Several months ago JoAnne and I began firming up plans for retirement; we started looking at sailing adventures and cruising in the Caribbean for a few years, hoping to buy a small “training boat” and eventually to purchase a larger boat upon which we can live aboard and sail. Not knowing how to sail was a problem, but having no sailing experience whatsoever wasn’t going to be an obstacle either. In October 2008, we bought our 25’ training boat. After that, we decided to figure out where to go to school.
Normally, we are the sort of people that go buy a book, or take one out of library and learn something and then do it ourselves. We’re both ham radio operators, storm chasers, do stained glass and are avid readers. Most of what we know, we read in a book somewhere or we have experienced “life” in general. We certainly considered the “book learning” path for sailing, but knowing that controlling a large boat without much experience would be similar to trying to fly an air plane after learning to flying computer simulator probably isn’t going to get us to the Caribbean without getting us into great trouble. The School of Hard Knocks is great, as long as you’re not risking life and limb. We wanted someone to show us how to do things – to teach us the ropes rather than us tangling ourselves up in knots.
With that in mind we set out to locate a school to teach us the basics. We’re rather far from the ocean in Colorado – but there are schools. I made several calls and sent emails to some of the Colorado schools and received either very little information, they were very curt with me on the telephone or in email and were not very forthcoming when I asked direct questions. When something on a particular web site was unclear and I asked more information to get clarification I was referred back to the web site (more than once).
Unfortunately, each wanted a serious chunk of cash for each class. The courses would be run over several days to several weeks in other cities. We would be under the constraint of our jobs, traveling to and from Denver from Colorado Springs (sometimes in separate cars based on work schedules) to get to various classes and still be have to be able to concentrate on classes, miss meals, pay a lot in gas and make sure our cars were up to the travel. A lot of inconvenient issues started to crop up, and we weren’t happy with our options.
The combination of lack of communication, helpful information and inconvenience was not helpful and turned me off from choosing a local school here in Colorado. The options were limited. We decided a “learning vacation” was in order.
Once my wife and I decided on the plan to “Learn to sail” we set several following rules:
1) Classes for the required certifications had to happen over the course of a week.
2) We wanted to be able to stay on, or with the boat during the class (if possible)
3) We wanted individualized training for the two of us (not 6 or 8 students)
4) We wanted plenty of “Hands On” training
5) We wanted one or at most two instructors
6) School had to be in one place, no daily travel involved (like driving to Denver!)
7) The school and training needed to be on the ocean or open bays, not in lakes in Colorado (That put us on the coasts somewhere)
8) Materials, books, CDs or whatever other items required for the class needed to be sent ahead of time to give us time to read and study the material
9) Price was “not an object” but it was to be considered and included the cost of travel, including gas to get there, parking costs and hotel stays if necessary
I made several calls to schools around the country and found a couple of them that met these criteria. One was in Florida and the other in San Diego. I spoke to both schools, both were helpful and both had “similar” costs. We ended up calling the San Diego Sailing Academy run by Nick and Mike Monastra (http://www.sdsa.com)
After a few back-and-forth emails where I asked a lot of questions, gave them my personal “background” and the “why” we were doing this, we decided to choose the San Diego Sailing Academy. I spoke on the phone to Nick several times and he is a very personable, helpful person. He answered all my questions, assured me that my wife and I would not only have fun, but would learn a lot, get to spend as much time as we needed on a boat, learning and hands-on. Incidentally, Nick met us at the airport when we arrived and made sure we got to the grocery to do our provisioning later that day.
With that in mind we paid up front half the fee for the course ($3250 for a seven day course, two days of which are supposed to be bareboat). The rest was due and payable upon arrival. The school shipped the books to us within a couple of days in early February, giving us plenty of time to study. We set our travel and school dates from 5 April through 12 April 2009, six months after the purchase of our boat. During this time we also purchased some other books to supplement the material from the school and continued to work on our little boat to prepare her for sailing in the springtime.
Having been a college instructor teaching technical material for many years myself, I went to the school with the highest of expectations. Perhaps too high, because I know what I expect of myself and I expect more from myself than I do others. Mike turned out to be our instructor. Mike is a very outgoing, extremely knowledgeable person when it comes to sailing. Mike is also a professional racer and spent much of the classes using stories, metaphors and experience he had in racing sailboats to help impart knowledge to my wife and myself.
