking exam at a later date, and after this experience I think I would have passed. M.C.
Modern Sailing Academy, Sausalito, CA;
To be honest, Florida’s St. Petersburg area, as beautiful as it is, would not be on my list of top-10 exotic locales. But last January I was stuck in one of New England’s snowiest winters, so Tampa Bay might well have been Bora-Bora. It was a great location to make the jump from small-boat daysailor to coastal cruiser, a move I approached with excitement and mild apprehension. In my mind, small boats were for sailing, big boats mere transportation. Does anyone really enjoy driving a tractor-trailer? And while I understood the “if you can sail one boat, you can sail them all” adage, helming a 45-foot Hunter seemed a long way from dinghy sailing on Boston’s Charles River.
In short, I felt like a teenager with a learner’s permit driving a boat with a big sign on the stern reading “Student Driver.” Luckily, Offshore Sailing School provided exactly the big-boat confidence builder I needed. Designed for sailors with US Sailing’s Keelboat Certification or equivalent experience, Offshore’s Live Aboard Cruising Course is part classroom, part on-the-water instruction, and part charter cruise. The emphasis is on bareboat chartering, but everyone is required to pull his/her weight in sailing and chores. Making grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches on a gimbaled stove at 20 degrees, it turns out, is more of an art than I realized.
Mornings in Captain Rick’s class began with coffee and ungraded (no pressure) quizzes covering such topics as boat and sail handling, seamanship, and boat systems—mostly material discussed during the previous day. My classmate Gary—an ever-prepared construction worker and Lightning racer from Pennsylvania—and I were fortunate in that our fourth crew- member, John, an excellent cook and one-time honorary hash slinger for the Hells Angels, was a soon-to- be OSS instructor along for the ride. Having two teachers—especially when they work well together—is always a good thing.
Breakfast and classroom time was next and covered navigation, everything from how to use dividers and parallel rulers to reading a chart and adjusting for tides and currents. Usually by 1130—after a daily predeparture checklist—we were plotting a course, writing in the log, raising the anchor, and setting sail. And that’s when OSS turned the wheel over to us—for better or for worse—and didn’t ask for it back. Only when one of us was about to screw up would the voice of normally laid-back Captain Rick escalate to a “NO, don’t do that!” pitch.
I think it is impossible for your skill and confidence level not to improve in that situation. By the end, Gary and I had learned how to set an anchor, dock the boat, organize spring lines, sail by the lee, pump out the holding tank, drive under power, set a preventer, sail under drawbridges, execute MOB drills, pump the head, navigate the ICW, back the jib, steer through heavy chop, recite the rules of the road, use a GPS, not oversteer, plot our position on the chart, avoid lobster pots, and whip a line—and that’s just for starters.
We averaged 20-mile days and spent each night in a different anchorage. The Coastal Cruising and Bareboat Chartering certification exams can be taken at any time, but are generally left for the last two days of the course. The final graduation reward is an optional students-only overnight cruise.
By the end of the week I had a new perspective on cruising. As Gary and I fished off a beach lined with seashells and overhung with Spanish moss, my mind drifted. Then something dawned on me, and I finally realized what cruisers have always known and tried to impress upon me—that big boats get you places. And that driving a tractor-trailer actually is fun.
I wondered where we were sailing tomorrow. D.B.
Offshore Sailing School, Ft. Myers, FL;
US Sailing: www.ussailing.com.