Your Money and careers writer for the NZ Herald

Conquering the high seas

After watching all those yachts on the harbour this weekend you might be itching to get among them. Diana Clement had a go at learning how to sail.

Suzanne Bourke's Sailing Away school of sailing offers a relaxed learning experience on her 32ft yacht, French Connection. Photo / Supplied
Suzanne Bourke's Sailing Away school of sailing offers a relaxed learning experience on her 32ft yacht, French Connection. Photo / Supplied

You're either a boatie or a landlubber. That's the reality for most Aucklanders.

Boaties are out on the harbour every time the opportunity arises. By accident, rather than design, I'm a landlubber, more likely to be found admiring Auckland's world class harbour from atop Mt Victoria, than on the water itself. So when the opportunity arose to tag along on a couple of learn-to-sail courses, I jumped at the chance.

I donned my non-slip shoes, slipped on a hat, slapped on some sun lotion and drove to Westhaven Marina to take my first one-day course with Sailing Away, a privately owned sail training company run by former primary school teacher Suzanne Bourke.

The day started with some explanations of the boat's equipment, such as the winches, followed by a session of handling the boat under motor in the Westhaven Marina.

If you can't get a yacht in and out of a marina, you're not going to get far in your sailing career.

Over and over again we took turns at pointing the boat at the rock sea wall, dropped the engine into neutral and reversed, just as it felt to the untrained eye that we were about to run aground.

Suzanne looked completely relaxed at our ham-fisted attempts to manoeuvre French Connection, her 32ft, $200,000 Beneteau Oceanis yacht.

We then moved out towards the Auckland Harbour Bridge to practise tacking and sailing close to the wind in the inner harbour.

It's an inspiring place to start, with the city in the background, cottonwool clouds over St Mary's Bay and a few boats starting to poke their noses out of Westhaven and Bayswater marinas.

Once we'd got the hang of the basics we hooned up and down past Devonport, North Head and Stanley Bay, taking turns at the tiller, gib sheet and mainsail with the wind gradually rising to 20 knots and then gusting to 30 knots.

One eye-opener for a beginner was just how manoeuvrable yachts are. When my favourite hat flew off my head and into the drink, it gave us the opportunity for man overboard training (which Suzanne carries a dummy for).

Almost the instant she realised what had happened, she called for us to go about and we sailed back to the hat, which was picked out of the water with the help of a long, purpose-designed pole.

The big words "Sail Training School" emblazoned on the sails of the French Connection kept recreational sailors well away from us.

Even when we thought we were about to run down a Devonport ferry - which, for the record, was hundreds of metres away - she responded: "There are seven of them and they will keep away from you. They are more worried about you and give us a very wide berth."

It helped that Suzanne has 26 years of teaching under her belt - 19 with primary school children and the other seven training would-be yachties.

Every part of the day on French Connection offered a training opportunity. Just before lunch we learned the theory of dropping anchor and then did just that off Mission Bay. As soon as we'd finished eating our lunch, it was knot-tying time, learning how to do clove hitches, reef knots, figure eights, bowlines and more. It was like going right back to Guides (or Scouts for the boys).

Always one to be interested in technology, I was amazed how high-tech yachts have got since I last took a close look at one. French Connection is 5 years old - about 20 years newer than many of the similar-sized sailing boats at the Westhaven Marina.

"Lazy jacks" make hoisting and lowering the sails a quick and straightforward procedure.

One of the great things about joining in a course such as Suzanne's is that you're thrown in with people from all walks of life. For example, two of my fellow students, litigation lawyers Jennifer and Nicola, had both hooked up with sailing-obsessed men, but weren't naturally inclined to a life on the ocean, so were trying to find their sea legs.

Many of Suzanne's students are seeking internationally-recognised RYA skipper qualifications so that they can charter yachts in Europe and North America. Unlike the old days when virtually anyone could front up and hire a yacht, 21st century insurance policies require that the skipper is trained.

After my Sailing Away experience, I was keen to try manning a smaller boat. Surprisingly there are few courses in Auckland aimed at adults, although, some, such as French Bay Yacht Club offer them.

I arranged to try the first day of a Royal Akarana Yacht Club Level 1 Introduction to Keelboat Sailing course, which uses a Yachting New Zealand syllabus.

The course covers the basics such as safety hazards and equipment to hoisting the sails and collision avoidance rules.

There's a lot to pack into a 16-hour/four-day course, and after 30 minutes of basic introduction by manager Kevin Robertson, we were down on the pontoon and out on a Flying 15 keel boat.

I gained confidence quickly as we ducked and dived between the boats moored in Okahu Bay. Usually students head straight out on to open water, but we needed to tack a few times with me at the helm, for the Herald photographer to do what he had to. The children who were on a holiday programme the day I called in for my lesson were towed out into the harbour, like a line of ducklings behind a rubber dingy.

Once out into the harbour Kevin showed me the ropes - literally - explaining the theory as I tried the practical - albeit a little bit nervously. For some reason the sight of a Fullers ferry hurtling towards the boat I'm in is always a bit of a white-knuckle experience.

One of the great things about being on a yacht, be it small or large, is the time to simply be. It's not all about doing. Kevin and I set the world to rights as we sailed across towards Stanley Bay, and then up to Bean Rock and around. He also discussed more of the curriculum, such as knots, winches and cleats, and how a sail works.

One of Kevin's comments got me thinking. It was that more than any other sport, sailing is an industry. The children and adults who are learning to sail can go on and make a career of it. They could be anything from sailmakers, to aerodynamics engineers or even instructors. Both Suzanne and Kevin changed careers in their middling years. Perhaps it's a new career for me.

The experience of learning to sail a large and a small yacht were similar in terms of theory. The Sailing Away experience was more relaxing and the keelboat more hands-on.

I may not be rushing out to buy a boat - although Zoe Hawkins of the French Bay Yacht Club told me that I could pick up something suitable such as a second-hand Laser on Trade Me for about $1000. But my experiences in sailing schools have encouraged me to get out on our harbour more often. My urge to buy a kayak has grown strong and I'll also consider signing my children up for sailing lessons while they're still young.

The most reassuring thing I heard in my two days out on the water was a belly laugh from Kevin when I asked: "So, what will I be capable of doing at the end of this course?" His off the cuff answer was: "Nothing." When we'd all recovered our composure, he explained that I'd be capable of actively crewing a yacht rather than simply being "ballast". But it took a lifetime of learning to perfect sailing.

In the meantime, if I choose, clubs such as the Ponsonby Cruising Club offer a Crew Matcher service to hook crew members up with yachts in need of an extra pair of hands.

Adult learn-to-sail

Sailing Away: RYA Start Yachting/Yachting NZ Level 1, $595 for 2 sessions of five hours' duration.

Royal Akarana Yacht Club: Yachting NZ Introduction to Keelboat Sailing, $390 for four lessons.

French Bay Yacht Club: Learn to sail course, $35 for two days plus annual club membership of $128.

Bucklands Beach Yacht Club: Level 1 sailing $390 for 15 to 18 hours.

Gulfwind Sailing Academy: Learn to sail course, $495 for two days.

Penny Whiting Sailing School: Learn to sail course, $700.

Other sailing schools can be found on The Coastguard Boating Education services website and on the Yachting NZ website.

* Anyone looking to start sailing should pick up a copy of The Boaties Book available for free through

- NZ Herald

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