Neither my wife nor I are “dumb” people, but for the course we decided to “play dumb” and allow him to teach us from scratch and never mind that we both had extensive book knowledge of sailing, and absolutely zero hands-on experience at all. Our idea was that we would be able to apply all the things in the books against what an experienced teacher could show us and let us accomplish ourselves and to prevent ourselves from developing bad habits.
Over all, this was a good approach for us but sometimes I play “too dumb” too much, and I think I upset Mike a few times. Right off, I told Mike “I’m not interested in racing, only cruising” and I suspect I put up a communications block in the very beginning. Because of this Mike tended to “pick on me” a bit. I have a lot of other skills completely unrelated to sailing that apply to sailing but I wanted to learn the mechanics of sailing, perhaps a few nuances and even clear up some of the mystery. Physics, electronics, and various sciences are my strong points and being competitive in sports is not my fortes – thus at one point I had to ask Mike to stick to the basics and we even had him come back on Friday morning to just “go over” a few more things when we should have been out sailing.
This was a matter of “confidence” on our part. She was, for some reason not as confident in her ability to be helmsman, or skipper the boat as I was, and I wasn’t as sure of the mechanics of releasing the working sheet on a jib and switching to the other side as I should have been. I was very confident in her ability to drive the boat, and she in my ability to work the lines. Simply put, we understood it all and knew the other one could do it – but we were less sure of ourselves. Mike was very good at passing the knowledge along and we at listening, however, he was less helpful at “letting us make mistakes” I think. Perhaps he didn’t want us to, and of course my wife was terrified of hitting a big yacht with our smaller yacht.
That said, I will say that Mike is a truly a better instructor than I was giving him credit for at first. It took me until Friday morning to “get it” and I suspect it took him until nearly the last day to understand his students were trying come into a course with no preconceived, notions about sailing. In the end JoAnne and I both gained a vast amount of knowledge from an experienced, professional sailor. Sometimes preconceptions about “the way things ought to be” get in the way of both reality and fantasy no matter how you try to prevent falling into that way of thinking.
Just to illustrate this point, we came home and waited two weeks to put our own boat into the water (because we watched the weather). The day of launch the first thing we did was to go over all the details we learned in class – and did so without even really thinking about it. Specifically, we knew we were good on Legal and Safety issues, and we had all the information, paperwork for the boat, safety gear and other items that are required by state law plus things we felt we needed above and beyond that. Mechanical items like the engine, the head, and the galley all were working and ready to go. The house equipment, batteries and radio were good. Rigging, both standing and running were prepped and the mast was stepped and everything made ready. The sailing equipment was ready. Then we laughed and said, “Mike would be proud. We went over all the important ‘before we sail’ stuff”.
When we raised the sail for the first time on our boat in the water, we had fair winds, no bad weather and sailed for hours and grinned like idiots. We realized that Mike had taught us how to do the things better than we’d hoped and we got it all right the first time with our OWN boat. We have since put in well over 100 hours of sailing, most of that on a Colorado lake with fickle winds that come and go, or gust to more than we want, and can come from any direction when you’re least expecting it (or ready). We’ve weathered a Colorado Severe Thunderstorm (intentionally!); believe me, we have chased enough of them over the last twenty years to know how dangerous they can be.
I believe we are much better prepared for “what may come” now than we were when we started classes. Thanks to Mike and his teaching, we’re also more apt to take the time to decide when we want to sail, how long, and we’re certainly more careful to look over our “voyage” so there’s “no drama” than we might have been were we to have “self taught” sailing.
While we are not yet to the point of retirement -- that’s still a couple of years away -- we believe that we are better prepared by taking courses under professional tutelage rather than attending the School of Hard Knocks.
We realize there were a few items in the course we barely touched on, but now looking back we realized Mike already knew what we knew and what we didn’t know – and imparted that knowledge which he somehow guessed we needed. Playing “dumb” didn’t really work and probably wasn’t necessary for us to do.
I have rated the school on several items explained below. Obviously, my take on something might be slightly different from that of my wife, or others who go through an experience. Everything is certainly subjective based on my personal experiences. However, I tried to remain as objective as possible when looking at the breakdown on how I chose my final “score” for each item.
Specifically I looked at how well we received communication – essentially “customer service” and how they answered my “dumb questions” over the telephone and in emails.
