Monday, 30 November -0001

We are sailing

Increasing numbers of women are taking to sea. Yachtmaster instructor Nicko Franks explains how to get on board

Ellen MacArthur and Dee Caffari’s round the world sailing exploits have shown what women can achieve at sea. The annual Round The Island Race (a yacht race once round the Isle of Wight on a Saturday in June) attracts over 10,000 individuals as crew members, with an increasingly large proportion of females. So there is a huge interest in learning how to do it.

After 34 years in the Royal Navy, I managed a sail training project for underprivileged young people for seven years. At the same time I qualified as a Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Yachtmaster Instructor. The title sounds grand, but there are plenty of us (upwards of 2,500) and we have to requalify every five years.

The benchmark yacht sailing training scheme is the Royal Yachting Association one – there are others abroad but the RYA is the ‘market leader’ and is recognised worldwide as being the best. If you want to learn to sail a yacht properly as a beginner or hone your already assimilated skills into something better, log on to the RYA website to see what’s available.

The basic RYA course takes five full days so normally, candidates join a boat on a Sunday evening and complete on the following Friday. On a standard course there will be at least four candidates and six is the maximum allowed by the rules. The first morning is taken up with a comprehensive briefing and walking round and getting to know the boat. After that, it’s practical all the way with boathandling, sail-hoisting and trimming, man overboard practice, etc. Long passages are not undertaken as sailing in a straight line from A to B only tests the helmsman. Each day is a long one with all the activity involved (both physical and mental) so nights are spent at anchor or alongside, apart from an obligatory four hours sailing (and navigating) in the dark.

There are four ‘grades’ in the RYA yacht training scheme. A complete beginner will expect to emerge as a Competent Crew; able to steer a course, handle sails, tie basic knots and so on. Of the approximately 70 candidates I have taken on courses, only two have given me serious doubt as to the wisdom of awarding them a Competent Crew certificate. The next jump to Day Skipper is the big one and a good mark to aim for, as yacht charter companies expect a potential hirer to have at least this qualification before they will allow you to take away one of their boats. A Coastal Skipper has more experience again and then at the top of the tree are the Yachtmaster Coastal, Offshore and Ocean qualifications. The tests for these qualifications have to be undertaken separately under the aegis of an examiner rather than an instructor.


Until about five years ago, these RYA courses could only be undertaken around the UK as there was considerable emphasis on navigating and handling a boat in tidal waters. However, it is now possible to do a course anywhere and there are RYA sailing schools all over the world, from the Med to Australia.

There is a feeling that if one is taking a five-day break from work, one might wish to take a course in the sunny Balearics rather than murky old UK. If you are seeking a course in the UK, the Solent is the Mecca of the industry and there are numerous schools there. The RYA website will give you plenty of information.

The majority of instructors either own their own sailing schools or work full time in one – it’s an attractive (but badly paid) job for a university student during vacations or someone seeking to make a full-time career in something to do with the sea. However, I’m one of quite a large number who work freelance and my routine is to run a course on behalf of the Plymouth Sailing School – – in the spring.

As far as I am concerned, our West Country sailing to Salcombe, Fowey and the Fal Estuary rivals the Solent and it’s less crowded. In autumn, when the weather is turning iffy, I fly out to Gibraltar and run a course using a boat and facilities provided by Trafalgar Sailing – – but there are at least two other sailing schools out there.


Approximately £500 all found (use of boat, food on board, marina fees, engine fuel, etc) except for alcohol. This does not include travel or flight costs abroad. You will also need to provide a sleeping bag and foul-weather gear (although sometimes this is available for hire from the sailing school at extra cost).

I invite you to get out there and try it if you haven’t already. Yacht sailing has very accentuated highs and lows but that’s part of its attraction and it’s basically very convivial and great fun!

For further details about courses, visit

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