Want To Sail Your Own Boat Through the Mediterranean? One Writer Learns How

By Cathrin Schaer
Crete Island in Greece. Photo / Getty Images

Writer Cathrin Schaer has a long-held dream of sailing her own boat through the Med, and a low-key obsession with Below Deck. She decides to make it a reality. The first step: learning to sail on the sunny Mediterranean.

Reversing a 13m yacht in a Spanish marina is a little different to parallel parking your car. But not that much. It’s all about the angles, as my driving instructor in Auckland cried out, his voice only just betraying his terror, all those years ago.

Happily, unlike a car, you can hang what they call fenders — they’re like portable boat bumpers — all along the side of your yacht, so that if you do happen to be approaching your dockside parking spot a little too fast, there’s something to cushion the blow. Plus in many boats, you can actually walk around the steering wheel so you can drive backwards. How cool is that? So all in all, reversing a boat is not half as hard as I’d expected.

The Spanish marina lesson was all part of working my way towards the ultimate adult dream holiday: Sailing around the Greek islands. Swimming in the Mediterranean by day, fresh fish dinners at rustic tavernas at night, gin and tonics on the yacht at sunset. Dahling! You’re already picking out the perfect cotton sundress for this coming summer’s low-key yet glamorous adventures in Europe.

There’s only one problem: Money.

Hire a sailboat from some reputable charter companies in Europe

It’s likely that you don’t own a yacht in the Greek islands and if you can’t sail yourself, organising this kind of fantasy vacay means you will need to charter a boat and also hire someone to sail it for you. Using an established charter company in Europe, the yacht itself will cost anything from around €2000 (NZ$3500) in the low season (when it’s raining) to up to €6000 or more, mid-summer. Then on top of that, you’ll also have to hire a skipper to help sail the boat for at least another €1000, probably more.

But hold up, there is another way to make this daydream come true. You can charter a boat privately via a website like Click and Boat, which is a bit like an Airbnb for sailboats. Depending on the boat you choose, that can halve the charter price. Divide that cost by passengers and, if your boat is fully crewed, you’re looking at a week’s accommodation for less than you’d pay at a nice hotel. To keep the price down further, you’re going to need to sail the boat yourself. And to do that, you’re going to need a licence — otherwise, nobody in Greece will rent you their boat.

This is the part you need to prepare in advance — yes, by getting a skipper’s licence and doing things like learning to parallel-park a boat. It sounds intimidatingly adventurous, especially if you’ve never been sailing before or watched a lot of America’s Cup races. All that grinding. All that yelling. All those sails flap-flappin’ about.

Acquire a sailing licence from a respected organisation

But it is possible. One of the best-known and most respected organisations to provide these licences is the British Royal Yachting Association or RYA. The organisation is the UK’s “national governing body for dinghy, motor and sail cruising” and they say that more than a quarter of a million people do some sort of RYA training every year.

Most begin with what’s known as the “Competent Crew” course, suitable for people who’ve never sailed before. Some leave it at that. But others like to progress rapidly through various levels in a short time, going from beginner to the RYA’s more advanced “Yachtmaster” qualifications in three to four months, completing what are colloquially known as “zero to hero” style courses. The latter allows you not just to charter a boat but to work professionally in yachting.

Despite an unhealthily long-running obsession with the reality sailing show Below Deck, that’s probably a bit much for me. I don’t want to clean up after assholes on a superyacht, I just want to be able to charter a boat independently with a few friends and get on with my adult dream holiday.

This is why I have signed up for a two-week RYA course with a company called Costa Blanca Sailing in Spain, operating out of the picturesque coastal city of Alicante. The city is down the coast from Barcelona, home of next year’s America’s Cup races.

I’ll start with the beginner’s Competent Crew course in the first week but I hope to finish the second week with my Day Skipper license, which, the RYA says, means you can “skipper a small yacht in familiar waters by day”. The licence is accepted by charter and insurance companies around the world.

Take a two-week course in Spain of non-stop sailing lessons

The two-week course in Spain, which includes 14 days of non-stop lessons and sailing, accommodation on the boat, breakfast and lunch daily, will cost around €2000. This makes it slightly cheaper than similar courses in New Zealand and far less expensive than places like the US, where such lessons tend to cost double or more. Plus — did I mention this already? — I’ll be in Spain.

So for two weeks in April, when I’m not eating tapas and drinking sangria, I will improve my seawomanship, learning how to raise sails, how to tie a decent knot or three and about the fact that sheets on a boat have zero to do with beds. I will also learn how to give orders in a stern captain-like style, something that, it turns out, is much harder than expected.

There’s no real point in boring anyone with further academic details but, suffice to say, it was a lot harder and required far more focus (and less tapas and sangria) than you’d initially think. The RYA often warns participants that they shouldn’t expect a holiday.

For example, we spent four days in a classroom looking into things like tidal zones, how to use a handheld compass to navigate and nautical charts to plot a course. That was particularly tricky for somebody who is usually completely reliant on Google maps when in a foreign land. We did not go swimming once and the only time I got to work on my tan was one afternoon we finished early. As a grown woman with an established career and control-freak tendencies, I haven’t tested myself like this — studying something I didn’t have a clue about, adventuring outside of my physical comfort zone — for years.

