Archive for April, 2015|Monthly archive page

Sailing on a Whim and a Prayer

I’ve always said, if you’re going to learn how to sail, you should learn how to sail right.IMG_1401

By “right,” I mean “on a five day live aboard yacht cruise.” And by “always,” I mean “since last Friday when I discovered that this is a thing in Vancouver.”

I had just finished working on Furious 7 and was planning on taking a nice long break before the next film. Since I’d spent the last eight months of my life sitting in a dark room watching fast cars and explosions, I wanted to spend my holiday doing anything but that. Sailing seemed to fit the bill.

Oddly – given that I come from New Zealand, where you can’t go five metres without tripping over water – I’ve never learned how to sail. Not properly. I knew the basics – there’s a sail, and you point it depending on where the wind is coming from – but I figured that if I wanted to retire and spend my time sailing around the Caribbean Islands, I should probably, you know, learn how to sail.*

So, on my final day at work (and possibly a little drunk), I googled “sailing lessons Vancouver”, and was not disappointed. Not only are there normal weekend courses, there are also five day live-aboard courses in the Gulf Islands.

Well, why not?

DAY ONE: Better than dailies


The Celeste at anchor in Pirate’s Cove

We met at the docks; our home for the next week was the 31ft sloop, Celeste. Because we were still in “hardy” season (or as I liked to call it: “$300 cheaper” season), it was just myself, the instructor Steve, and one other student: Josh, a laid back sparky from Calgary who had just bought a boat so figured he should probably learn how to sail it.

The plan was to cross the Georgia Strait to the Gulf Islands, a collection of pristine, sparsely inhabited islands and islets in the Salish Sea. There we would spend the next four days island hopping and learning how to yacht, before heading back across the gulf to rejoin the real world on Friday.

The sun was shining, we had a slight tail wind to run us across the clear, blue waters of the gulf, and – most importantly – I wasn’t at work. We hoisted the sails, pointed the boat towards our first destination, and sat back to enjoy life. Off to starboard, a pod of dolphins raced us through the waves.

This was definitely something I could get used to.

Evening update: Okay, I have no idea how to use the head (toilet). Steve gave us a quick run down on operating it, which seemed like far too much explaining for just using the toilet, but in hindsight, appears to have glossed over some of the finer details. Like how to not sink the boat. I feel this was an important thing to cover in more detail.

DAY TWO: Yachts are fine at 90 degrees to the water. Also, real sailors don’t scream like a little girl when it happens.

Sunrise is a beautiful time on the water. It’s also a beautiful time to be asleep, but sadly that wasn’t on the cards.

Today we were sailing from our overnight mooring at Tugboat Island to Pirate’s Cove, a trip that involved a narrow passage that could only be navigated at slack tide – which, of course, was at sunrise.

We awoke in the calm, still hours of the morning and set about readying the boat. As we quietly made way,our passage lit only by the amber lanterns that lined the dock, sea lions dived through the early morning waters, and a low fog hugged the shores as the sun slowly seeped into the world.

Okay, that was actually worth being awake for.

Once we were through the passage, the wind quickly picked up, and the boat’s speed with it. We were soon moving at an exciting pace. Yesterday’s breeze had blown us across the straits, but today was our first day really sailing.

Suddenly a strong gust of wind caught the boat. I shrieked and grabbed hold of the lifelines as the leeward side of the boat dropped away, and the windward rose up, until the boat was pretty much 90 degrees to the water.

I looked over at Steve who was sitting back, his feet propped against the leeward side of the boat, laughing at me.

“Relax,” he said. “It’s normal.”

Nope. Floors should not be on the same angle as one of the walls.

However, the boat didn’t seem to mind. After a few minutes had passed without us capsizing, I tentatively let go of my death-grip on the lifeline, and reassessed.

We had a clear blue sky, eagles soaring overhead, and the feeling of speed as the yacht ploughed through the waves. Okay, if the boat really wasn’t about to go over, then this was actually pretty awesome.

Josh and I spent the rest of the day swapping back and forth on the helm, while Steve made sure we didn’t do anything silly like hit rocks and sink.

