After living in Antigua for a year I decided it was time to learn to sail! Antigua really is the Mecca of sailing in the Caribbean, so this was the place to do it I thought. After making some enquiries, I decided to make a booking with Miramar Sailing – a company based in Jolly Harbour where I live.
Being a complete beginner, I was advised to book the RYA Competent Crew Course; there was also the opportunity to book this for a “Ladies only week”. Sounded like lots of fun I thought. As the date was getting nearer I had a couple of apprehensions: maybe I will get seasick, maybe I would miss technology (especially Facebook and email!) and how am I going to remember all the knots (making knots was never my strong point back in the girl guides!).
Packing was supposed to be very light – another difficult task for me but I managed, in fact it’s quite liberating not packing makeup, high heels and carrying a selection of dresses and handbags – all of which are really not required whilst sailing on a yacht for a week (unless you are featuring in a Duran Duran video!)
My course started on 8th April, I was ready to go!
The arrangement was to meet at Brian & Pippa’s (owners of Miramar Sailing) villa at 9am. I immediately met my fellow female sailors: Jackie – a fitness instructor, originally from London but living in Antigua also (and actually a good friend of mine!), she was also taking the Competent Crew Course. Jo from Brighton was taking the Competent Crew course, and is possibly looking for a change of career so we’ll see in the future if sailing is it! Natalie, the most experienced of us all, grew up on boats with her parents, she had completed her Day Skipper theory course so she was now completing her RYA Day Skipper practical Course. Natalie is planning to further her career in the marine industry. Our instructor for the week was Heidi, she currently lives in Grenada, has been an Ocean Yachtmaster and professional skipper for 10 years and a Cruising Instructor for 2 years and she also originates from UK.
Our first task for the day was to unpack our belongings on board, then take a tour of the boat getting to know every little corner. As Natalie is the Day Skipper, as part of her tasks, she took charge of the provision lists, it was very interesting learning between us how to provision the boat, there is very little storage and of course the amount of time at sea has to be considered for fresh produce. We had 3 vegetarians amongst us – thank god there wasn’t a man on board as I’m sure they would not be impressed with this! However the other 2 girls were very accommodating and said they were more than happy to eat veggie with the rest of us for the week.
After making the shopping list and then going through a full safety brief , we were all given our life jackets (these were to be warn at all times but won’t get in the way of our tans we were told!). We then set off to go to the supermarket – this was a short motor away, Natalie and Heidi instructed Jackie, myself and Jo on docking the boat. The 3 of us were taking the lines to the dock so this was our first task! On the way learning our first knot of the day! With Natalie at the helm we made a perfect docking and we were off for stocking up. We had already planned menus whilst on board so the shopping trip was very quick and easy (considering 5 women were involved!). We went back to the boat and after a bite of lunch (Cheese & Salad baguettes) were ready to sail!
We headed to Falmouth, which took 4 hours. Each one of us took turns in taking the helm, short tacking down Cades Reef, in fact due to the wind we did a vast amount of tacking. I was so surprised we got to do all of this in the first few hours. The new terminology seemed daunting, so much to learn, it’s really like a whole new language. In between all of the tacks, Heidi taught us another 3 knots, we were told to keep practicing over and over, which is the best way. It was such good fun and the atmosphere and teamwork between the crew were excellent. After arriving in Falmouth next practice was mooring the boat – again a first for me! This also went smoothly.
A well-deserved glass of wine was poured while we de-briefed. Heidi went through the course syllabus and the plan for the rest of the week – all sounded great! Then it was time to cook our first dinner. It was already decided earlier in the day that we would take it in turns in teams of 2. Jackie and myself were first up and we made Veggie Chilli & Rice. Finding our way round the galley was interesting, everything was so neatly tucked away so taking longer than expected (mostly due to finding items!) we finally got there and produced a nice meal (well everyone seemed to enjoy it). Jackie impressed the other girls with her waitress skills. Most were up for an early night, must be all that sea air! Sleeping arrangements = Jackie & Myself have decided to try and spend our first night sleeping in the cockpit so we’ll see if it’s too cold!
Jackie & I spent the night under the stars, there was a nice warm breeze and we were prepared to be a bit cold so were wrapped up. I slept very lightly to be honest but then again that is normal for me! There are so many new noises to get used to on the boat. Having slept outside we were the first to wake up as the morning light hit us first of course! Once the others all woke up, the students made a quick trip to the Dinghy dock at Antigua Yacht Club to drop off rubbish and CV’s for Natalie. Just before we left Falmouth we took in a Superyacht Tour, we saw “A” which is a mega yacht; The Maltese Falcon was also back in town and was anchored just outside the Harbour.
