Learning Plan for Cruising as a Couple
Ready to sail into the sunset? Not so fast!
If you're like many couples, you may be coming into cruising having different levels of sailing experience. One person may have a lot of experience where sailing is second nature, while the other has had more limited exposure or has had less of an opportunity to learn. One of the things we have observed over the last few years is that this disconnect can be a source of friction on a boat when it comes time to set sail on a cruise together. The friction can come not because of the skills gap but by not being on the same page about your learning plans and how to help each other continuously improve.
Although I've sailed on Stephane's previous boat, taken navigational courses and was bareboat certified before we stepped into cruising, he just has much more time on the water and sailing is intuitive to him. Over the last couple of years, I've gotten more comfortable with boat handling, maneuvers and docking and have been working hard on my passage and practical sailing experience but it's a journey. We have worked through many of our initial disconnects but as we have been taking a lot of training this year, we have observed and discussed with other couples ways to approach learning and preparation so the cruising dream starts off set up for success and neither party gets frustrated.
As we move to a Performance Catamaran, we will both be leveling up and have taken this past year to be much more disciplined about how we learn together, and what we need to individually get better at so we can safely and comfortably sail our new boat with confidence as a team. One one hand I want him to learn more so we can be in the best situation, but if I don't continuously learn the gap will only get bigger. We wanted to outline some learning categories we hope you can find helpful when you are developing your own learning and development plans.
Please note, we are not affiliates with any of these recommendations, we just found them useful.
Basic Theory, Navigation & Practice at Home Skills
Sailing is an activity that requires both theoretical knowledge and practical skills. So much can be learned before you even step foot on a boat, making you more confident and less overwhelmed when you finally take that first class. There are many sailing theory videos on YouTube but we think it's good to get more programmatic online help if you can. This is often offered through local sailing clubs but it's also worth looking into structured online programs as well. A good online course will cover basic points of sail, some navigation, tides, colregs, and safety.
I really liked the NAVATHOME courses and did that myself as Stephane was also preparing for his RYA certification. They offer many course levels but I really liked their approach and all the study materials.
NAVATHOME.com - Basic Training Online Course $40 everything is online and you can get a feel for how the program works. You can finish this or sign up for a more involved course like Day Skipper or Coastal Yachtmaster. The Day Skipper Online Course is $280 and they send you the course materials, charts and study guides with an online component and access to instructors.
It is also helpful to practice some basic things at home. Here are some examples:
Practicing Knots - There's tons of youtube videos and cheats, it just takes practice!
Line Handling - This will give you a head start when you step onto a boat. We have seen a lot of couples in courses who may have sailed together but perhaps haven't really docked before. It's a bad start to an experience when the skipper is at the helm and the first mate is trying to figure out how to throw the line at a cleat for the first time. How do you hold the line, how do you throw the line, how do you make sure you don't lose the end, what do you attach and how fast do you attach it. This is a great activity to set up at home in your backyard and have fun practicing together. It takes the pressure off when you get on the boat for the first time in a couple’s lesson.
Sailboat Terminology - Familiarize yourself with sailing vocabulary will help you communicate more effectively right out of the gate. Here's a site with all the basic nuts and bolts.
ColRegs - We all should know and learn the ColRegs and there are many tools online. At a minimum understanding right of way and reading the buoys and markers. Check out MasterColregs.com, they offer interactive learning tools for $45 for 6 months and there's mobile apps out there with flashcards.
By taking the time to learn sailing theory and practice some sailing skills at home, you will be better prepared for your first sailing experience or lesson.
Boat Handling, Roles & Crew Communication
Sailing is a team sport, (even if you are married to a former racer who likes to do everything himself :-). In order to be successful at cruising, we had to work through roles on the boat during a maneuver and get on the same page on communicating during maneuvers. Easier said than done but so worth the investment in time and practice.
One of the most challenging things to do when sailing as a couple isn't the sailing, it's the motoring maneuvers in crowded marinas in tricky wind situations. Depending on the size of the boat, these are actually three-person jobs, not two-person jobs! It takes communication, coordination, and practice. We spent a lot of time when we got our own boat and had some close calls but when you are out cruising you are not trying to level up - you are just trying to get it done without breaking anything with a full audience at the dock!
