Proof! Sail in 3 days

Sail in 3 days

Sailing Magazine sees firsthand how easy sailing really is to master!
A special report by Brian Fagan

Sailboats Inc. Sailing School’s chief instructor John Geisheker notes that docking “does not have to be the emergency that happens at the end of your cruise.” When sailing, he adjures you not to take “a vacation where you look at the telltales.” Using a carefully calculated blend of humor, hard information and anecdotal experience, Geisheker and his team of instructors run an extraordinary charter certification course that qualifies even a complete beginner to bareboat charter without supervision in three days.
Three days and some preliminary homework? I must confess I was skeptical until I spent three days in Bayfield, Wisconsin, watching a group of 14 students go through what is probably the most intense short beginner’s sailing course in North America. The certification course was the brainchild of Sailboats Inc. Sailing School President Jack Culley. He has always believed that sailing is a voluntary, family activity – a skill that is easy to master. “Sailing is fun, a way of life, so why not make it accessible to as many people as possible?” he says. His Charter Certification Course has done just that for 17 years. Here you learn the basics of safety, seamanship, navigation and boathandling, then you go out and practice, at first with an experienced sailor aboard, then on your own. Since the Apostle Islands lie close off Bayfield, the nursery is at the doorstep, with a fleet of C&Cs and Pearsons ready for enjoyable three-day weekends on Lake Superior.
Sailboats Inc. Sailing School’s course is a self-contained entity, not the first rung in an elaborate hierarchy of courses that seek to teach you different, ever-more arcane skills. The curriculum combines informal classroom instruction and intensive, on-the-water drilling. Drilling is the appropriate word, for the instructors believe that repetition breeds skills that become second nature. Technical terminology, useless jargon and irrelevant theory are kept to a minimum.

Day 1
Fourteen students ranging from their early 20s to 50s gather in the classroom of a local church, all silently wondering if their neighbor is a budding Dennis Conner. Geisheker, immaculate in shorts and his distinctive lawyerly black socks (he is a maritime lawyer in his other life), soon disabuses everyone by quizzing people about their reasons for being there. Most are small-boat lake sailors or people who had been around the water for years. One couple are complete beginners. Nearly everyone wants to build on their limited experience and charter in the Caribbean one day. Some have already done so with other people and wanted to learn how to do it on their own. Geisheker wastes little time on dreams. With simple slides, he leads everyone through basic definitions, fundamental sailing theory and critical terminology (port, starboard and so on). He points out that excessive heeling is “posing for calendars.” We also learn the principles of docking. Here the class excels, with clear diagrams explaining the effects of right- and left-turning propellers.

There was a lot to work with on the water that afternoon. As a silent, nonparticipating observer (a wonderful busman’s holiday), I watched as Geisheker took everyone through an elaborate pre-charter check, which included inspecting the bilge and even sighting and removing the engine dipstick. On the last day the check was taken further, when the four C&C 29s were rafted together, so potential skippers learned how equipment and layout can vary. (How many beginner’s courses work on that later-instinctive skill of boarding a boat and being able to operate it within a few minutes?)

We left harbor with a student at the wheel. The instructors only touch the helm when demonstrating something or in emergencies. Our crew of two couples hoisted the main and unrolled the jib, learned about telltales and were then told to “feel” the boat as we sailed to windward against a sprightly southwesterly. Within a few minutes, we had to reef in rising wind, a valuable exercise for neophytes. We tacked and tacked again. It was fascinating to watch the students gain increasing confidence as they began to feel the boat without the use of telltales or instruments. Nothing is better for one’s self-esteem than that magical feeling of being in the groove.

Then Geisheker taught the crew how to heave-to. I was astonished, for few beginning sailors even know what this most useful of maneuvers means, let alone practice it on their first day afloat. But heaving-to fits in nicely with the emphasis on safety and safe options. Heaving-to is an invaluable option for a confused or tired crew with ample searoom. Slowly Geisheker switched from drills to diagnosis, as all good teachers do. He used jibing as the first diagnostic exercise. I watch the students’ faces: looks of quiet satisfaction, excitement and, yes, apprehension and downright fear. Geisheker was also watching each individual, weighing their strengths and weaknesses, the ways in which their limited experience and personalities affected their thinking. He talked each student through each maneuver at least three times, while the rest operated the jib sheets and served as crew. “How can we do all this with only two of us?” I heard Jennifer ask plaintively as we tacked for at least the 12th time in a confusion of sheets and winch handles. But, as we returned to harbor, I noticed a growing confidence and sense of teamwork.

 Day 2
In the classroom we discuss anchoring and rules of the road, the dangers of not laying out enough scope and “sleeping the shallow sleep of the guilty.” We learn about ships in narrow channels, about port and starboard tacks, about the “mental flow charts” needed for navigation and pilotage. Then everyone embarks on a simple pilotage exercise with instructors hovering at their shoulders – this after Geisheker admitted to having a GPS on the dashboard of his car, the ultimate car toy.

