As promised, I'm writing a note about my experiences with the school. Cliffs Notes: Good stuff, hard week, worth the money.
Part of the package included a night's stay at the South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island, FL. My wife and I had a harborview room overlooking the marina. The package pays for the room itself but not any other expense you may incur (dinners, souvenirs, ship's store purchases, etc.). The room was nice, the restaurant food was good, and the resort staff was very friendly. We arrived Sunday afternoon for the Monday morning class. We swung by the Offshore office to say hi and make sure we knew where to be in the morning.
We showed up Monday morning about 845am for our 9am class start. We met the other student in our class and our instructor, Jim. There was another class going out the same morning (Bareboat cruising, not really sure what the difference is). Both classes were on Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 439s (shoal draft). There's was about a year old and ours only a month old. The engine oil looked very nice!
Anyways, we got settled on the boat and unpacked a little. I really can't remember much else from the first day, other than it was windy as hell out so we learned about boat systems and departure procedures. We then warped off the dock and out into the "playpen" on the ICW side of the island. We all took turns maneuvering under engine power. It was the first time my wife and I had the opportunity to handle a sailboat with an engine. Our club has Sonar 23 keelboats (no engine). It was rough going with winds in the 20 knot range. We were just motoring, though, so it was a good way to get a feel for the boat. We eventually practiced docking in the harsh winds and then settled in for the night. The other boat did not leave the dock that day due to the conditions. I'm glad Jim pushed us out. I always felt it's better to learn in rough conditions, especially when you have an experienced sailor with you as a bit of a safety net. Just a note: the boat was very well provisioned. We had plenty of food (except bread, we ran out by the 4th day or so). There was chicken, fish, shrimp, cold cuts, peanut butter, snacks, veggies, etc.
Tuesday was even windier. We did some classroom work at the dock in the morning and then were going to head out to the playpen to sail and then make a short passage to our first anchorage. We were going to follow the other Jeanneau down to an anchoring point. They left before us. We got underway (under power) heading out of the marina. On the way, we stopped at the fuel dock where we heard a Colgate 26 (from the sailing school) was aground and needed a tow (it was REALLY windy but I don't remember the numbers). A launch from the school went out to get them. After we were done at the fueling dock, we started on our way to the playpen. As we rounded the turn, we saw the launch struggling in the relatively rough seas to pull the Colgate back to the dock. We became a little fixated on that because the entrance to the marina is rather narrow so we concentrated on getting out of the way quickly so the tow could continue unabbated. We didn't realize some jackass lady was fishing off the seawall into the channel. Mind you, the channel is wide enough for two boats and thats it. Well, sure enough as we're heading out, we don't see her fishing line, she doesn't reel it in, and we run over it and start dragging her pole (with her running behind it) out to sea. She starts yelling that we caught her line, our instructor is yelling for her to cut it, but she of course doesn't have a knife. Why would you ever have a knife while fishing? Anyways, at some point the line breaks and she keeps her pole. We're now headed into some rough seas with high winds with good potential to lose our engine. Super. We had already committed to exiting the channel and the tow was about to turn in so we had to continue out. We exited the channel, passed the towboat, and started to quickly get ready to warp onto the dock again.
At this point, the engine was still running fine. We got ourselves ready, the student skipper turned the boat back in, and we successfully docked with no engine trouble. Oh, wait. I forgot! On the way back in, there were some manatees in our path so we had to loiter for a little while, hoping that our engine wouldn't cut out! Anyways, like I said, we successfully docked (student at the helm). to his credit, our instructor never took control of the boat. He let the students do the work (under his direction) even though we could have been in some trouble. Good confidence builder.