The good news is a lot of these tricky bits you can discuss on land ahead of time and they are great conversations to have before you are behind the wheel.
Discuss Motoring Maneuvers - Approaching a marina, docking, using spring lines, anchoring, med mooring, stern ties and rafting up. Discuss wind angles when approaching and leaving the dock, chain ratios, wind angles in a med moor situation when the person at the helm has the anchor down and is feeding the line to the person swimming to shore (or in a dinghy) but the engines need to be in reverse due to the wind. Get a whiteboard and discuss the situations ahead of time.
Experiment with Roles - It is important for couples to discuss their roles while sailing. For example, one couple may decide that the person at the helm will be responsible for steering the boat while the other person handles the lines. Stephane and I learned it was better for me to be at the helm while he dealt with the slime lines or when we were tying stern ties to shore in a med mooring situation. His arms and legs are longer so he can reach easier in tricky situations. That means there may be a learning curve for the person at the helm, so don't be afraid to mix it up and get outside your comfort zone.
Discuss Risk Management & Operating Procedures - Sailing is an activity that comes with a certain amount of risk. In order to minimize the potential for accidents, it is important to have well-defined operating procedures and risk management strategies in place...before you are in an emergency. Also, while there is one skipper on the boat at a time, both people need to execute in the event something goes wrong so being on the same page on risks and prevention is important and will keep the tone calm in the event of a urgent or crisis situation. Read more about setting up a Risk Plan here.
Practice, practice, practice.
Practical Sailing Skills
This is where I have been spending a lot of time this year while Stephane was in the classroom learning more specialized skills. At the end of the day, being a good crew member comes down to putting in the hours and facing different situations.
Sail a LOT! - Get as much time on the water as possible to learn rigging a sail, adjusting trim, changing sails or putting the main up and down. Take classes at a local sailing club or use charter vacations as a chance to practice. Yes, it's a vacation but do some man overboard maneuvers or fiddle with sail trim. With enough hours you encounter problems like an override in the winch, a spinnaker problem, or a sheet cover splits. All of it is great experience not only understanding how to solve the problems but in creating a new point of reference for what real cruising entails.
Ladies-Only Sailing Courses - I strongly recommend that if you are a woman who is coming in with a steeper learning curve than your spouse, try to take an all women's sailing course. WHY? Because men are helpful. They want to jump in and do what comes natural to them to ease your burden because they cherish you, but that's no way to learn. I firmly believe everything on a boat a woman can do as well as a man, that's not the point. I've done a lot of both women's and mixed classes by now and you just learn different things in different ways in an all-women environment. On the flip-side, while your spouse may be a great skipper, he may not be a great instructor so expecting him to be isn't fair right? By investing the time in an environment that is tuned differently, you can cover double the ground and progress faster! What it also does is it teaches you how you best learn sailing, so when you are practicing together you can tell him things like 'please give me a moment to think it through, don't give me the answer' so he knows you learn by doing. Or, when I was first learning to dock the boat I told Stephane, 'I'm going to tell you I don't feel comfortable during the maneuver but that doesn't mean I want you to take over unless I tell you to.' The way I worked through my anxiety initially was I need to share my discomfort, but I didn't want him to let me get out of it.
Jump on a Boat for a Race - Stop by a local sailing club who does races and ask boats if they need crew. Come early, bring a good attitude and something tasty to share with the crew to increase your chances to get a spot. We both agree that you learn the most in regatta or beer-can racing because there are more sail changes and points of sail. You can learn a ton just watching a spinnaker go up and down, and how the crew works a sail change while doing a turn around a buoy.
Do a Passage - Join an offshore passage or sail with others for a week. I did a passage with 59 North from Key West to Bermuda. I knew much of it was upwind and I wanted the challenge, so don't be afraid to book something hard to see how your body and mind will handle something new. Whether you love it or hate it, you will know BEFORE you commit to buying a boat!
