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Alex Q: Competant Crew!

by | Mar 8, 2022 | Skills School

Okay so it's not got quite the same ring to it as Thomas Magnum: Private Eye, or Elizabeth Windsor: Queen of England, but it'll do for me. As promised, I wasted no time getting back aboard the Amelie Rose and here's my report on what it's like to "do" your Competant Crew aboard her...

Initally it was all a bit “deja-vu – all over again Rodney” if Del-boy doesn’t mind me stealing his line. Parking up in Lake Yard and meeting up with the rest of the crew was pretty much the same as when I first came down on my Traditional Taster Weekend. Of course this time I knew where I was going, but Nic was just as welcoming and the other guests, or rather, trainees, were again a real mixture of lovely folks with various amounts of sailing experience. What was rather different was that from the get-go Nic was a lot more business-like. We’d barely got drinks before we were encouraged to introduce ourselves and say what our aims were for doing the course and then Nic outlined what we’d be doing for the next 5 days. To me it sounded more like a fortnight worth but it all got crammed in somehow. It turned out that there were 3 of us doing our Competent Crews and two folks doing their Day Skipper which apparently (according to Nic) is a great mix.

The first thing that was pointed out was that we were in for some fairly long days. Mornings started at 0700 and there was no time for dawdling over breakfast as we were generally underway by 0830 if not earlier. Having said this I’m an early riser so that wasn’t too much bother. Being set “homework” after dinner each night was a bit of a shock though – I don’t think that I’ve done homework since I left school – and yet it was good that we got the chance each evening to review what we’d learned that day. To be honest, from the first morning onwards my memories become a bit of a blur – but we were encouraged to keep a “training journal” and now I’m glad that I did! Here’s some of what I recorded about the week:

Spent the morning on safety briefings, engine checks and then raising and lowering and reefing the main. Engine checks were interesting as we never even looked inside the engine box last time I was here – but it’s apparently not on my syllabus so although everyone encouraged to take part, I didn’t get asked any questions! Putting up the main and dropping it was pretty much the same as before I think – there’s a lot of steps that I still get muddled together, reefing was a whole new thing – but at least I remembered my reef knot – been years since I tied one!

After lunch motored out to Studland Bay which was my first go on the tiller under engine – even harder to move the tiller than when sailing but easy enough to get the hang of getting her to go where you want, then it was mainsail up again, jib out (this time it was on a furler which was easier than I remember from last time) and some sailing practice. Before we started, we had an interesting chat about how sails work and what this means in terms of how to set the sails depending on which direction we’re going in versus where the wind is coming from.

Quite a lot to process but much clearer after actually trying it. We all had a few goes on the helm sailing a triangle course with the boat on everything from “close hauled” through “beam reach” to “broad reach” and then “dead run” and learning how to tack (take the nose of the boat through the wind) and gybe (stern of the boat goes through the wind). If we weren’t steering, we were constantly busy adjusting sails to keep them full (if in doubt – let it out!) and then one of the Day Skipper’s (DaySkip #1) was asked to sail us into Studland Bay whilst the rest of us were shown how to prepare the anchor. At this point I was amazed to discover that it was 5pm already.

With the anchor set we found that dinner was already bubbling on the stove (when did Nic get the chance to do that?!) and we’re all issued with our homework for that night. For us Comp Crews it was knot practice (9 knots to learn) and the Day Skippers had to work out how high the tide would be in Studland Bay at low water (or how low it would be I guess). Everyone got lots of help with their various tasks and, at some point, there was a lovely meal of Chilli and Rice.

Up early, main sail up and jib out and then the Crews got to wind the anchor up whilst DaySkip #2 got to sail us out of the bay. Very impressed that we didn’t use the engine at all to do this. We had to “back” the jib and let the main all the way out which seemed to be the trick. Nic is great at explaining these things then letting us get on with them with just the odd word here and there. Afterward we “debrief”, discussing how it went and how we could do it better. Very encouraging! Also – everything seems to come in threes. E.g. “Plan, Execute, Tidy up” seems to be a favourite. Breakfast was on the hoof – sailing a compass course was my challenge of the morning. The damn boat just won’t sail in a straight line! Nic had some great advice about not “chasing the compass” but instead looking forward to aim at something on the land or at a cloud or something.

Afternoon: Back in the Solent once more! On the way over we talked about the collision regulations (or anti-collision regulations as they ought to be called maybe). It took me a while to get the hang of port and starboard tack, but we saw a few boats on the way that were useful examples. When we got to Yarmouth, we dropped sails and then Nic showed us how to pick up a mooring buoy off the entrance there. It’s all about the tide apparently, always head into it. Had lunch whilst tied to the buoy then spent the early afternoon having a go at picking it up and coming away from it. Learned an awesome way to “lasso” the buoy for a temporary stop – and even got to try mooring myself, thought that was skipper stuff! Then the Dayskips did some chart work down below with Nic whilst we crews were tasked with steering a compass course again, under engine this time, going across the tide to Lymington. Even though she was below Nic seems to know exactly what’s going on – get more than a couple of degrees off and her voice comes up from below telling you to get back on course!

Seems that there’s a lot of tide hereabouts, whilst I was on the helm the nose of the boat was pointing nowhere near Lymington and yet, sure enough, we arrived just off the entrance much to the elation of Dayskip #1, Dayskip #2 then gave us a course back to Yarmouth that didn’t seem to work so well but prompted an interesting conversation about all of the factors that might be the cause. Amazingly it was the evening again by the time we got back to Yarmouth and tied up to the buoy once more. Down below Nic got on with making some grub whilst we make a start on this evening’s tasks. Dayskips are doing “Pilotage Plans” and us Comp Crews are given some books and asked to prepare a joint lecture on “Customs and Etiquette”. Food eaten, and lecture given (to much laughter) I head to bed – Day 2 and I’m knackered already!

