“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Lao Tzu (c. 604 BC – c 531 BC)
The hardest thing I never did
I recently read an article entitled “The hardest thing I ever did”. It wasn’t a particularly great one, and to be honest it only caught my attention because I misread the ‘ever’ as ‘never’. Luckily, that mistake made me think about the second, more interesting question. What was this toughest thing that I have never done, why have I not done it, and how could it have changed things today? I couldn’t single out the number-one thing, but a few memories started to emerge; memories of important moments when, for one reason or another, I decided to go for the easy or safe route. Where would the other paths have taken me?
We constantly make choices but never know the outcomes of the discarded alternatives, simply because they never happen. Oddly enough, we often ‘kind of know’ where our best choice will take us, and this is important. It is exactly this predictability that makes us pick these safe routes so often. Safety constantly pushes us to do many of the things we do, even when they lead to a dull live. That is how we are, most of the time, or at least most of us. But fortunately, the world is also full of risk takers who dare to challenge the safety bias, and dive into unknown territories. Some of the most interesting people that I met are in this group.
So, if you can but are still pondering over the possibility of hopping on a sailboat and cruising the world, don’t let a safe job stop you and don’t be overwhelmed by the challenge. Take that first step and keep walking!
“Time has two faces, Khayyam said to himself. It has two dimensions, its length is measured by the rhythm of the sun but is depth by the rhythm of passion.” (Amin Maalouf, in Samarkand). Follow your passion!
A bit of pragmatism: How to start
People often ask if they can learn how to sail simply by doing it, without taking any lessons. I find this a rather personal decision, and one that depends on many things. While many people learn how to sail without formal training, some of these self-learners often have a little help from a friend or family member with some previous sailing experience. I have definitely met and heard of quite a few completely independent self-learners who have bit the bullet and started alone (and that is great!). Nowadays there are plenty of good books available that can be extremely helpful in this lonely journey, and the Internet (and I hope this website) provides endless resources for those who want to learn independently. Yet, starting to sail without guidance from an experienced instructor or friend can be challenging, dangerous and in some countries even illegal. Please don’t take me for a scaremonger. By today’s standards of our rule-abiding modern western society I am an anarchist. However, although I believe that sailing is in general safe, it does involve important risks that cannot be overlooked. And please trust me, it is less painful to be told by somebody why a ‘boom’ is a boom than learning it the hard way. If you do not know it yet, the boom is the horizontal pole attached to the mast and main sail, widely known for the unique – and unforgettable– sound that it makes when it finds your head. A good sailing course can speed up your learning curve, and also equip you with essential knowledge on safety. It is also a good way of socialising and meeting like-minded people with whom you can exchange experiences and possibly sail together in the future. But always remember, any sailing course will provide you with valuable but only basic knowledge, and if you want to become a good sailor you will need a lot of sailing experience.
Do I need a sailing license to sail?
This varies from country to country, and sometimes even within the same country (for example, in the US some states require a boating license, while others don’t). In the UK there is currently (2017) no regulation requiring any specific sailing training to skipper non-commercial boats. However, if you cross the English Channel to continental Europe you will find that many countries may require skippers to provide evidence of sailing skills (the most widely accepted in Europe is the ‘International Certificate of Competence’, ICC). A proof of sailing skills is also commonly requested if you want to bareboat charter a yacht, or use boats that are made available to members of a sailing club.
Boat insurance is sometimes another good reason to consider obtaining a sailing certificate. Insurance premiums can be cheaper if you are able to demonstrate that you have undergone formal training, and some insurers will even refuse to ensure your boat if you do not hold a sailing certificate. In the long run (or sometimes even in the short run) boat insurance savings can easily offset your investment to obtain a certificate of competence.
First choices: dinghy or cruiser sailing?
Another frequent question among beginners is whether they should start with dinghy or cruiser sailing. To answer this question you will first need to think about what kind of sailing you would like to do. If your interest is in dinghy sailing, then it is a no brainer: start with a dinghy. However, if your goal is to learn how to skipper a cruiser, then the two alternatives are valid, at least initially. Many people who want to do cruising think that a cruiser is their only option. However, this is not as straightforward as it appears, as dinghy sailing also provides excellent basic skills for future cruisers. A dinghy is, essentially, a small cruiser without a cabin. The fundamentals of dinghy sailing are directly transferable to cruising. One of the main advantages of learning to sail with dinghies is that they are much more responsive than cruisers. Under good wind conditions, you will only need to move the tiller gently to feel the boat change course immediately. This quick response is really helpful to understand how things work and to get used to reacting quickly. Dinghies also give a great sense of how sails respond to the wind and how to trim them for efficiency. It is true that you may need to capsize a few times before you understand how to avoid it, but as long as you are capable of holding your breadth for a few seconds and the water is not too cold, it should be fun. It is also a sensible decision to try to capsize on a 14 ft dinghy rather than on a 40 ft long cruiser. Dinghy sailing is also much cheaper than cruising, and great fun!
Now, here comes the other side of the coin. While dinghies provide excellent fundamentals of sailing and basic seamanship, skippering a cruiser involves much more than sailing. Cruising requires a broader set of skills that can only be built with cruising experience, and this is a gradual process. I remember my first experience of skippering a cruiser. I then had a good experience with dinghies and had sailed and even raced a few of them. I had also done my RYA Day Skipper theory and read some good books. So I thought it would be much easier for me than it is for other people who start from scratch. Wrong thinking. It was not until I started to pilot the boat out of the harbour that I realised that skippering a cruiser is much more than only sailing. It is true that my dinghy sailing skills were readily transferrable to the 45-foot yacht, but remember: however important, sailing is only a small part of the skipper’s job.