So poor Jim had to dive on the boat... That was an unexpected lesson! We took a long dockline and dropped it under the boat (under the rudder) and pulled it until we ran into the saildrive. We tied off the rope (under tension) and Jim used that rope as a guide to and from the saildrive. He checked the saildrive, rudder, and front and rear of keel. No fishing line was found. We got very lucky. At this point, it was getting a little later in the afternoon but there was barely enough time to get to the anchorage. Jim called the other boat's instructor. They had made it to the anchorage but it was really rough going. He didn't recommend coming out so we stayed in the marina that night and did some classroom work (after poor Jim warmed up!).
Wednesday morning we got up, did some classroom work, and planned our first passage on the "outside" in the Gulf. We planned a trip from Captiva (out through Red Fish Pass) down to St. James City. Total travel distance was in the vicinity of 25Nm, by far the longest distance I've traveled in a sailboat. It was still really windy. Since we actually got the sails up, I paid attention to the wind this time. Steady 20-25 kts, gusting 35+. The sailing wasn't too hard until we turned upwind toward a bridge. The beat was rough. We were heeled over hard and took in a reef while keeping a full 100% jib flying. We were running a little late and were trying to get to our anchorage before dock. Otherwise, it would have been prudent to take in the second reef and roll up some jib. Once we got close enough to the bridge, we furled sails and started the engine. We steamed into the ICW to our anchorage. On teh way, Jim explained the basics of anchoring. It took a couple of tries to get set, but we were satisfied after the 2nd try that we weren't dragging. The sun had just set but there was still enough light to see what we were doing. After being privy to a beautiful reverse sunrise (moon comes up orange like the sun), we had dinner, cleaned up, and sacked out. It was a hard day.
Woke up, classroom, planned our next excursion. I think we stayed inside for this one. We sailed up to our anchorage area around Cabbage Key and then did drills. We each worked on the quick stop and figure 8 crew overboard maneuvers. I went first and had it easy with winds about 12 kts. My wife went next and winds were up to 16-18 kts. It was hard going. Much more realistic, but MUCH more stressful. The 3rd student went after her and also had some trouble because the winds were touching 20kts again. We then finished our trip to the anchorage with a hard beat, got there around sunset, anchored, ate, and slept. We had the option of going ashore to an inn/restaurant but we were physically and emotionally very tired. I do appreciate Jim pushing us to work hard in those conditions and not take it easy and motor the whole way, especially with the COB drills in the rough weather. It's much more likely someone will fall off the boat when the deck is pitching in harsh weather. We need to know that we can handle the situation. We did. It took a few tries (and Jim emphasized the need to practice at home), but we got "Bob the fender" out of the water. Even when we were able to pluck him out while still moving too fast, Jim would call it a no recovery because there was no way in hell we would be able to pull a person out at that speed. It was hard, but helpful.
We did some quizzes and test reviews during dinner prep to get ready for the written exams the next day.
Friday morning began and we took our tests. My wife and I paid the extra $ to take the US Sailing cert tests for basic cruising and bareboat cruising. The other student took the regular Offshore test. We all passed. Yay. We planned our way back to Captiva without the help of our instructor, weighed anchor, and headed back to South Seas. The winds were much milder now that a high pressure system had moved in (probably around 10-12 kts). We made decent time and got back to the marina around 1130. We had lunch and planned our next excursion without Jim's help. Jim had judged that we were ready to take the boat on our own for the final night. We made our plan, did our rule of 12ths for tide, and showed him what we wanted to do. We had to be back at around 10am the next morning so we couldn't venture too far from the marina (unless we were going to get up at the asscrack of dawn, but that was not a good option!). Based on forecasted winds (N swinging to E during the night), we picked Chino Island. He checked out our plan, said it looked good, and we left him at the dock! We had a nice leisurely, unsupervised sail through the ICW to Chino. My wife drove us the whole way. I was very proud!
We set our anchor on the first try. The problem is, the wind was still out of the West even though it should have been out of the North by then. We swung too close for comfort to land. Once we realized this, we motored back up the anchor, pulled it up, and moved to slightly deeper water. We dropped again in 7.8 feet of water and set the anchor. This time, we set with our bow pointed into the wind (W). It might not have been the smartest idea (in retrospect) but hey, that's how you learn!
