After four years of college sailing, I thought I knew a thing or two about sailboat racing: hit hard, hike hard, trim well and yell loudly enough to intimidate the competition. Then I stepped aboard my first big keelboat, where I found winches, heavy lines, an electrical panel and a loud, frightening engine. Though I understood the principles of sailing, this was a very different animal from a racing dinghy.
So I decided to enroll in a sailing school. Of the several available, I chose a weeklong liveaboard course offered by Fair Wind Sailing in the Abacos. I didn’t need a teacher drawing diagrams of points of sail and parts of a boat; I needed to be immersed in a life at sea where I could spend time afloat learning to handle different kinds of gear. Attending just one week of Fair Wind’s Instant Bareboater class, I hoped to acquire the skills, practice and confidence necessary to become a better captain. With Dave Bello, president of Fair Wind, as my instructor, I also got to experience a Bahamian dose of fun. As it turned out, Dave and I subscribe to the same philosophy: work hard, play hard.
My fellow student, Pat Ferry, was a Canadian airline pilot who had just discovered sailing. Upon arriving at the boat in Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas, Pat and I knew we were in for a challenge. Dave greeted us briefly, handed over a “Boat Treasure Hunt,” and left us to our own devices. We scoured the boat in search of soft wood plugs, a manual bilge pump, through-hulls, a ditch bag and a liferaft. Scavenging for objects you’ve never seen before is both fun and challenging, and we quickly bonded over this fast-paced, dynamic method of instruction—the first of many educational exercises that would allow us to both explore the Bahamas and tackle the coursework of the American Sailing Association’s courses 101, 103 and 104 in just one week
Each morning, Dave, Pat and I awoke at 0700 to eat breakfast before the 0830 Cruiser’s Net, a popular Bahamian broadcast that informs liveaboards and charterers of the evening’s goings-on. The moment it ended, Dave began teaching around the saloon table before going on deck to drill. We had to get through three levels of certification in six days, so Dave kept up a lively pace.
The instruction came in even parts on- and off-water. During the days, Dave drilled us hard, ensuring we each executed 15 tacks, 15 gybes, 15 mooring shots, 15 anchor sets, 15 reefs and 15 man-overboard drills by the end of the week. Having two students and one instructor was ideal: while Pat steered, I worked the lines, and vice versa. Dave was there for backup and critique, but Pat and I were largely learning to double-hand Island Retreat, our Island Packet 40, by ourselves.
In the evenings, we read up on Coast Guard regulations, fire safety, knot tying, first aid, navigation and more. Each day included six hours of on-water instruction, with additional hours spent poring over our books and discussing what we’d learned.
All the while, by living aboard Island Retreat, we were also learning the ins and outs of cruising: when to charge the batteries, how to check the bilge, how to fill the water tanks and empty the holding tanks, etc. As the lines between classroom and living room blurred, we found ourselves fully immersed in the learning experience. Pat and I lived, breathed, talked and dreamed sailing…