Competent Crew Course
Sailing offers freedom, using the power of the wind to explore this beautiful planet. The problem we had is that we didn’t know how to sail. So we needed to learn.
After some time researching online we opted for Moonfleet Sailing, based in Poole on the South Coast of the UK. Run by Noel Smith, a Yachtmaster Instructor with over 40 years sailing experience and his wife Christine, Moonfleet Sailing actually offered a RYA Competent Crew course with a difference – we would be sailing across the English Channel (one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world) down to the picturesque Channel Islands!
The RYA Competent Crew course is the first step in sailing. During the course we would be learning basic sail handling, how to tie knots, knowledge of sail terms, raising and lowering sails, safety equipment, man overboard, fire precaution, ‘rules of the road’, being a lookout, dinghy rowing and general duties. We would also be living onboard and learning to work as a vital member of a crew.
Departing Poole for Alderney
We arrived on a Friday evening ready to depart early on Saturday morning. That evening we met our crew mates and were given a introduction to ‘Ultra’ a 36 foot Bavaria yacht which would be our home for the next 7 days. We were shown safety procedures such as fire extinguishers, flares, gas shut off and the VHF radio emergency procedure. We discussed our passage plan and although the weather was more favourable for a night sail over we decided that as we were ‘newbies’ we would make the crossing during the day, despite the conditions looking a little more uncomfortable!
So at 7.00am on Saturday morning we slipped our berth and made our way out through the beautiful Poole Harbour (one of the largest natural harbours in the world). Each of us got the chance to get a ‘feel’ of Ultra whilst under motor and when we got into Studland Bay we practiced our ‘Man Overboard’ drills, whilst under power and whilst under sail.
We then hoisted the sails and set off on our estimated 12 hour sail down to Braye, Alderney in the Channel Islands. There were four of us students, two of us doing competent crew and two ‘mile building’ It was decided we would work in pairs in shifts of three hours, with each student sailing half hour on, half hour off.
However it soon became apparent that we would not be making Alderney. The wind had increased to a south westerly force 6/7 and despite our best efforts to sail as close to the wind as possible we needed to choose an alternative destination.
Cherbourg on the North Coast of France was our new port of call. Unfortunately the conditions were challenging for some of us and we had to briefly ‘heave to’ (a sort of emergency stop) so we could take a third reef, don the full wet weather gear and throw up! Luckily our skipper was on hand to take over for a brief spell whilst we all rested and possibly re-evaluated what the hell we were doing!
But an hour or so later, and after some chocolate pleasure, our spirits were lifted again and soon the lights of Cherbourg were in sight. That said, it still took us about another 4 to 5 hours to reach! And after an exhausting sail of 17 hours we were all glad to finally be moored up in Cherbourg at midnight.
Heading for Alderney….Again!
We had a few hours ashore in Cherbourg, which mainly involved trying to get our clothes dried in the launderette! And unfortunately with it being a Sunday nothing was really opened in Cherbourg so after a spot of lunch onboard and a practice of our knot work we headed off for Alderney, again!
Once again we were sailing close hauled (sailing close to the wind) and the yacht had a fair heel on her. However we were all feeling positive and the 5 hour sail was nothing compared to our 17 hour the day before! We arrived early evening picking up a mooring buoy in Braye Harbour and getting the water taxi ashore, £2 per person. We headed straight to ‘The Diver’s Inn‘ a pub on Braye Street for a bite to eat and a couple of well earned drinks.
Sailing Alderney to Guernsey
We awoke to a fairly misty morning and as were not due to depart until early afternoon we enjoyed a bit of time ashore. Sadly we didn’t have enough time to explore the whole island, but there’s always next time! Braye Beach Hotel is situated overlooking Braye Beach and their terrace area is the perfect place to relax and soak up the views. After a cup of tea we made a brief stop at the chandlery before heading back to the yacht.
After some lunch we slipped our mooring buoy and departed for Guernsey, heading towards the infamous Swinge. The Swinge is an area of water between Alderney and Burhou that can be treacherous in certain conditions. Therefore planning is a must. The south westerly wind made for a bouncy ride through the Swinge with waves crashing over the bow and soaking us. Needless to say we were all tethered on as a safety precaution.
But once through we took it in turns to sail down towards Guernsey, heading through the Little Russell, tacking our way closer to St Peter’s Port where we would be spending the next two nights. On arrival a member of the marina staff directed us to a holding pontoon. To enter the marina you must wait for the tide to clear the sill which crosses over the marina entrance. Once this had occured we were directed to our berth, stuck the dinner on and headed for the off-licence! A pleasant evening was enjoyed on board, a delicious ‘Hunter’s Chicken’ prepared by Noel, followed by a few drinks on deck as the sun went down…..bliss!
A day off from sailing so we decided the explore the island of Guernsey. We hopped on a bus (just £1 for any length journey – and available in pound note format here!) and headed for Pembroke Bay. We actually took the longer bus ride which went around the island in a clockwise direction so that we could see a bit of the island. Be warned, these buses get very busy! We enjoyed a spot of lunch at The Beach House Pembroke before jumping back on a bus back to St Peter’s Port.