While we should have done our math ahead of time, once we took some bearings and were satisfied that weren't dragging, we did the rule of 12ths and determined we were sitting on 6' of water at datum. Perfect. We had a 5' draft and had been aiming for 6' of water for anchoring all week. Good guess.
We gave Jim a call and let him know we were anchored for the night.
Anways, we had a beautiful dinner in the cockpit since it had FINALLY warmed up. Early week highs were in the low 50s. Now were were in the high 70s. I grilled up some tilapia in aluminum foil packets with spices, onions and garlic. Yummers.
We realized we could be in an interesting position with regard to the anticipated wind changes and swinging. We were set to the West (with our stern towards the corner of the island) but were expecting a swing around North to the East. Through north and most of the way to east, the island was going to shelter us. St. James City would shelter us from the east. We were a little nervous/paranoid about dragging/tripping the anchor as we swung. We agreed on 2 hour anchor watches, split between my wife/I and the third student. We had a plow anchor (delta, I believe) in sand. On the earlier phone call with Jim, I had mentioned our possible predicament. He said that, if the swing happened slowly with steady tension on the rode, the anchor head might rotate and reset with us.
Anyway, we did our anchor watches and never dragged. We ended up swinging even further than anticipated! We started out set to the west, swung to north, northeast, east, and all teh way to about 130-140 deg compass. No dragging, lucky us. Around 1030pm, I poked around the app store on my iphone and download DragQueen, a great little free anchor alarm app. The problem was, you're supposed to "set" the position of the anchor when you drop it off the boat. Obviously it was too late for that. I instead "set" the anchor position where we happened to be swinging at the time and increased the alarmed distance from anchor a bit as a failsafe to our anchor watch. The alarm actually went off about 20 minutes after one of our watches because we had swung so far from our original position. I increased the distance one more time at that was good for the night. I wasn't too worried about catching a drag immediately since we would be pushed away from land and into deeper water.
So we woke up for good around 730 and were very satisfied we were still in the same spot. We had a quick breakfast, plotted our return course, weighed anchor and headed back to South Seas. Winds were very light that early in the morning. For a while, we were making 4 kts SOG which was good enough to get us in around 10am. The wind died out a bit and our SOG dipped to 3 so we decided to furl sail and motor the last couple of miles. Once we got close to the marina, I gave Jim a heads up call so he could meet us at the dock. He was just finishing a kids' lesson. After we docked, we started packing up our belongings and cleaned up the boat, removed perishables, etc. We got some nice hot showers ashore at the marina facilities and then headed back to the office to get our certificates, inserts for log books, exchanging contact info, and handshake from Jim. We had a really great feeling of accomplishment that day. We took an expensive and complex machine out into the water and brought her and us back safely, enjoying the trip all the way. The beginning of the week was especially difficult with the hard weather and tough situations but it really set us up for the rest of the week. We knew what we and the boat could handle.
So I guess a quick conclusion: We went into this knowing it would be a hard week. I was calling it a "working" vacation even before we arrived. We had no illusions we would be lounging about getting a tan. That said, the beginning of the week was particularly challenging, especially the really hard upwind beats in high winds without a lot of reefing. At the end, we were better for having experienced those conditions together as a crew (esp the COB drills, those took a LOT out of us because they took so many tries in tough seas/winds to get right). It was an expensive week, but in my opinion, well worth it. I plan on sailing the rest of the my life. At some point I want a boat of my own. This course sets the foundation for that.
I put some photos of the trip on flickr. You can find them here
. Note: for the couple of pictures of us heeling pretty well, we were in far worse shape than that for the most part! I only took those pictures when I felt secure enough to take one hand off the boat to snap the shots!
Disclaimer: I didn't take notes on the week (other than stuff to remember for test/sailing life) so this description is from memory and subject to error.
If you have any questions for me, please send them along and I'll do my best to answer them.