Sunday some weeks ago. We boarded the boat after two weeks of no sailing. It felt so good. It was a beautiful sunny day. Blue skies covered by cirrus clouds, as we learned to call these thin, wispy clouds high up in the atmosphere. That’s good, we remembered the Day Skipper theory. Time to add some more.
It was still a few hours to go, before the full crew would arrive, and we used the time to learn for our VHF exam. This exam is all about the very high frequency radio onboard. “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is …”, “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, …”. Yawn… 😵. It can’t be exciting all the time… Luckily, it was much more exciting the rest of the week. 😎
It was our Day Skipper practical week. If we would pass, we got a license to rent boats all over the world and skilled to skipper a boat during day light, in fair weather, known waters and not too far from a safe haven. The week progressed well. In turns we were responsible to plan passages, to navigate, were tested with many questions and of course we were sailing the boat.
The crew all together was relaxed. A Swiss-Malay couple who were doing their Competent Crew level. Faz, a Singaporean, and us going up for Day Skipper, our instructor Keith and his lovely wife Jane, our photographer. It was all good fun and the surroundings made it perfect.
We were sailing along the Thai coast in the Andaman sea. Tropical islands spread all over. You know the famous James Bond island? It’s there. They are all James Bond islands. It’s gorgeous. We couldn’t get enough of it. We anchored close to pretty beaches crowded by palm trees. We listened to mother nature. Birds. Sea life. We jumped in the clear blue sea. We set of sail to the next beautiful spot. Sun sets. Sun rises. Living on the water. Every day amazing. Every time again…
When it’s your turn to be the navigator for the first time, it’s 200% focus. It’s all about where am I, and moreover where am I’m not. It’s simple. You want to be sure that you’re not gonna hit that underwater rock on the chart. It’s tricky. The course you steer is most often not the direction you will go. Makes sense? The wind and tide will move you along. To somewhere. As navigator you need to figure this out. A lot you can calculate up front, like the tide, compass error, the moving magnetic North, but some things you can’t predict. One thing we learned rather quickly is that you can make the best plan ever, but the moment you set off sailing the wind may push you off track or, even more fun, not allow you to sail in that perfectly calculated direction at all. It’s a typical navigator’s problem when the whole crew looks at you: “and now what?”. Being flexible, decisive and adopting to mother nature is something you have to become a master in really quickly! No choice.
There is one thing I need to share about this magnetic North. Because it’s a pretty fascinating trick Mother Earth is playing with us. I think. On a sail boat you steer a course using a compass which points at the magnetic North. The chart however points at the true North. So, between the two you add or subtract the variation. All fine. The fact is that that this magnetic North is moving. A chart will therefore tell you how much it moves, and you can still calculate back to your compass. All still fine. And now here it comes. The magnetic North is travelling 50 to 60 km per year and is increasing speed. It was wandering around in Canada for a long time and is now heading to Siberia faster and faster. Bizarre, isn’t it? In fact, during Earth’s life it even has reversed, where South became North and North became South, many times. Can you imagine what that would mean? To life as we know it? Luckily it does not happen overnight and unlikely in our life time, so all our learned theory is still relevant tomorrow. But still… I just think it is really fascinating.
Back to sailing. Night sailing is of a different level. Particular with new moon. It’s dark. Really dark. You can’t see the wind vane, you need to feel the wind to determine the direction. You can’t always see land, but you still need to know where you are. You can’t really see the sails, you need to feel the movement of the boat to trim the sails. Is she a happy boat? It’s almost like dancing with a boat. She leads, you follow. Trim the sails to follow her in the direction you want to. Don’t try to lead her. She does not like that. Go with the flow.
Our night sail was a challenge all over. I was helming (steering) with 12 knots of wind, up to 2,5-meter waves on the beam and going down wind! If you’re not a sailor, this basically means strong wind and hard work on the helm from left to right, right to left to respond to each wave with a constant risk that the boom crashes to the other side. Full concentration to follow her. We survived 😅. Wouter on the other hand was the navigator and had to navigate with about no references. A light house on the chart – and his main guidance to get us to our destination – had in reality not a range of 23 miles, but 6 miles. Too far to see… A really nice one to find out in the dark, in the middle of a rough ocean, if you would ask Wouter…🙄 To make it even more challenging the wind turned, and we could not steer the course he set at the start. “And now what, navigator?”
