Learn to Sail the Royal Yachting Association Way – The Best Way?
Throw back to late summer 2012, and a boat trip through the Vieux Port: As we glided past moored sailing yachts against the backdrop of a sunny Marseille, I decided that I must learn to sail. I have always liked water, and anything on or on the water I consider great fun. Ask me where to go on holiday, and sea always wins over mountains.
Before you read on: I have paid for flights, hotel and the course myself, and have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from the affiliate links (marked with an asterisk). For the simple process of linking to other businesses, I proclaim this unpaid advertising. Since nobody is telling me what to write, you can be assured of my honest opinion. More details on my affiliate link policy are here.
You want to learn to sail – where do you start?
I visited the web page of the national body for boating in my country of residence. In the United Kingdom, this is the excellent Royal Yachting Association (RYA).
Not one to dawdle much, I booked myself onto a sailing trip that very same year in order to learn to sail. My next leave would be in November, so where can you learn to sail round that time of the year? And where can you learn to sail and have your life made difficult by accounting for the tides and what they do to your ship? Very quickly, my choice fell on Gibraltar. Sunny, British, with tides, offers courses compliant with the syllabus of the Royal Yachting Association (RYA). The British are surrounded by water and were once decent seafarers. Plus given the plethora up yacht clubs up and down the country, they probably got their sailing well organised.
So, I booked. Mistake Number one: I went through a broker. Totally not necessary! Book directly with the school.
How will you learn to sail?
I booked the RYA Competent Crew Course. This is fine if you want to learn to sail and for someone with a basic knowledge of physics and geography. It will come with a certificate in the end and you can built on that certificate on the RYA scheme. If you consider becoming leisure crew or help with yacht deliveries ( a great way to see the Mediterranean), having this certificate helps. But more on certificates later!
My school was Rock Sailing Gibraltar. There are at least five sailing schools based in the Marina at Ocean Village, just past Gibraltar Airport. I paid about 550 GBP for the course through the broker. Had I booked directly, it would have cost 50 GBP less. Affiliate Sales, eh. At the time of writing, the Competent Crew Course costs 595 GBP. Our training yacht was a 40-foot Jeanneau Sun Odyssey. As far as standard training yachts go, I’d put this in the higher end. It’s a leisure yacht with mod cons and good space up and below, and great for beginners.
I apologise in advance for the lack of representative pictures – all my Gibraltar pictures appear to be plane-spotting type runway shots and on the yacht, I spent most of my time in the cockpit or with my nose in a sailing manual. I have no idea why I hauled my Hasselblad along but I was a bit of a slide film nutter then.
I flew Monarch Airlines to Gibraltar. Crossed the border, took a bus to Algeciras. I visited Ronda on my second day. The course started on my third day, so I took a bus from Algeciras to La Linea. I did a bit of sightseeing in Gibraltar and then met the rest of the crew in the afternoon.
Competent Crew Course Structure
Our RYA Competent Crew course was entirely practical, with no classroom work whatsoever. Learn to sail by actually sailing – great!
The course started on a Sunday evening with a meet-and-greet. It mainly involved drinking coffee, chatting to our teacher, and getting settled on our yacht. Then we went for dinner together. We were five plus teacher, and running at full capacity. Our yacht, a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey, felt spacious even though two guys had to sleep in the saloon. As a single traveller, I got a very comfy aft double cabin all to myself! The other students were two guys who were going to do an advanced course, and newlyweds who were doing the “fast track” Day Skipper course with minimal sailing experience.
We prepared breakfast on the yacht, then had a safety briefing of multiple hours and learnt the first nautical terms. This was mainly about the yacht, sail types, and safety, safety, safety! After lunch, we went out on our first sail in the Bay of Algeciras. I was the only one who’d never touched a steering wheel before, so I was mainly in charge of hauling the foresail to the other side (tacking) and putting fenders in and out. The Bay of Algeciras is a pretty exciting place to be in for the huge freighters anchored there. The fast Ceuta ferry provided some killer wake, too. We learnt a bit about keeping a safe distance and buoyage, then went back to the marina. For the next days, not only would we learn to sail, we would also take turns in being skipper for the day and plan a route and steer the yacht, using the other as their crew, from victualling, to route planning, and paperwork.
We started early with a fun sail round the Rock of Gibraltar to La Duquesa Marina – a sunny sail in a Force 5 to a pretty and quiet port in Andalucia. At some point, a pod of dolphins decided to accompany us for a bit. There’s not much to do in La Duquesa except sit in many of the seafront cafes and restaurants. By this time, I felt a little out of my depth. I spent a lot of time sitting on deck, familiarising myself with nautical nomenclature, points of sail and manoeuvres. La Duquesa is a pretty nice small marina, with clean facilities and some very fancy yachts moored there.