With Natalie at the helm we started sailing North gybing many times along the way, there were 1.5 metre swells so that made it tricky for the novices to helm on our 2nd day but we all took turns at the wheel. We anchored at Carlisle Bay for lunch. Natalie & Jo made a big mixed salad and Natalie’s speciality: Chickpea salad (very girlie lunch!). There was much Turtle spotting in Carlisle Bay, we decided not to snorkel as there was a bit of rain in the air! Heidi then taught us a Bowline knot and a round turn and 2 half hitches. We sailed off anchor and set off for Jolly Harbour. When we got close to Jolly Harbour we practiced “Man over board” the “man” was in fact a fender with a heavy coiled rope attached.
Jo took Heidi quite literally when she said to throw in the horseshoe buoy so that was also rescued! Again each of us got a turn to try hooking in the man. We then practiced heaving to; we all had a go at the helm for this. Some nifty tacking and piloting saw us into Jolly Harbour sailing in between the other boats. After a quick cup of tea and demolishing lots of biscuits (in only a way women can) we took it in turns to lasso a mooring buoy then docked outside Al Porto restaurant.
A Tuesday in Jolly Harbour – that means 2for1 pizza night, a tempting offer we couldn’t refuse so we booked a table for dinner. Before dinner, Jackie & I decided to shower on the transom of the boat, we got the giggles big time when we realised the people in the restaurant were able to see us and a few were watching, but we persevered nethertheless (and we did have bikinis on!).
During dinner we met various local residents of Jolly Harbour, including Rick who owns “Elethea” a well-known racing boat in the area and Tony who races “Augustine” – a yacht also in the Miramar Sailing fleet. So after everyone had a few Red wines, our instructor Heidi got the nickname of “Pimp” as she managed to get us all places on the boats for the Saturday racing that takes place weekly in Jolly Harbour. The sailing chat could have gone on all night with the locals we met. But of course our beds in our comfortable cabins were calling. Jackie & I slept inside as the other crew told us we should so that we didn’t wake up as early!
We started the day with a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast. Every morning we have to obtain a weather forecast, this is of course hugely important – today it was Jo’s task to find the Marina office before we left to get a forecast report. On our way out of Jolly Harbour we all practiced motoring Zigzag style through the buoys forwards and in reverse! When out of the harbour the next task on our list was to practice Man Overboard again. Heidi gave us the tasks again, however this time we accidentally had a double man overboard when one of the girls dropped the boat hook in! So we circled a few times to pick that up and then went to get the “man”. To be honest we were distracted by a large beautiful turtle in the sea!
We sailed up the west coast for 6 hours, during which time we did more tacking, learnt another knot; each took turns at the helm. We also had a discussion on flags and where the various ensigns and burgees go – it was all so much to remember! Lunch was on the go today (cold pizza from last night). Natalie navigated us through the coral and we arrived at Great Bird Island late afternoon. What a beautiful picturesque location this was. We anchored, then took the dinghy to the island and had a swim at the idyllic beach, we walked over the top of the little island to view the blow hole, it was a real nature sanctuary.
Back at the beach it was time to practice rowing in the dinghy. Natalie stayed on board to study so it was the 3 Comp Crew members! 2 of us rowing with the 3rd person shouting directions (but in fact singing tunes like the theme tune to “Hawaii five O” and of course “Row, Row, Row your boat”!) Not quite sure what Heidi our instructor thought but she took photos of us. Back on board we all went through our log book noting what we had achieved so far. Then Jo & Natalie made dinner – Veggie Pasta with Tomato sauce, yum! Being an all-girl crew the dinner chat inevitably turned to the subject of men! That night we were able to see some amazing stars, even though we were in the Caribbean it was a little cooler sitting out in the evening so light jumpers were donned.
The last thing Heidi said to us before going to bed was that if any of us woke up in the night to go to the toilet, we should check our position relative to the island and other boats – this led to me having dreams about us floating away during the night. Jackie woke at 4am but was happy to report we were still at anchor and in the right place! Our homework last night was to write a Mayday call. Heidi gave each of us a boat name to use, I had Mary Rose, Jackie had Titanic and Jo had Costa Concordia: Hopefully not a bad omen we thought! So after breakfast we performed our Mayday calls. Jackie, Jo, Heidi and myself took the dinghy over to the island again for a morning swim, it was such a beautiful setting. We were beginning to understand that the sailing world is very small – Heidi met some people at the beach who also live in Hog Island in the Grenadines.
Before we left to sail for the day, Natalie and Heidi showed us how to do the daily engine checks. We then set off for Dickenson Bay navigating through the coral again, there was a good amount of girlie chat on the way, nothing too bitchy but the required amount! We sailed onto anchor once we arrived at the bay; it’s pretty busy area as there is a Sandals resort there. We had a little time off as we were doing a night sail that evening so all the girls had a swim and then a sun-bathe on the deck; this seemed to cause much delight to the male guests of the Sandals resort who were circling us in their Hobie cats!