Be Crew on Your Boat - We love this most about Outremer because all of the courses offered are on the kind of boat we will be sailing. See if your broker or boatyard offers something similar or sail with people on a boat similar to the one you plan to get. Even when you get your boat - regardless of how experienced you are - consider getting a skipper who knows that boat and all its systems. It will shorten your learning curve because you will be comfortable with how far you can push the boat and the nuances of that particular vessel. Ask your broker if they can help you find someone to help you learn the systems even if you are getting an older boat.
Advanced & Specialized Skills
Even the most experienced skippers need to continue their education by taking advanced sailing courses such as celestial navigation, offshore maintenance, diesel mechanics, situational failure, heavy weather sailing, and more. By taking these specialized courses you can expand your knowledge to be better prepared for any situation while underway.
Diesel Mechanics - Since we are getting a new boat, we can't service the engine ourselves for the first two years anyway based on Volvo's warranty. But knowing how to diagnose a problem is half the issue. It's also good to be familiar with what needs to be done so when you get a quote from a local Volvo shop you are aware of what you do/don't really need.
Offshore Maintenance - From the second you get your boat it's in the process of being torn apart by mother nature (or user error). Getting a solid maintenance schedule for everything on the boat is the key to prevention. We will post a longer blog on this topic in the future as we are developing our maintenance plan now for our new boat.
Heavy Weather Skills - It's important to have a good idea about what you should do when you encounter heavy weather or big seas. Every boat is a little different so gather as much information as you can for your particular boat. What's the best plan to slow your particular boat down, does your catamaran heave-to or do you do something else, what's your plan in a hurricane? Use these scenarios to include in your Risk Management plan so you both know the game plan.
Celestial Navigation - A lost art or a useful skill? Stephane took this more out of curiosity than anything but I like the idea that he would know how to figure it out if we ever needed it.
Specialized Navigation Software - If you plan to use deeper navigation software, definitely invest the time in a deeper training. The sailing industry is great at building boats but honestly still has a way to go in developing intuitive software. It's worth the time to really understand the software features so you aren't trying to learn on the fly. The industry just isn't user friendly yet.
Ropes and Lines - This is a great course to learn rope work and how to make attachments, lashings, whippings, make repairs, fix a halyard, etc.
Courses to take as a Couple
Now you are ready to sail off into the sunset with the love of your life, but nothing in the world kills the mood faster than bickering about a weather window. While there are things you can do to learn separately, there are a few sailing classes you should take together. By doing them together, you'll not only learn the skill but also develop a shared approach and philosophy which makes decision-making as a couple easier later.
Weather - When you are on a sailboat your entire world revolves around the weather so it's everyone's job to care about it. Leaving the weather decisions to one person only sets that person up to be utterly interrogated either before or after the onset of some unpredicted weather situation. There's the seasonal or prevailing winds, large weather systems, local microclimates and katabatic wind patterns to consider, along with climate change. If you take a weather course together it will give you an opportunity to discuss risk tolerance and how you will make weather-related decisions or whether you will leave the boat that day.
Navigation - Both people will need to know how to use the navigation equipment on board and how to read the charts if you are double-handed. For the person with less experience, it's good to take a basic class like the one covered at the top of this blog. Then, you can take a system-specific course together to learn how to use the chart plotter and how to read charts.
Safety at Sea - Not only is this class fun, it's great to practice what to do in a fire, how to inflate and get in and out of a life raft and deal with man-overboard in a calm situation. There is nothing worse than trying to learn how to operate a fire extinguisher when you are trying to put out a fire.
Marine Medical/Triage - Neptune doesn't care who the trained nurse is on board. We believe both people need to understand what to do in a medical emergency to stabilize and diagnose the situation. There are books you can get and read ahead of time, but nothing beats a great marine medicine offshore course. We are lucky that Outremer offers this as part of their courses because every time we tried to book one previously it was already full.
Sailing can be a great experience for couples, or it can start off completely on the wrong foot if two people come into it with different levels of experience and expectations about what to do and who is doing what. With the right learning and development plan you can collaborate on a shared approach to learning, sailing and decision-making that each person can feel really good about. Not only do you need the necessary skills, you need to work together to make the skill gap work as a strength for you instead of a weakness. With great learning, communication and preparation everyone is more comfortable on the boat and make the idea of sailing into the sunset a lot less scary.
Good seamanship takes decades to be great at so remember it's a journey!!!