Why I joined the PYC and my first Club Sail to Cowes

(by Peter Edwards – originally published in the July 2021 newsletter)

I retired in 2019, at what seemed like the relatively young age of 55. I had not planned it but, as someone once told me, “it will just happen, when it happens”. Another friend suggested “make sure your colleagues are asking why, rather than when”. In retrospect, 2019 was an interesting year. My last day in the office was June 20th. Little did I know, but I had only six months to get stuff done, before COVID descended on the world. 

I had no specific retirement plans and was excited to have a blank canvas. I bought a year planner for 2020 and 2021 and my aim was to fill it. I did fill it but, to no avail, as the pandemic intervened and now there are no more wall planners. It was long-cherished hope that I would one day try sailing. It was an activity I knew almost nothing about. I skied, cycled, dived and had holidayed on “stink cans” (so called by sailing friends). I had almost no knowledge of sailing. I had occasionally taken out a hobby, or something similar, at a resort hotel, but I had no idea what I was doing and often struggled to get back to shore. This reinforced my view that sailing was a uniquely dark art that I would never really master. 

So the first thing I did when I retired was to book a Competent Crew course with the modestly titled “First Class Sailing” in Southampton. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but hoped that I would finally find out about: The Solent, Cowes, Lymington, the Hamble. Places that everyone talked about, but of which I knew nothing. The Competent Crew course was a “baptism of fire”. My memory is a little hazy now. My log book suggests we sailed 125nm, stayed five nights on board, and the wind was force 7/8. Suffice to say it was very windy and we had a lot of rain and swell. I was baffled. It seemed that I was always pulling the wrong sheet, the wrong way, at the wrong time and my helming was always wrong. I remember lots of shouting and a rather constant feeling of nausea. 

My sense of confusion was symbolised by a fixation with the windex which I began to believe was the answer to everything. My fixation with the windex has remained, to the amusement of fellow sailors, half of whom never seem to look at it at all. 

At the end of the course I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I passed apparently. However, I wasn’t sure how competent I really was. So I didn’t rush into the Day Skipper course, but decided to “think about it”. One of my lasting takeaways was how pleasant my fellow sailors were. In fact one of the better students on the course was Seb Elwell who clearly knew what he was doing! 

The next outing, the following year, was squeezed into a Covid window and was a night sail to Weymouth organised by the eponymous “First Class”. Two things were notable, firstly Seb had also booked on, and secondly it was very windy. We aborted the night sail and decided to sail the wrong way around the island very early the following morning. To cut a long story short, it was blowing 7 or 8 and wind over tide meant that it was rather bumpy. I was the first to succumb to sickness followed quickly by the others. Inevitably, we aborted and chose a less ambitious route, which proved rather enjoyable. I gradually began to understand what was going on. 

At the end of the trip Seb quietly suggested that Phoenix was a good option and I agreed. My membership was held up by the pandemic, and finally in December last year I managed to squeeze onto a Day Skipper residential theory course run by Sunsail in Port Solent. Initially, there was a lot to take on board, but I began to really enjoy the theoretical navigation. By the end I felt another veil had been lifted and I was gradually beginning to understand what was going on. It was a thoroughly enjoyable few days and I was keen to get back on a boat.

Finally, this year Tony King (Membership Sec for PYC) contacted me and organised my introductory sail on May 5 in Relax. Needless to say, when the day came the Solent was up to its tricks again. My logbook states force 6-7 and we were double reefed. I took the precaution of popping a couple of anti-nausea pills before setting off, now my normal drill. Tony Riley had agreed to skipper and I was treated to a masterclass in sailing on a magnificent yacht in some very windy/exciting conditions. This was sailing at its very best and I finally realised why it was that I wanted to sail.

I was honoured to join Phoenix, a remarkable club. After my  Competent Crew experience I decided that sailing is more complicated than driving a car with multi-factoral challenges. Often only experience can give the right answer, and the only way to get experience is to sail often and with experienced people who have knowledge to impart and the time and generosity to impart it. Every sailing trip is a revelation, teaching me something new every time I go out. Hopefully by clocking up the sailing hours I will be able to see my way to becoming a competent sailor. 

My first trip as a member of PYC was skippered by Andy Connor. The website booking system is a delight, simple to use, and offering a wide range of opportunities. It was exciting to be a PYC member going on a two-day trip, particularly as it was in Relax. There is a certain mystique about X-boats and my first sail had given me a taster of how she sailed.