Back to work – we had had a competition to practice all the knots we had learnt; Jo & I were joint winners! We also had a test on parts of the boat. We sailed off anchor (sailing on and off anchor was criteria that Natalie had to perform for her Day Skipper tasks). On route Natalie found out that her parents had just sailed to Antigua and were also on the west coast, they were anchored in Deep Bay so we did the sailing version of a “fly by” with Natalie at the helm and the rest of us taking her orders short tacking round the boats in the bay and more importantly around her parents boat. She is “Lily Maid” a Classic yacht built in 1904 – truly a beauty!
We continued as we ventured into our night hours, first was a stunning sunset including a viewing of the famous “Green Flash”. Then it was soon very dark, the wind picked up to 20knots. Natalie briefed us on the night sail, we were all “clipped on” which is standard at night. Natalie was piloting whilst we took turns at the helm. We sailed into St Johns using the channel markers. We then continued round to Deep Bay to anchor next to “Lily Maid” and also Georgio Armani’s house! Whilst Jackie and I cooked a delicious Pumpkin Risotto, the others entertained guests on board – Natalie’s mother, brother and family friend. A few red wines were consumed but as we had guests they were pretty sparse measures!
Jackie & I were first up as usual, so we got to see the beautiful sunrise over Deep Bay. In fact after discussion we realised we had shared quite a few romantic moments together, in between showers on the transom together, sunrises and sunsets! My husband will be very jealous! After saying goodbye to Lily Maid we sailed out towards Sandy Island. We then experienced the best moment of our trip – 2 Dolphins joined us for a few minutes, they were swimming under the bow of the boat, we were all so excited, (unfortunately the photos didn’t come out well). Back to reality, we short tacked around Sandy Island, Heidi then set a challenge for the 3 novices – a figure of 8 course. We worked together each taking turns at the helm and the others controlling the main and Genoa sheets. Heidi and Natalie kept completely quiet and we had to do it all ourselves! It was quite tricky but afterwards Heidi said we did really well.
Over the week when we were near or passed another vessel, Heidi explained the “rules of the road” so today we were tested on that also. We anchored for lunch at Five Islands Harbour, lunch was a mixture of everything we had leftover in the fridge! Heidi went through our log books in turn and signed it all off, she had a chat with each of us individually which was a really nice touch. The best news of all was that we had all passed our RYA Competent Crew Course, Yippee! We all felt very proud and really chuffed with ourselves, we were also pleased for Natalie as she had passed her RYA Day Skipper Course. We sailed off anchor again, and then took turns at the helm doing little courses around the buoys outside Jolly Harbour. We then had to head back to the dock at Miramar Sailing HQ, our week was sadly over. We cleaned and emptied the boat and went inside, we were presented with our certificates from the Principal of the Sailing School – Brian. We had a mini photo shoot with our certificates – all proud as punch. A final glass of wine with Brian and Pippa and we all said our good-byes. However, being on a boat together for five days does form good friendships so we knew we would meet again sometime on the high seas or in Antigua.
It was so pleasant that we 5 girls all got on so well, we worked well as a team, we all had such good fun, many laughs and learnt a huge amount in the process. So my previous concerns: Seasickness – well that wasn’t a problem for anyone on the boat, we felt fine all the time. Technology: we were able to log-on to the internet when we were near the harbours so could check and upload all important updates on Facebook! Knots: There were a total of 8 to learn over the week, Heidi got us doing them in the first couple of days so that we could practice them, the most problematic for all of us was the Bowline (a very useful and important one!). Heidi showed us the visual way with a little story to go with it – the rabbit goes up the whole round the tree and down the hole, then the girls started to get it easier, however I still struggled with that for a day, then Heidi showed me the the tactile way – I picked it up straight away! I then named it the “Heidi method”, but apparently that is the way they do it in the British Navy! Anyway I prefer the “Heidi method”.
I’m sure some of the women reading this would be alarmed at the number of carbs we ate – practically every lunchtime and evening. However sailing is a sport where you are continuously burning calories, we came back fitter and thinner! So there is another reason for you to take up this great sport!
In addition, I would highly recommend taking a course with Miramar Sailing School. The yacht was well kept, well maintained and very clean, it was an ideal size for 5 women (we were on Miramar). The concept of the Women only courses is just brilliant; they have 2 female instructors, Heidi and also the Chief Instructor Pippa, who co-owns the company with Brian. We all said we felt much more comfortable that there were no men on board. The school offers a full selection of RYA Training courses throughout the year, but also “learn for fun courses” (where you don’t have to live on board) and just fun day sails on their day charter boat, Hawnalea, where women can get together for a sailing version of “women that do lunch”.
I hope my little diary inspires some of you women to take up sailing!