Early morning saw us motoring out and across a smooth glassy sea to Ceuta. Ceuta is a a Spanish Enclave and an important port city and a curious mixture of Continental Spanish and Moorish culture. Even in late autumn in the Med you can have absolutely no wind. And if you’re prone to seasickness, these kind of conditions, the gentle rolling and waving, can pretty much incapacitate you. I’ve been seasick many times, but never in full sail always when motoring.
Ceuta is fun to stroll its a low tax zone, so shopping is a favourite pasttime for visitors, and apart form that… we were kept occupied by a group of Yachtmaster students from our school who had decided to come across and have a boat party. Apart from a small evening stroll among Calle Camoens, I didn’t really see much, and even the study had to pause that night. Ceuta Marina is large and much more basic than Gibraltar and La Duquesa. The communal sanitary facilities are just about bearable, and the restaurants in the marina didn’t look very inviting.
This was bumpy moody seas all the way to Morocco. We bumped out of Ceuta Marina through choppy waves, and sailed along a mountainous Moroccan Coast. Our port for the night was Marina Smir, a small, touristy village not looking very Moroccan at all, save for guy with a camel. There were a couple of taxis waiting to take you to Tetouan, about 10km away. I didn’t have time for that, because for the next day, our somewhat macho teacher had put “the girls” in charge of taking us back to Gibraltar through a fairly narrow bit of the Strait and crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The marina was pleasant, very quiet round this time of the year, with basic but clean facilities.
I spent three hours with the newlywed consulting tidal tables, calculating speeds and directions and plotting our safe return. Also, our task included beating the Yachtmaster aspirants who had challenged us to a race. Also, as good as the teacher was, technically, we, the “girls” had a real issue with his attitude – call it sexist, call it macho! Girls had to be pretty, slim, and into sailing and otherwise shut up. He definitely preferred the company of males during our course, and often would try to relegate us to do kitchen and cleaning work – and that’s all the criticism I’m going to release about the teacher! He taught me to sail, not always in the most pleasant way, and five days on a boat with him were bearable, and that’s it!
Our last day was great! The weather behaved just as forecast, our tide calculations worked, and no matter how hard the Yachtmasters tried, we beat them all the way into the Bay of Gibraltar. Crossing the shipping lane was less scary than we had imagined. Our dreaded man overboard manoeuvres went satisfactorily.
We spent a couple of hours tidying the yacht, and received out shiny RYA certificates! I had plenty time to cross the border, hop on a bus to Tarifa, and take the fast ferry from Tarifa to Tangier, where I arrived some time around 21.00, walked up to the Medina and fell into my comfy bed in the palace-like Hotel Continental.
So, yes, the sailing was only the first bit of my holiday. The next afternoon I would leave Tangier by train, but that’s a story for another day!
So, will the RYA Competent Crew Course teach me how to sail?
yes, it really did! I came into the course with zero sailing knowledge. After five days I could safely moor a yacht, steer a yacht under sail, handle sails, operate the radio and in general, be at the helm without disaster. What this course will not teach you is proper sailing and using sail power to the maximum. Other courses and experience will teach you that. Also, with a Competent Crew Certificate under your belt, you cannot charter a yacht. You will either hire a skipper or take the the next certificate up, the Day Skipper. Even then I do not think you will be able to skipper a yacht in all but the calmest seas and the most spacious marinas. Competent Crew is an excellent course. The RYA Syllabus, in my opinion, feeds you just the right amount of knowledge and seamanship in order to know what you’re doing on a yacht.
I started as crew on various racing yachts in local races in Northern England the next season, where I learnt a lot more about sailing. However, as racing crew, you follow commands. Full stop. Not much time to ask questions. I did the RYA Day Skipper pretty soon after, but for all the beautiful scenery of the Western isles of Scotland, the course was a bit of a wash-out with poor wind conditions and rain. I learnt very little about actual sailing in Scotland. Then I did an RYA dinghy sailing course near my home where trial and error was not just tolerated, but encouraged.
Is Gibraltar a good place for learning to sail?
As far as favourable weather with almost all year sun, technical challenges with one of the busiest shipping streets of the world, and a sniff of foreign culture in Spain and Morocco goes, Gibraltar is an excellent place to learn to sail! Unlike other places in the Mediterranean, Gibraltar has tides. These you will need for the tidal certificate and sailing in most of the UK, France and Portugal. Gibraltar has many sailing schools, most of which are RYA certified. There is quite a lot of competition, so standards are usually high and prices competitive. It is also one of the few places where you can sail beautifully in winter. Another winter sailing place would be the Canary Islands (Lanzarote) but this being more open sea, and less shipping traffic and buoyage, Gibraltar offers far more interest for learning how to sail.
