Every advanced sailing nation’s teaching syllabus requires an element of experience. This enables you to gain something you cannot be taught – Sea Sense. Sea sense is roughly described as common sense linked to the sea, and it’s something that you can only gain through experience.
The internet is awash with cats so let’s have a cat metaphor. Not everyone understands cats. A cat will teach you with love and violence how to best treat it. The sea is no different.
The sea is best described as a being in its own right. It is fluid, and so huge even the greatest vessels afloat can be destroyed by it due to their relative insignificance. In understanding that you do not matter to something that could kill you on a whim, you learn to understand its ways.
Those with cats will rapidly learn how to read them to avoid being bitten and clawed for doing something that seconds ago was perfectly alright. Where your moggy flying into a rage will draw blood and a shout from the recipient, the sea is more like a pet lion where a nip could take your head off!
The answer with the sea and big cats is not that they are dangerous and should be left alone, though many will say the same of both, but you should learn the warning signs of all the moods and the next moves that come from noticing them.
They say that with driving cars you first learn to pass your test and then learn to drive. With sailing your initial courses such as the RYA Level 1 dinghy sailing course will teach you enough to get out on the water and start learning how to sail on your own. The more experience you get on the water, and watching others, the more you will learn the subtleties of sailing.
A prime example of sea sense is spilling the wind in a gust on a sailing dinghy. When a gust hits the complete novice may capsize or broach. If they haven’t gone over, in a panic they may dump their sheets and end up stopped dead in the water.
The more experienced sailor may see same gust coming from reading the water and ease the sheets. Their sails will flap a bit but they will stay on course and stay upright. After the gust passes, the experienced sailor will tighten up their sheets and continue with their planned route, while the beginner will be in a mess doing the same thing having lost ground to his more experienced rival.
The experienced sailor may see a pattern forming in the gusts and may make the decision to go in as, with an increased frequency of gusts and a generally building wind he or she will see that it could get a bit hairy soon.
If the novice isn’t soaking wet and so knackered they have gone in already, they may not see the patterns – or watch the less cautious, more experienced sailors who may be having a great time in weather they’ve encountered before, and make the decision not to go ashore. The novice who has survived the building winds without getting wet and knackered will end up in that situation very rapidly!
The sea as a whole will have commonalities with all stretches of water but there will be local factors. A reservoir will be prone to local factors on the water, perhaps with trees in the direction of the wind that cause turbulence. Though you would know to ease sheets in a gust from basic teaching and a little experience, you will learn from local experience what the wind will do next.
There may be a dead zone on the water caused by the vertical turbulence that may give you the wrong idea that the gust has passed, only for you to get nailed 15 feet later as you pass through the wind shadow. As a result local sailors will have a significant advantage over visitors in a race as they know the foibles of the local weather and waters – and can use this to their advantage in a regatta. It is for this reason Olympic sailors will be on the water in Rio every chance they get ahead of summer 2016, dodging dead dogs and viruses, but getting to know what to expect and where on the waterways they will be racing for glory.
The more experience you get at sea the less empty theory you will have learned and the more practical experience you have. Over my 35 years of regular boating experience I have had lee shores, engine failures, a boat has sunk… Rather a lot, though no one could honestly say that they were totally competent in all conditions.
Where confronted with a situation I have used my experience to get out of a problem unscathed, training may one day tell me I should have done it another way. Training gets you to the point where the sea will teach you even more. The more attuned you are, the more you will learn.