Up early again and a morning spent sailing onto the same mooring buoys where we spent the night, then Day Skip #1 took us up to Cowes and Day Skip #2 enacted their Pilotage plan to enter and proceed to East Cowes Marina where Nic demonstrated the process of coming alongside a pontoon mooring. The afternoon saw us busy mooring up to various different pontoons – which kept me and the other competent crews busy tying up, “singling” lines and slipping them again along with much fender tying and retying. After a couple of hours of this (us crews even got a chance to have a go) it was Day Skip #2’s chance to take the boat over to the Beaulieu River where Day Skip #1 had a go at pilotage up to Bucklers Hard. We then had an early dinner and waited for it to get dark whilst playing a game of buoy and light recognition with some flash-cards.

Sailing at night was amazing, and chilly, in equal parts. All kitted up in lots of layers and with lifelines deployed and torches at the ready we set off down river and I just couldn’t believe the difference that just a few hours can make. We learned how to use the searchlight properly (no shining it inside the boat!) and the importance of maintaining our night vision but it’s like being in a completely different world. Confusing enough as we motored down-river but as we exited into the Solent it was just so disorienting – there were lights everywhere! As we pottered up toward Portsmouth I for one was very pleased that Nic was in charge of the navigation as half the time I had no idea where we were. She kept us busy though – identifying what we could see and then searching the charts down below to see if we could glean where that meant we were. Was also saw all sorts of interesting shipping lights, including some monster cargo ships showing their “Constrained by Draft” lights. Fascinating stuff. By the time we tied up in Portsmouth my head was swimming and my eyes were drooping but we all agreed (even the Day Skips) that it had been an interesting (if sobering) experience.

Finally, a “late” start! Well – up at 0800 and off by 0900 but it still felt like a luxury. Things were really starting to slot into place for us all now and after a bit of planning and some validation from the skipper we worked together to extract Amelie Rose from Portsmouth and sail off towards Osbourne Bay. It seemed like we’d crossed some sort of watershed as we all worked together as a team to get her sailing and to find our way – a really great morning. From a personal perspective I was feeling good, able to understand and carry out my orders without having to ask for clarification – although I always forget the flipping topping lifts when we’re putting the mainsail up!

On the way over to Osbourne Bay the Day Skips had a go at working out our position using landmarks and a compass and then did a very interesting exercise where the Day Skips were banished below to have a go at “Blind Pilotage” whilst the Crews were in charge of sailing the boat. Great fun. Lunch saw us “hove to” back in the Western Solent and then we spent the first part of the afternoon practicing Man Overboard drill as we made our way down towards Lymington. Again, we worked together to find our way into Lymington (albeit Nic did have to step in at one point due to a mis-identified post) and then we were tied up once more.

We were then granted some shore leave! The whole team headed up to a local pub for food and even a couple of pints and a chance to relax. We should have smelt a rat. No sooner were we happy in the pub than one by one Nic took us aside for a little personal “in-flight” debrief. Actually (for me at least) it was all very encouraging and it was good to be able to give my own feedback about how I thought the course was going. It was also announced that tomorrow it would be up to us as Day Skippers and Crew to get the boat back to Poole. Crikey! Well – that focused everyone, and (probably as planned) rather than staying on for another drink we all elected to get back to the boat to sort out a passage plan (for the Day Skips) and to practice our knots (for the crew). It seemed like a very long time since we’d been learning them and the ones that we weren’t using all the time had slipped right out of my mind.

The final day! The first day seemed at once to be only yesterday and also years away as we busied ourselves getting ready to sail. Despite constant reassurances that this was not an exam I think we all felt a bit of pressure as we tried to remember all that we’d been taught over the preceding days. What was really strange was that suddenly Nic was just mucking in with the rest of the crew – whilst checking with our two Day Skips as to what they thought we should do next.

Before long we were out (without near-mishap this time!) and sailing towards Hurst Narrows once again. As we exited the Solent I was once again struck by the feeling of distance travelled since we last passed this point. Not so much in terms of miles but in how much more confident I felt aboard. As the Day Skips concentrated on their departure fix and course, us crews just got on with sailing the boat, adjusting sails and (to be honest) enjoying the day. We had a couple of interesting conversations on the way over, about helicopter rescues and how to set up the boat for a tow line.

Back in Poole Harbour we were soon tied up to Amelie’s mooring buoy and engaged in the process of cleaning and tidying the boat, taking off sails and putting on covers. And then with drinks in hand we were back at the Clubhouse eyeing Nic nervously for news of how we’d done. It was at this point that she whipped out a bunch of ropes and asked everyone (including the Day Skips) to tie a knot from the ones we’d learned! I was almost too busy trying to remember a rolling hitch to notice when she laughed and told us not to worry. We’d all made the grade and would be getting our certificates! Phew!

To be honest, the certificate itself wasn’t the point for me. The experience of a longer trip aboard, becoming part of a real crew who were working together and the confidence I gained from Nic’s instruction was magical enough and confirmed for me how badly I’d been bitten by the sailing bug, and especially the bug of sailing on the Amelie Rose. I’ll be back again, but next time I think it’ll be for a holiday – I was knackered!

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