Here we headed for La Vallette Underground Military Museum (£6 per person) which houses a host of war and military memorabilia from World War 1 and the German Occupation of the island during World War Two. The museum is unique in itself, located in tunnels that were originally built by the German forces as a fuel storage facility for their U-Boats. You will find a ton of exhibitions and displays with detailed information about what happened along with photographs and written accounts from the time.
Afterwards with headed to The Aquarium (£5 per person). This had quite an impressive entrance, again housed in tunnels used during the war, but sadly the attraction was a little bit of a let down. We had seen everything within 15 minutes and the displays were a bit lame really. However this was in September 2016 and from what we hear it is undergoing a refurb so hopefully that will lead to improvements.
We headed to La Valette bathing pools, just down from the Aquarium. These pools date back to 1865 and fill with salt water which comes directly from the sea at high tide. After a quick ice cream treat we made our way into town.
The town of St Peter’s Port offers a variety of boutique shops and high street names, and prices are often cheaper than the UK as excise duty rates are lower here. We enjoyed dinner out at La Perla, where a set menu cost us just £11.99, before retiring back to the yacht for a ‘dark and stormy’ night cap!
Sailing (or rather motoring) to Sark
So we set off for Sark, a tiny island measuring just 3 miles long by one and a half miles wide, situated approximately 7 miles off the coast of Guernsey. As we depart Guernsey we go to furl out the head sail but it won’t budge. It appears to be stuck and so we return to one of the outer visitors berths at Victoria Marina in St Peter’s Port to investigate.
It became quickly apparent that some screws had made their way loose in the furling drum so after some fiddling and trying to avoid loosing any in the water the boys had managed to get it working again and we set off again for Sark.
The wind had completely dropped so we enjoyed a very pleasant motor across to Sark, a crossing that took us about two hours. We picked up a mooring buoy in the idyllic anchorage of Havre Gosselin before enjoying a spot of lunch onboard.
Now as part of the competent crew training one needs to be able to get ashore so we pumped up our tender and rowed ashore. Granted this did involve a number of various rotations and a fair amount of splashing. Rowing, as it turns out, is harder than it looks!
We then made our way up hundreds of steps to the headland which provided us with stunning views over the bay and across to Herm and Guernsey before heading further into the island. Sark is very untouched and has a feeling of stepping back in time. Tiny shops, boutiques, gift shops and cafes line the ‘high street’ (or The Avenue as it is known’ and there are no cars on the island, bikes, horses and carts are the only mode of transport. Our intention was to hire some bikes and to cycle to Little Sark but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time. We did however manage to enjoy a cream tea before strolling down to Creux Harbour followed by a refreshing pint at the Bel Air Inn! As the sun slowly started to set we made our way back to the tender, rowed back to Ultra, enjoyed a great lasagne, had a glass or two of wine and called it a night, all in all a perfect day!
7.00am and we slipped our mooring and motored our way through the rocks between Sark and the island of Brecqhou (a private island owned by the Barclay twins). We hoisted the sails and started our journey home. The conditions were good and even the Alderney Race was calm! However as we made our way through the shipping lanes the sail became more challenging. We were sailing on a beam to broad reach however we had a fairly strong swell, often causing us to ’roundup’, and we were fairly heeled over. On the plus side we were making good progress, hitting 9.4 knots at one point, the fastest we had gone on this trip!
Another slight issue we encountered was lobster pots. Miles out to see some naughty fishermen had left their pots out with lines going between them! How we managed to avoid them was just pure luck. The rope could easily have got caught around our prop or rudder. Luckily Ultra was ‘surfing’ the waves and we were sort of ‘lifted’ over them!
As we approached Old Harry Rocks off the Dorset coast the conditions died down and we enjoyed a very pleasant sail towards the entrance to Poole Harbour. Now many sailors will motor through the chain ferry harbour entrance as it is only 300 metres wide and has very strong tidal streams. In fact Poole Harbour Commissioners advise all yachts with engines fitted to use them when transitting the entrance.
‘But what do you do if your engine fails?’ asks our skipper.
We all look at each other with bewildering faces. ‘You tack your way out of trouble!’ he replies.
And with that he makes us perform a number of tacks just before the entrance explaining that if we motor sail we could tack our way back out to a safer spot where we could then radio for help should such a situation arise. Luckily for us our engine was good and we headed to Poole Quay Boat Haven for the night. Somewhat wind swept we made our way to Wetherspoons on the quay for a bite to eat and a few drinks!
Saying Our Goodbyes 🙁
We motored back through the Twin Sails bridge to Cobbs Quay Marina where Ultra was tied up and the cleaning began! Decks were scrubbed and hosed down, fridge cleared out, galley wiped down, head washed out, wet weather gear hung up, lifejackets stowed and fresh water tanks refilled.
We were awarded our Competent Crew Certificates and our logbooks stamped. We had completed 7 days on board, sailed 240 nautical miles and established new friendships. Before setting out on this course we had been very apprehensive about learning to sail with others. But we came to realise that part of sailing is being part of a crew. We needed to know how to work and live alongside others. We learnt how to work with each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we could help each other, talk through scenarios with each other, learn from each other.
Swapping contact details we hugged it out and said our goodbyes. We had a bond, after all we had just experienced something together, and sailing across the English Channel is definitely something!
VIDEO: Sailing the Channel Islands with Moonfleet Sailing
Check out our short video that we filmed during our learning to sail adventure. And be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more…..
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