On most days, we would sail in the afternoons, having spent mornings learning about boating safety below deck, what various coloured buoys mean and how to know if a huge cargo ship is coming directly towards you in the middle of the night.

It was like having a mysterious secret society revealed to you. Among many other things, I now have more than a passing acquaintance with latitudes, longitudes, fairway buoys, bilges, channels, storm jibs, uphauls and tidal streams as well as the amazingly archaic nautical terms that British sailors are still supposed to use (side note: don’t try this in any other language; they also use weird sailing terms for everything). Lee ho, chaps!

Oh and that, on a boat, sheets are actually ropes for pulling sails in and out.

It was important to remember all that, not only to avoid being crushed by a giant tanker, but also because there was a short exam at the end of the course in which you’re expected to prove that you paid attention for the past few weeks.

While all this was going on, living on a boat in the Alicante marina also felt unexpectedly glamorous. Every time you walked past the gated entry to quays crammed with gleaming white superyachts and their Below Deck-style crews with mops and brushes, you felt special, part of the elite club of international boaties — even if your membership was only temporary. I am absolutely sure the ordinary, non-boating people dining in restaurants around the marina were jealous of us.

On the other hand, living on a boat — about the size of a large caravan but with lower ceilings — with strangers for two weeks, I also learned far more about them than I wanted to. During the two courses, I was joined by eight strangers, aged from their late 20s into their early 60s, all with very different levels of sailing experience. There were over-enthusiastic Americans, overly polite Britons, competitive Germans, studious Chinese and a couple of hard-partying locals who were possibly expecting to sail to nearby Ibiza (they dropped out after three days).

And okay, so this may be a gross generalisation and unfairly based on a very small sample, but there also seemed to be a big difference in the way that males and females approached something like this.

The majority of the men seemed to think they were born to be captains, even if they’d never been on a boat before. One fine fellow regaled us with wild tales of his yacht-racing prowess before sheepishly asking how the toilets worked. Pump four times to flush, four times to rinse, repeat, one of the lady crew advised.

As one of the women pointed out later, it’s like that old adage about how males and females perceive a job advertisement that requires, let’s say, 10 different skills. “Guys see that and think ‘oh great, I have one of those skills, I’ll apply’,” she joked. “Whereas women see it and think ‘oh no, I only have nine of those skills, I’ll never get it’.”

Having said that, the masculine confidence did pay off. The guys were more willing to give difficult manoeuvres a go, even though they’d never even come close to a berth that tight before. “Fake it till you make it,” one bolshy Polish chap admitted, laughing, as he took the helm.

Misplaced or not, confidence also made the guys more willing to be bossy when it was their turn to give commands.

“Could you go up on to the foredeck and remove that line that’s caught up behind the mast please?” I asked one of the other crew members, when I was supposedly running things.

“Stop it! Stop saying please,” our erstwhile teacher repeated, criticising my more collaborative management style. “You can say thank you, after your crew has done something. But you don’t say please.”

Given our New Zealand culture of “please-sorry-thank-you,” it was a tough habit to break. I think the only time I managed to issue commands in a ruthless pirate style was during stressful moments — common enough in sailing — when ropes are dangerously tensioned or sails flapping wildly.

Experience all the sea conditions the Mediterranean has to offer

The sailing we did offered a taste of multiple Mediterranean conditions. It ranged from almost-windless days when we got sunburned ears while endlessly practising man-overboard drills, to choppy waves, darkening skies and gusts of around 26 knots — that’s Force 6, in sailor speak — that had our boat spinning along, heeled over, and one of my fellow students chucking up his lunch.

By the end of two weeks, being out at sea was no longer a worry. Off the coast of Alicante, there wasn’t a lot of traffic and plenty of room to manoeuvre. Having studied the rules of the road, we knew when to give way, what to avoid and (mostly) where to go. Our tough-but-fair teacher told me I had passed and I was now licensed to “skipper a small yacht in familiar waters by day.”

But, after just two weeks, am I actually ready to? The question was something my fellow students and I discussed a lot. We learned a lot and we all felt more confident. But everyone had to admit that we were always under the watchful eye of our salty-old-sea-dog instructor and we knew that if something went horribly wrong, he would take charge. That probably gave us all the illusion of control.

Additionally, serious sailors, especially in New Zealand, are well aware that actual experience on the high seas trumps any academic certificate and that it’s the ocean, and the weather, that are really in control.

So I’ve concluded that, while I’m not completely sure whether I’m ready to charter a yacht on my own, I’d definitely be happy to give it a go accompanied by friends who have a similar level of experience. And now, two weeks later and back in my landlocked home in central Europe, I also realise another thing: That most of all, getting the licence gave me an unexpected feeling of achievement, the kind of feeling that I don’t think I’ve had since I successfully learned to parallel-park a car in Auckland.

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