All hands on ropes
Family bonding on a catamaran in Croatia
“Man overboard!” The cry rang out across the deck. This is what we had trained for, the most terrifying of emergencies, and it was happening now. Dan was in the water and the wind was carrying our catamaran away at speed, leaving him just a speck bobbing in the waves. That day it was my turn to be captain on board; alarmingly, it was all down to me.
“Note our GPS position,” I yelled to my husband, Nigel. “Alert the coastguard on the VHF,” I instructed my 14-year-old daughter Mia. “Don’t take your eyes off Dan,” I told my 18-year-old son Sam.
“Ready about!” I shouted, preparing to tack into the wind to bring us around. The boom of the mainsail slammed across as we edged closer to Dan, approaching on the windward side. Pulse racing, I stayed at the helm as Sam leant over the leeward side, ready to snatch Dan from the water as we passed. It didn’t quite go according to plan. I ran him over. As Dan disappeared under the stern, I reflected that it was just as well he was only a “Dan buoy” used for training. If he’d been an actual person, he would have been sleeping with the fishes by now.
What was particularly ignominious was that, as we rehearsed the drill over and over, the children were far better than Nigel and me. Still, if the worst came to the worst, at least we’d be OK. The kids would just have to fend for themselves in the water. It would be character building. This, by the way, was day one of our sailing course on which we had a week to master the basics of sailing a catamaran to pass our International Certificate of Competence. This would allow us the glorious freedom of being qualified to sail anywhere within 8km of the coast in daylight hours.
We had come to a marina outside Split in Croatia to meet our captain, Iain, an easy-going 23-year-old who would live aboard with us while he, literally, showed us the ropes. “How many people fail the course?” I asked idly as I browsed the huge navigational charts showing the coastline and an archipelago of islands. “About half,” he replied.
What? I was expecting a holiday with a few gentle sailing lessons thrown in and a nice framed certificate at the end. It never occurred to me I might not pass. From that moment, we took it seriously. And it was rather like being at school, though with sunshine, a cooling breeze and a clear, lapis-blue sea as our playground. Each day started with the business of getting out of the marina — not half as hard as getting in, but it required teamwork, much tying and untying of ropes, hauling up the lazy line, pulling in the fenders and a steady hand on the catamaran’s two engines.
We then took turns to plot a course on our marine chart using a Breton planner (no electronic GPS for us, we went old-school), note some way points en route by which we could tell if we were on course and, most importantly, choose our first stop for lunch and a swim. We drew lots to decide who would be captain for the day, which gave the winner a good excuse to order everyone else about without actually doing too much. Once out of the harbour walls, we would hoist the sails, cut the engine and the sea was ours to command.
No, of course it wasn’t. For the first few days I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. Take the navigation, for example. This was my personal nightmare and I had to crack it to pass. On day two I was nominated passage planner. I pored over the fantastically complicated charts, worked out the angle of trajectory we needed to travel, painstakingly drew a line with my pencil and ruler and showed it to Iain for his approval. He pointed out we’d sail directly into an island instead of sailing past it. I tried and got it wrong again. I’d forgotten to factor in something baffling called magnetic north instead of true north. Then there was a fiddly little calculation called a three-point fix used to check your exact position. It all reminded me of sitting at the back of the maths class at school and dreading that I might be asked to come up with an actual answer.
As I sat at the table in the cockpit (where normally I
Sailing into the harbour of Hvar, Croatia; the town of Skradin, above