All hands on ropes

Fam­ily bond­ing on a cata­ma­ran in Croa­tia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - FIONA BRUCE

“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

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