Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Learn to sail in a dinghy first

John Vigor has just written an excellent piece extolling the virtues of learning to sail in a dinghy rather than a keelboat. Like all his stuff it's well worth a look. John is an author of many fantastic sailing books, and if you haven't read any of John's excellent books... well... get reading.

I can highly recommend his Seaworthy Offshore Sailboat as a brilliant place to start, and it has informed many of my better decisions, and the Boatowner's Handbook is a great resource with  lots of useful formulas and such for a boat nerd like me... Oh and John Vigor is also the inventor of the black box theory on safety, something I credit with helping to keep me alive at sea all these years...

So my ears (eyes?) perked up when I saw John's post about faster learning in a dinghy. Since I learnt to sail in a dinghy naturally I  reckon it is the best way to start... And I think the good grounding in seamanship and the "feel" it has given me has helped me at sea on everything from the 290 meter (950ft) Tokyo bay, down to my 17 foot kayak.

So a bit of background (or a chance for me to reminisce...), after sailing borrowed Optimists and Sabots for a few years we got a couple of cheap "P classes" when I was 8, they were beat up 7 foot 7 inch catboat style dinghys with an array of complex controls and a nasty streak such as a tendency to violently pitchpole (pigroot) given a moment's inattention, and they also carried some serious weather helm... But they were the best christmas and birthday presents ever, and over the years have taught many of the great NZ sailors such as Sir Peter Blake and Cris Dickson. We were very proud of our little boats.

Built from plywood, we repainted them black and put Swallows and Amazons skulls on the sides and I called mine "Death 'n Glory"... Well I didn't get much glory, but neither did I die so I guess I can't complain.

We first sailed them on a local lake, chasing each other around. The best trick we learnt was to sail through the underwater gate (in summer it was a paddock) and then close the gate behind us, trapping the pursuer until he could figure it out...

I did a Sailing School weekend at our local yacht club and after approximately 1 million capsizes and careering out of control around the harbour for a day or so, due to being a such a skinny little runt, far too light for the boat (thats my excuse anyway). I was awarded my most prized certificate, (see below) I was more proud getting this at 9 than when I got my chief mates. I particularly liked the bit where it says I was Safe and Competent, because I certainly wasn't fast..

"Death 'n Glory"

Slowly I graduated into bigger dinghys after a 4 years racing P classes. I even got a newer faster "P" called "Privateer". But I had learnt many things the hard way as skipper of my little vessel... like:
  • Make sure the bungs are in before you go sailing... (sinking isn't fun..)
  • Don't lose the rudder, and then the centreboard.... (rescue is embarrassing)
  • Tie the forestay lanyard up properly (masts are impossible to put back up at sea)
  • Check the forecast, and respect 20 knots, (and cold fronts are untrustworthy)
  • Make your own decision on safety, and retire after 1 or 2 capsizes (a safety margin)
  • Don't be afraid to put in a reef (once won a race by reefing before I went out)
  • look under the sail occasionally (I hit a yacht, he wasn't looking either... and I was on starboard) 
  • learn to duck really quickly... (the boom is called the boom for a reason)
Many these lessons are much better learnt on a little boat with help nearby, than far offshore on my own... Basically I learnt how to handle a boat in all conditions, on my own, and how to make my own decisions on tactics, weather and safety (as a sailing wimp I withdrew sometimes..) We sailed in an open bay outside of Napier, NZ, with strong 15-20 knot sea breezes, big swells and nasty southerly westerly cold fronts blowing us out to sea. I also learnt sail trim, how to surf down waves, and how to gybe the nasty wee boat without pitchpoling by getting her surfing first to reduce the apparent wind.

Over the years I have often heard the saying " if you can sail a P Class, you can sail anything"  , and there is certainly a grain of truth in it. The "Feel" learnt from sailing a small boat with nasty habits like the P class has never left me (at least I hope not..), and sometimes sailing Snow Petrel I close my eyes and sit on the windward coaming with the tiller extension in my hand and I can almost feel the memories and sensations of that little P class, bobbing into the short steep chop from 20+ years ago. Even when helming the 100 foot brigantine "Soren Larsen" echos from that little boat remain, in the slight kick of the helm as she slides over a swell, or the subtle heel and surge as a puff comes though....

So if you want to really learn to sail well, a good cheap way is to jump in a small overpowered dinghy for a season or two and start getting wet.... You will learn many fundamental skills much quicker than you will as crew on a larger boat.

And thanks John for the chance to dredge up those old memories.



Ps I think I have broken the spell checker on this thing, overuse perhaps... so you can blame the dictionary for any errors

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.