Then we were afloat, this time for docking under real-life conditions where there were crosswinds and other boats to worry about. We started with port-side docking, then the starboard, learning the paddle-wheel effects of propellers, and how to use rudder to make the “two-fender squish.” Geisheker talked each student through the exercise again and again, instilling confidence, diagnostic skills and nice judgement. The careful classroom preparation belied critics, who say that everything should be on the water. Here, when the instructor told people to think about the paddle-wheel effect, they knew what they were talking about and applied it from the beginning. By evening, I began to see the payoff from consistent teaching by properly trained and highly experienced instructors all doing and saying the same to four students who stay with them on the water for three days.

 Day 3
All day on the water this time, with more docking practice and a new wrinkle offshore: crew-overboard drills. Again, the students learn the stakes involved, the basic principles and a simple way of recovering a crewmember (a life ring) under sail by making a 360-degree turn. This exercise teaches the vital importance of keeping the person overboard in sight, a sense of teamwork in recovery efforts. Everyone learns about the Lifesling and other techniques, but they do not practice them here. Then we’re off to lunch at nearby Madeline Island, where each crew anchors the boat again and again, learning the basics of entering an unfamiliar cove and staying put. Here, as with every exercise, there is what Geisheker calls “silent preparation,” the preliminaries to formal drills, including precautions like looking for traffic, identifying landmarks and wind patterns on the water. I was impressed that the emphasis was always on feel and refining basic skills, on “control, control, control.” Again, the rationale was simple: Prepare the students for being out on their own, for situations where things may get hairy, but where they know about potential options, the safe strategies to adopt and the basic skills to use.

There was no respite for anyone. It was back to more docking drills, reefing practice, tying three basic knots-round turn and two half hitches, the bowline and the figure-eight knot-as well as proper cleating. By the end of the third day, anxiety had given way to a growing confidence and knowledge of individual strengths and weaknesses. I even overheard a couple of students critiquing a nonschool boat’s docking.

Only about two or three percent of the students fail the Sailboats Inc. Sailing School certification course. Those that do can repeat on a standby basis for no charge. Many of those who do flunk are reluctant partners who have been cajoled into taking the course when they do not really want to. Successful graduates receive a certificate, endorsed by their instructor, with qualifications as to the next step. A few students are restricted to in-harbor boat operations, other advised to take along someone experiences on their first charter, still others limited to daysailing and no overnight anchoring at first. They are all advised to charter as soon as convenient, preferably more than once, to hone their newly acquired skills. Herein lies the rub of this certification course. Rigorous and intense, it is based on the philosophy that it is better to acquire the basics, then learn for yourself while enjoying a demystified way of life. And students who do indeed come back and charter will soon acquire enough experience to take the Caribbean charter of their dreams.

Student reactions were surprisingly sophisticated. “I learned confidence,” said Sarah, who had graduated from the course 12 years before. This time she was repeating with her college-age son. The little-used skills of yesteryear soon returned. Others talked to me about learning judgement on the water, where the real issue was not the basics, but learning when to reef and when to heave-to. Nearly everyone said they would be back soon. So far, so good, but I wondered what would happen a few years down the line. I visited Bill Phillips, who graduated from the course in 1989.

On his first charter he went out with an experienced sailor on board, but his last two charters have been with members of his family and have called on all the skills learned from the course. David Demers from Shoreview, Minnesota, was a 1994 graduate, out on his second charter in a C&C 29. He praised the curriculum for teaching him to process information on the water and for building self-confidence in his ability to make decisions. His course had been unusually demanding, for the students practiced docking in 25-knot winds, a real life situation that has served him well in his two subsequent charters, one with an experienced sailor, then a second on his own. In both skippers, I sensed a quiet confidence combined with humility that can only have come from a combination of sound training and practical experience.

Does the Sailboats Inc. Sailing School course work? After 17 years, more than 7,500 graduates and a projected 400 this year alone, the Charter Certification Course is a quiet triumph of sailing instruction. But, of course, everything depends on the experience and enthusiasm of the instructors. And Sailboats Inc.’s cadre of teachers is truly exceptional, most of them with a minimum of six to 10 years experience with the course. Lean to charter in three days? You bet you can, provided you embrace this philosophy of enjoyment, safety and sound judgement, and are prepared to take the plunge soon afterward and apply the basics on your own. I would ship out with most of the current crop of graduates any time. See you on the water – for a vacation without an emergency at the end!

Brian Fagan is a regular contributor to SAILING Magazine and an avid sailor out of Santa Barbara, California. Reprinted from SAILING, 125 East Main Street, Port Washington, WI 53074




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