This seemed a good division of labour.

Evening update: I still have no idea how to use the head, and at this point, I’m too afraid to ask.

Also, Pirate’s Cove is lacking actual pirates. Disappointed.

DAY THREE: Clumsy people and boats do not mix.

I am very accident prone.

In hindsight, this is probably something I should have considered before signing up to live on what is essentially one big trip hazard for five days. Yachts are all narrow walkways, random ropes everywhere and a floor that keeps moving under you. Oh, and everything’s wet.

This was never going to end well.

We awoke to strong winds and rain. Even though most of the civilised world considers this “curl up in front of the fire with a good book” weather, in the sailing world this is considered “fun” weather. So, instead of heading to the pub like a normal person, I was on a yacht, trying not to get blown over the side.

We started the day by learning how to reef a sail. This is making the sail smaller in strong winds so you don’t die, something I’m very fond of not doing. The tricky part, however, is that you’re doing it in strong winds. And rain. Generally while the boat is moving about.

Wrestling with 15kg of heavy, wet sail cloth that is trying to fill with wind, on a boat that is smashing up and down in the waves is not something to be attempted before your first cup of coffee for the day. I managed it, barely, desperately cleating off the reef tie with fingers numb from the cold, and turned to head back to the cockpit. Just as I went to step down from the deck, the boat ducked a wave, and the deck – that had been right underneath my foot a second ago – dropped two feet. I went tumbling, landing heavily on my knee just as the boat surged upwards.

“Ow” I whimpered as I limped pathetically back to the cockpit. Steve just looked at me and shook his head. I think he’d been expecting something like that.

Our sails reefed, we headed out into the Salish Sea where we practiced Man Overboard maneuvers – mostly because (in his own words) Steve wanted to make sure we could rescue him if he went overboard.

After a few hours, the general consensus was that Steve should avoid going overboard.

By late evening, the winds had died down, and we motored into Nanaimo marina, on the lower east coast of Vancouver Island. There was a pod of seals playing in the harbour as we arrived. One rolled over onto its back and waved its fin at us before ducking beneath the waves in search of fish.

Evening update: I have figured out how to use the head. Thank god.

DAY FOUR: All you need is blue skies, a steady wind and good music. _MG_0573

I awoke to the sound of seals playing next to the boat. If I were a better person, I would have gotten up and taken photos of them at sunrise.

I am not a better person.

Instead, I rolled over and went back to sleep for twenty minutes. By the time I woke up next, they were back to harassing the local fishermen for lunch.

Today we headed back across the straits to Snug Cove, off Bowen Island. We had a perfect, clear blue sky, a steady 15knot wind, and the ocean to ourselves. We trimmed the sails, cranked up the music, and sat back to enjoy the day at sea. Overhead, a juvenile eagle chased a seagull.

Evening update: It turns out, all you need is blue skies, a steady wind, good music, and sunscreen. Ow.

DAY FIVE: Am actual certified yacht skipper now. How did that happen?!?

The morning started with a nice, pleasant two-hundred question exam on everything we’d learnt in the last five days.

This week hadn’t really felt like a course; we’d just sorta sailed around and watched seals play in the water and occasionally chatted about how not to die on the ocean. However, it seems Steve had managed to stuff a lot of knowledge inside my head without my realising. Two hundred questions worth, in fact.

Fortunately, we both passed the exam. Then, it was time to turn our little boat homeward.

Leaving Bowen Island had a sweet sadness to it. True, I was looking forward to using the toilet without worrying about sinking the boat, but I was enjoying the simplicity of sailing; there’s something wonderfully calming about being out on a boat where the only things to worry about are submerged rocks and the occasional bust knee.

As we sailed back to Vancouver, another pod of dolphins raced alongside our boat, welcoming us back.

It had been a great week.


The sunshine coast as we sailed from Bowen Island

*I also need to work on the retiring side of things, but, you know, first things first.

For anyone interested in living on a yacht for a week, I can recommend Simply Sailing, based in Vancouver. The owner is Swiss Italian, so we basically spent the entire week discovering new caches of food. I had planned to lose weight on this trip. This did not happen.

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