We all learned a lot that night and eventually got to our anchoring spot tired and safely. The most amazing part was that Wouter did not get sea sick, when he was down below to figure out our position and course to steer, while the boat was happily swinging around. What a night sail! We loved it. 💙
The real deal started the next day at 02:00 in the morning. We had 90 miles in front of us and planned to arrive before sun set. For those who are interested: 1 nautical mile is 1,852 km and slightly longer than a land mile. A nautical mile has nothing to do with the Roman feet and is based on the circumference of the Earth which is divided in degrees. One degree of latitude is 60 minutes and one minute is one nautical mile. We aim to sail on average 5 knots or more, which is 5 nautical miles per hour which is just under 10 km/h.
Ozi, was our skipper. Timo, a German guy, and the two of us were crew. Keith, our instructor was available but sleeping most of the night and going down below quite often to allow the skipper and his crew to ‘their thing’. For us it was the first time to sail without the instructor’s safety net all the time. The trust, and with that the responsibility felt good.
Wouter and Ozi were up for the first watch. Despite that waking up at 01:30 is not the best feeling in the world, they made some good progress. Both in miles and litres of coffee. Half a sleep is the moment you realize your sailing skills are not yet cemented in your DNA. It’s not like driving a bicycle. Not yet. “Huh, what?”, “Oh, yes I need to point the boat into the wind to hoist the sails…”, “Huh, what?”, “Oh, yes it’s not the 20-meter contour, but the 10-meter contour, we’re looking for…” Luckily, there was coffee and an amazing starry sky and they guided us safely through the night.
At 05:00 it was Timo’s and my turn. Ozi and Wouter started a new course-to-steer a bit more than an hour ago on a 40-miles leg. The last log was an estimated position – yes indeed, an estimation. If you experience that for the first time with darkness around you, it sounds like ‘we think we are here but we’re not sure’. All right. On top of that, the GPS was not working to confirm the position and the so-called isolated danger mark (rocks), which was our only visible reference, was not visible. Okeee… Sleep tight, guys.
When you wake up in the middle of the night in a situation like this, as a rookie, you are awake. If then on top you realize that the instructor is asleep and it’s you this time who is fully responsible for the safety of the people on board. For the first time ever! At night! You are more awake than you can be. Sure, we could have woken up the instructor for a safety net. But we were not in immediate danger and confident enough that we would have the skills somewhere to manage it. Why else, would Keith leave us alone?
I was so eager to find that isolated danger mark. Where is that thing??!!? I wanted to confirm our position… Staring at the horizon for two flashes. So many lights in the distance, but not a single one that was flashing…😟 Timo on the other hand was helming and convinced that all the fishing boats on the horizon were all coming over to hit us. He wanted bearings of all of them, every second, to ensure we were not on a collision course. “Let’s change course for that one, no, now that one!” Sure, you’re the helm, but I don’t want to change course unnecessary and by the way where is that stupid isolated danger…!? “Yes, but that fishing boat!” 1, 2, 3, …and then we started to work together.
We concluded that the fishing boats were more than 2 miles away as long as the gloom of their lights was not hitting our boat. We still took bearings, but much more relaxed knowing the distance. We knew we had time to give way if needed, without completely losing course. We also realized that the isolated danger was 5 miles away and we would never hit it as long as our course would not go lower than a certain degree.
We got in control, we continued doing estimated positions, never saw that isolated danger mark 🙄, and when day light arrived, took a proper fix. Finally, an exact position. 🙏 It turned out that all estimated positions taken by both teams were pretty spot on. Well done team! That gives confidence for the next time. Also, the wind became stronger and turned. We moved to a close haul (close to the wind) which made the boat heeling and Keith and Jane awake. “Hello, good morning! Everything’s under control, we’re on track.” 😇
The good wind stayed with us most of the day. We even had to reef for a while (shorten the main sail so the boat is not overpowered in strong wind) and we sailed with the spinnaker (those beautiful colourful big sails), which is pretty cool. An hour early we arrived back home. Exhausted and satisfied. We sailed our longest passage so far, without any use of GPS. Which by the way is very wrong. When you sail you should use all available means to go around safely. Yes, we should have asked for the pin of the iPad to confirm our estimated positions. But very secretly, (Keith close your eyes), we are pretty proud we did it without any electronics. Back to the way they did it in the old days! 💪