This is my perceived recognition of our instructor’s personal experience and knowledge and is based on my own ideal of what a good instructor should be. How he or she presents their knowledge through the use and verbalization of their apparent “life experiences” within the subject they are teaching is as important sometimes as the material being presented. Mike’s instruction was based on his own, personal experiences as a sailor, a professional racer and through his many years of experience being around boats. He sometimes was curt with me on answers – but his presentation of an answer on something I perhaps should have known already was still based on his personal knowledge. Once in awhile he didn’t explain something to my satisfaction – like “how do you know what the wind is going to do?” perhaps because it was more of an experienced thing, rather than a scientific explanation he could give. That just made me work harder to figure it out – and it has paid off in Colorado winds so far.
Hands on training:
The physical hands-on experience we received, when to do something, how to do it, here “do it like this, and not this” sort of things. Over all I think the hands-on could have been a little deeper and perhaps we should have asked more questions on certain subjects. I can’t speak for my wife, but she certainly received a lot of experience at driving and docking the boat (as did I acting as deck hand) but overall I felt there were other things we might have concentrated on better. I know neither of us will ever hit a dock though!
(Explaining things in a way others can understand.) I examined the actual questions we asked and answers we received. As stated above, sometimes an answer wasn’t forthcoming, and our instructor would be occasionally curt with me. I chalk this up to both myself expecting a lot more, and perhaps causing a sort of “communications gap” at the outset of the course as well as the instructor’s personality. This certainly does not take away from Mike’s real knowledge of something like the wind conditions I explained above. On the whole, if I asked something about, for example, a chart, he would answer the question – but on occasion it was something I really “didn’t get” and wanted an answer and he expected me to “know it” from the book I suppose. This was a problem for me. I personally learn better from listening to instruction than from a book – and when I don’t understand a concept I ask questions to have a better understanding. This part was somewhat lacking in the experience. While I can certainly gather enough information from books, sometimes that verbal explanation is what I really need to completely grasp a new concept.
The physical location is taken into account because San Diego has some of the best sailing in the country. While I am certain I would have given the Bahamas a 5, or some places in Florida, I certainly experienced the best and perhaps the worst San Diego had to offer (we had a “Storm” that the locals complained miserably about, but in comparison to a Colorado severe thunderstorm it was a spring shower!)
The boat quality was taken into account, frankly because we lived on the boat for the whole time we were there, Sunday to Sunday and if it had not been well maintained and functional the experience would have not been very good. Knowing too, that previous students had learned and maintained the boat in the manner we ourselves did tells me that over time there would have been many more problems with folks who weren’t good housekeepers. If this were the case, it certainly was not evident. I base this not only on the boat we stayed on, the “Karina del Mar” but also the other boats we toured that belong to the school.
Finally, I looked at the cost, over all and took into consideration other schools and how they operate. If you have to drive to, spend the day, afternoon or evening and then go home and come back another day, how much gas costs, hotel costs and so on and add that up well then you can compare things more equitably. For most schools I talked to or visited on the Internet, sailing is accomplished on a smaller boat (typically a 22 foot J-Boat or something similar) and you do not get one-on-one training for the most part. Most classes are from 3-6 people thus less time for you to get familiar with the boat, less time to get hands on training and less time to do all the things you need to do to learn. So, taking into account hotel costs, travel expenses, gasoline, car rental and food and so forth, overall I could have saved some money at the expense of the course itself. On the other hand, overall the cost being much more than you would spend at local schools is something to consider as well. Basically, it comes down to how much one pays per hour for a ‘vacation’. We essentially paid approximately $25 per hour for seven days – including airline fees, food and the school fees, and out of it we received seven days of living on the boat (and the experience of doing so), paid for our trip there, paid for our food for those days and received excellent instruction.
Note that as comparison, a similar trip to Jamaica at an all-inclusive resort we have been known to frequent comes to, including airfare, parking at the airport and gas at roughly $19.00 an hour for 6 days of sitting at the beach and drinking and eating whatever I want. Overall, I could have sat on a beach in Jamaica at an all-inclusive resort and did nothing at all and saved money. But, tell me what fun is that?
Communication (before/after): 5
Instructor Experience/Knowledge: 5
Hands-on training: 4
Verbal Instruction: 3
Boat Quality: 5
School over-all: 4.4
We would highly recommend the San Diego Sailing Academy for those who are new to sailing, have little or no experience and want hands on training – but do remember to ask for more instruction if you feel it is lacking.
Out of a scale of 1 through 5, I give the school an overall score of 4.4 out of 5
If you’re looking for a cheaper course, something “closer to home” (unless you live in and around Southern California) you might want to shop more. But if your learning criteria are close to what JoAnne and I chose, and your experience is low then look at San Diego Sailing Academy as your school of choice.