Andy called me up to introduce himself and talk through the passage plan. This was most helpful and meant that I was fully prepared. Living in London, I decided to try the train and then the Gosport ferry across. When the trains are on time it is a great way to get to Haslar Marina as it is only a five minute walk from the Gosport ferry terminal to the entry door to Haslar that takes you right on to the pontoons.  Arriving at the boat before the trip is always exciting, particularly when there are new crewmates to meet and lots of preparations to be made. David Adshead was already there and welcomed me with a steaming cup of tea and we had time to go over the boat before Andy and Leonie Coveney came with provisions. Ted Sankey was joining us the next day. Between Andy and my crewmates there were years of accumulated sailing expertise.

We dined at a restaurant in Haslar on the first evening. It was one of the days after the lockdown easing and it felt great to be dining out again with my new crewmates. I find the atmosphere in marinas most agreeable, and the facilities in Solent marinas generally excellent. We had a slow start the next morning, following the tides, so we had a leisurely evening. Sailing conditions in and around the Solent were forecast to be very pleasant. After a few squally weeks, the weather had improved with clouds and occasional sunshine but a steady force 3/4 SW.

Andy had drawn up a very sensible passage plan, which had us sailing out towards Osborne Bay on about 2 knots of tide, anchoring for lunch and then sailing to Newtown Creek before coming back to East Cowes for the evening. As one of the first sails after the Covid break we all felt it useful to reacquaint ourselves with the boat. Before setting off we spent time in Portsmouth Harbour, shaking-out the main sail and then putting in a reef. This gave us some handling practise and left plenty of time to sail leisurely over to Osbourne Bay. David was “hotfoot” from a boat-handling course on Relax with Tony Riley and was eager to practise his newfound skills. Relax has a reputation of being tricky to manoeuvre in the marina. David made it look easy.

The sail over to Osborne Bay was glorious with a few long tacks and plenty of wind. A couple of spells on helm in such good conditions were a joy and Relax was sailing very comfortably. With a following tide and c15kts of wind we made it over to Osborne Bay in no time and anchored up for a picnic lunch. The bay is always a delight and on a nice day with some sunshine it is particularly pleasant. Because we had made such good time, we had a leisurely lunch and time to cruise over to Newtown Creek. With the tide having turned and falling we decided not to go into the creek. We had a pleasant sail back with the tail-wind picking-up a little and giving us an opportunity for some gybing practise and for the first time all day we had some sunshine.

We took a berth at East Cowes marina, which has a reciprocal arrangement with Haslar. The facilities are good, but it meant taking the chain ferry across to West Cowes. It was my first glimpse of the other side of Cowes. Ted had very kindly booked us into Murrays seafood restaurant for dinner. Locally caught fish in an authentic setting is hard to beat. I was enthralled by tales from my crewmates of previous summer cruises and determined that next year I will participate. Andy asked me if I could draw up a passage plan for the following day to put into practise the theory I had learnt. It was daunting at first and, as I didn’t have my glasses, I struggled a bit with the small print on the chart. A good lesson for the future!

I put together a straightforward plan that took us over to the Hamble with the tide and a nice following breeze, lunch on a visitors’ buoy, and then back to Haslar via the North Channel with as much as 3 knots of current against us. The sail over to the Hamble was, as predicted, fast. At one point a strong gust persuaded us to take in a little genoa, a gentle reminder of the need to constantly fine-tune the sails. The Hamble was very busy as the sun had now come out and there were pleasure cruisers of all shapes and sizes buzzing around. We found an empty berth and David expertly guided us in.

I was conservative on my timings in the passage plan and the passage to the Hamble was perfectly on time and the 10am start was just right. However, we spent much longer than planned tying-up and having lunch. As we had slack in the plan we weren’t unduly concerned and with a steady 15-20 knots of tail wind Relax proved once again what a wonderful boat she is and we made good time back to Haslar in glorious sunshine.

As well as putting a plan together Andy also asked me to fill in the log for the day. I am ashamed to say that this was a first for me and, although it is a mechanical exercise, it was enlightening. Doing the log and the passage plan really brought home to me the skippering challenge, not only sailing the boat, but thinking ahead and making sure that everything was running to plan.

With Relax sailing perfectly, additionally with Ted’s expert guidance, we arrived in Haslar in line with the plan and had time to fill up as well. Parking up always seems to be a challenge and skipper Andy took charge. To add to the pressure Tony Riley had arrived at the berth for the next passage. Despite this the skipper berthed us perfectly.*

I have decided that at the end of each sail I should take stock and ask what the lessons were. Andy’s plan was perfect, the weather was favourable and going with the tide is a big help. It certainly made it enjoyable for us that we could focus on enjoying the sailing rather than struggling to meet an ambitious timetable. 

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