As I mentioned, I learnt at Rock Sailing Gibraltar. I found them professional, knowledgeable and friendly – our teacher was a bit of bad luck but technically extremely competent when you learn to sail. A very safe school with high standards and a well maintained fleet of comfy modern standard leisure yachts that are great for learning on. They teach all levels up to Yachtmaster and also offer charter. Allabroad is close to Rock Sailing and look a decent company, with new yachts (Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 389) and nice staff. They currently offer a Competent Crew Course with a teacher: student ratio of 1:4 which is ideal, for 595 GBP.
Getting to Gibraltar
I flew direct to Gibraltar on the now defunct Monarch Airlines. At the time of writing, Easyjet and British Airways fly to Gibraltar. Gibraltar is quite the airport to fly to! You might get your first experience of catabatic winds when landing there, and often flights can get diverted because of the unfavourable wind situation. Also, the runway is very short. The Duty Free at Gibraltar is one of the cheapest I’ve ever seen. Jerez and Malaga are close enough, with frequent coach connections to Algeciras from both airports. From Algeciras, a local bus runs frequently to La Linea de la Conception Central Bus Station, from where it’s an easy walk across the Gibraltar runway into Gibraltar.
Forget trains- there are good connections to Algeciras from Ronda, Cordoba and Madrid, but it’s not exactly a railway hub.
Border crossing into Gibraltar is pain-free most of the times unless you happen to visit when Spain and Gibraltar return to frosty relations – expect longer queues then but unhindered entry into Gibraltar. Be preared to enter Gibraltar on foot, then there are buses right behind the border. The walking distacce to Ocean Village Marina is less than 500m, and just slightly more into the centre – Gibraltar is a tiny place.
Where to stay
While on the course. you will stay on the yacht, with accommodation included in the course fee. Usually some meals are included in the course fee, too. All you will be asked to pay is pay into a food kitty for incidentals and drinks.
The courses tend to start in the early evenings with a cosy get-together and some briefings, and end in the late afternoons five days later. You might wish to stay somewhere the night before and after your course. Gibraltar is very, very expensive. Truth to be told, perhaps I didn’t give it the attention it deserved, but I recommend staying in Algeciras. Not only is Algeciras down to earth, it also has excellent train connections and ferried to Morocco and Ceuta.
I stayed in two hotels:
The Reina Christina* is an old-fashioned olde-worlde hotel in the centre of town, a stone’s throw form the train station, bus station, and the market. It is settled somewhere between three and four stars and its buildings and grounds are beautiful. Rooms are large and comfortable but far from fashionable, but I love the old-fashioned gentility of the place, complete with Saturday-night dance with live band. A real throw-back in time. Love it.
The AC Hotel Algeciras* (formerly NH Hotel) is pretty much the opposite, generic, modern, but efficient and super-comfy, It’s a bit out of town, but the bus to Gibraltar (and the centre) is less than 5min walk away, and what little beach there is in Algeciras is a five-minute walk away, too. There are supermarkets and small local restaurants in walking distance, too
Where to Eat
Again, few recommendations, sorry! I found the market area of Algeciras a nice place for cafes and bars, and Algeciras is generally not really touristy, you’ll probably eat well anywhere. In Gibraltar, the Ocean Village has a choice of restaurant to rival a British High Street, and I seriously cannot remember one that was particularly noteworthy though the ones I visited were fine! Bianca’s is pretty nice and has a good atmosphere, and I’ll say that because a lot of yachties hang out here, and we unashamedly used it as a meeting place, too.
The very best book when you learn to sail is the cheap-ish RYA Competent Crew*. If you are very keen, consider getting the next one up the RYA Day Skipper Practical Course Notes*. These two are the single most useful books on sailing – there are tons of other sailing books, but these two are the ones you need to learn sailing. Don’t be put off by the kindergarten-like illustrations, didactically these are the best books. I also bought the RYA Day Skipper Handbook-Sail* and the RYA Weather at Sea*, but more out of personal interest.
For bucket-list type reading, I recommend Ultimate Sailing Adventures* and, if you are a sucker for beautiful classic yachts, Classic Sailing Yachts* (more like a coffee table book with pretty pictures) the excellent Classic Classes* (more affordable boats with technical details).
For a crackin’ good read, A Voyage for Madmen*, the excellently written tale of the first round the world yacht race will keep you occupied a night or two. After reading this, the attitude of Bernard Moitessier seemed most attractive – sailing in the lead, he decided to pull out of the race and enjoy Tahiti. His own account of the race is called The Long Way*. The saddest and most desperate figure, Donald Crowhurst, has been the subject of two movies recently. He sailed off in a plywood trimaran and made it as far as somewhere int he Atlantic Ocean, faking his progress convincingly, until he los this mind and disappeared. You can read his story in A Race too far* and The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst*. The winner, of that 1968 race was Robin Knox-Johnston, who wrote his own account of the race in A World of my Own*. I’ve not read the last three, finding them too sad/not dramatic enough – but if you have, please let me know what you think of them!
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