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canoeing, kayaking and other adventures

canoeing and kayaking adventures born in the Southeastern U.S. and now centered in Scotland...

Saturday, July 04, 2009

RYA Competent Crew Course Weekend 1 - Dolphins! - 30/5/2009-31/5/2009

I am not sure if it was Brian or Jon who was the initial instigator, but the three of us signed up for a three weekend sailing course based out of Largs on the west coast. Jon is a keen sailor. He got his Day Skipper last year but wanted to build up more experience before chartering a boat on his own. Brian and I signed up for the entry level qualification, which is Competent Crew. We were joined by John and Tom, who as luck would have it, would be with us for all three weekends of the course. John was doing his Day Skipper practical course and Tom was another for Competent Crew.
Three different weekends and three different instructors meant three different teaching styles. We were fortunate that we got to sail the same boat all three times with otherwise no crew changes.

On our first weekend, we had John, who very quickly turned us loose on the boat to let us sail. I think he did that partly because Jon had his Day Skipper already and partly because he may have felt it important to get us sailing first, before throwing lots of the boring planning stuff at us.

After a long safety briefing, we motored out of Largs harbour and across to Millport in Great Cumbrae Island. I got to drive for most of it, including the approach to anchor. John left Jon to look after me and he took the rest of the crew forward to set the anchor. We had about two spare metres and a rising tide, so in theory, should have no problems with getting stuck. We took a lunch break and discussed the afternoon and evening plans. Because the weather was nice, sunshine and reasonably warm, John wanted us to get our night hours out of the way. If the weather turned bad on the other weekends, we would be especially grateful to have those hours done. End of May meant night hours wouldn’t start until 10pm. Early/mid June would have been worse still. We weren’t thrilled with a 2am finish, but would have been less thrilled with a later finish in less appealing weather.

After lunch, we got out the sails and sailed off the anchor with a plan to reach Lochranza on the isle of Arran first, take a break for dinner and then head for the Kyles of Bute at night. Jon and John painstakingly plotted a course for us to Lochranza but instructor John told them to bag it and just sail visually. The wind kicked up for us on the journey to Lochranza so we quite quickly found ourselves moving at a good speed. Instructor John retreated to the cabin and left us to it for a while. Still at the helm, I reached just under 7 knots, I think. Brian helmed after me and broke my speed record with 7.2 knots. Braggart.

As we approached the Arran coast, the wind kicked up beyond its steady force 4/5 and several times the helm fought back against Brian. Collectively, with Jon to lead us through it, we decided to put a reef in the sail. Putting in a reef means drawing in a portion of the sail to make it smaller and therefore easier to use. The stronger the wind, the more reefs you put in to compensate. Our sail had rigging for up to 3 reefs but we only needed the one. Brian could steer again.

Soon after we put the reef in, the wind died. We couldn’t tell if it was the hills on the north side of Arran blocking the wind for us or the usual late afternoon winds subsiding. Either way, after chasing the wind around for a while, we had to switch to engine to make the rest of the journey to Lochranza.

We rocked up to Lochranza in time to be welcomed by the resident midges. As twilight approached and the wind disappeared, the welcoming committee grew larger. Walking around the harbour was ok but standing still not so good. After a quick look around, we retreated to the boat to make dinner.

It felt like hardly no time had passed at all by the time 10pm arrived. We set out for the Kyles, heading roughly northeast. Sunset disappeared into twilight which disappeared into almost night. We were able to sail at 3 knots for about an hour before deciding yet again that to get where we needed to get, we would have to use the engine.

Day skipper trainee John helmed the entire four hours into the darkness as we fussed about which shapes corresponded to what points on the map. Jon made a list of all the known objects we would pass, including buoys and lighthouses so we would know we were headed the right way. Eyes can play tricks on you and you can naturally categorise lights based on brightness and imagine them closer or farther away. Frequent consultations with the chart helped offset this tendency, but it is impossible to wipe it away completely. Cabin lights were kept to red only to not interfere too much with night vision.

As we approached the red can channel markers one after the other, Jon, John and John realised that we would not make our planned destination for the evening. After much discussion, they chose an alternate harbour to make home sweet home for the night. We rocked up promptly for 2am and the final challenge for all of us was picking up a mooring in the dark. Only instructor John and Jon had ever done that before and I think instructor John was the only one who had done it at night. Comedy followed with us approaching too quickly, not communicating loud enough (partly for not wanting to wake the neighbours and the rest from inexperience), and driving over the mooring. Jon and I got tangled up in each other in the bow since we were clipped into the safety line. Instructor John ended up fishing the mooring out about three quarters of the way down the boat on the wrong side from intended. Mistakes or not, we were on the mooring. Bedtime. Well, whisky and wine time (separate, not mixed) and then bedtime.

The late start the next morning was needed, not nearly enough sleep to make up for the long night though. The still morning gave way to a reasonable amount of wind with plenty of sunshine. We got to sail off the mooring.
Instructor John taught us about sail trimming the next morning more by doing than explaining. We had to sail into the wind, so lots of tacking followed. We got reasonably good at tacking and moving the headsail from side to side reasonably quickly.

Our treat of the weekend was a pod of dolphins. They don’t normally wander too far up the Clyde so the sighting was a rare one. Tom was the first to spot their telltale jumps from the water. They’re bigger and jump a bit higher than porpoises and travel together rather than as individuals. One of our tacks took us quite close and they came over to play in our bow wakes for a while. I took lots of pictures, missing more shots than I captured. The dolphins played for what seemed like a good 10 minutes before getting bored with our bow wake and finding a new boat playmate nearby. They reminded me a lot of my dog. Play play play... Bored now... Play play play elsewhere... Bored now... Play play play....

Not long after the dolphins disappeared and we got closer to the wrong sides of the islands between us and Largs, the wind abandoned us again. While it was enough to sail, it wasn’t enough to get us to Largs in the right time window for the next crew to take over. We fired up the engine and got back with a few minutes to spare. Before the drive home, we wandered into Largs town centre in search of ice cream and found a great place just across from the train station. The night hours took their toll, though. Jon, Brian and I were zombies for the drive home.

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