When she was 10 years old, Sue Hargreaves read a book that sparked her lifelong dream to sail. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome is set in the English Lake District not far from the coast where Sue grew up. As an only child, she was entranced by the story of sisters and brothers setting sail in their own boat, using skills taught them by their mother. "It's the freedom of the story that appealed to me," she says.
Fifty-four years later, Sue realized her dream when she joined three other women on a Seawise Women Cruise out of Nanaimo. She'd heard from a friend about the cruise for women who were familiar with sailing but wanted to get more sea miles under their belts and try their hands at every aspect of skippering a boat under the guidance of a female instructor. Within a few hours of hearing about the cruise, Sue was booked and contemplating what lay ahead.
Even though Sue has always led a busy and active life doing yoga, Scottish Country Dancing, hiking and biking while continuing to work as a Library Assistant, she wondered if she would be fit enough for what she thought she would have to do. Having been out on boats before, she had heard directions like "jumping on and off" and was alarmed at the prospect. "But it turned out beautifully because you never, ever jump on or off a boat," she says with a grin. "I felt perfectly capable of getting on and off the boat because we were taught the right way. I didn't fall behind in anything we did - even climbing into the dinghy."
On board the 35.5-foot (10.82 m) Delphina were two women in their 60s, two in their 40s (one of whom was the skipper and instructor) and one in her 20s. One woman had a Coastal Cruising qualification and had sailed with her husband for 15 years but, because they'd divided the sailing tasks between them so efficiently, she was missing some skippering opportunities and wanted to regain confidence. Another woman lived on a 55' (16.76 m) boat and wanted to know how to use the sails properly so her home wasn't unduly tossed about or put at risk. The youngest crewmember had grown up on and around boats and, while comfortable, had not learned how to sail. Now, she wanted to know what it was her parents had done seemingly so effortlessly. Then there was Sue, who was full of nautical theory after taking the Cape Lazo Power and Sail Squadron course, but lacking in practical experience and with a lifelong dream waiting to be fulfilled.
The division of tasks, chores and duties on board fell smoothly into place. As everyone got to know each other better, laughter crept in and humour became a constant companion. Sue laughs at how many times the crew rescued Fred-the-Bread in countless man-overboard exercises, which served to use up the surplus bread on board while crew honed their boat handling and rescue skills. Not only did two Navy ships slow down to take a closer look at the increasingly skilled manoeuvres being performed, but a line of seagulls spotted the various Fred-the-Breads floating on the surface and enjoyed unexpected snacks. Skipper Rowena's expert guidance allowed each person to perform rescues using the man-overboard pole, a lost cap and slices of bread, each time bringing the vessel to controlled stability, which would, in real circumstances, allow for panic-free rescue of an overboard victim.
The five days proved sunny and bright, some were windy with choppy seas and others brought calm waters. Either way, the practises for handling the boat were undertaken. Everyone did everything many times over and nobody was left to feel they hadn't tackled the task to the point of comfortable confidence. Some found it a challenge to take accurate compass readings and use plotters to chart a course but, in the end, they did it. Others took a while to grasp the points of sail, but eventually caught on.
Several anchoring repeats provided entertainment for the other boaters at a picturesque and sheltered cove near Ladysmith Harbour. Since each sailor had to practise anchoring the boat, onlookers saw rope being measured, the anchor going down, being set only to be pulled up repeatedly. Boaters are generally gallant types and so when offers of assistance came, nobody was surprised. But the dedicated learners persisted until everyone was okay with anchoring techniques.
The good folks at Thetis Island Marina welcomed Delphina to use their docks for docking practise since there was plenty of space available. Gradually, an audience gathered consisting of other boaters and some who settled in deck chairs with drinks on the dock for a front-row view. With a brisk wind and energetic currents, everyone was set for some potentially dramatic entertainment. What they got, instead, was a series of superb demonstrations of how to dock a boat! Skipper Rowena calmly informed, reminded and guided, at first, but with each attempt she'd intervene less until each person docked the boat skillfully and unprompted. Many moments of triumph were experienced, much applause given, and some shed a few tears of relief after they had surmounted what had previously been, for them, a real fear.
Other tears flowed with the laughter and banter that became part of life on board. But the trip was not without its serious side. "We heard two maydays," says Sue, "and I found hearing them over the radio to be sobering. It brought home the reality of it all to hear of people in a dinghy while their boat was on fire. We were having fun, but we had to do everything demanded by the way of safety."
Sue and crew spent five days and nights learning how to sail, including: engine care, boat systems, safety checks, navigation, points of sail, anchoring, rescue techniques and rules of the road. Each sailor had a chance to skipper the boat and practise every manoeuvre as many times as each felt necessary. Every spare moment was filled with discussion on sailing, boating, mechanics, signals, navigation, boat maintenance and safety rules. They slept well, ate well, worked hard and laughed lots, and Sue says she would go on another cruise in a heartbeat. She urges others who have thoughts of booking a similar course to "just do it â€“ don't fuss around for as long as I did."
For the five women of Delphina, the words of the youngest member will remain in their memories and sum up the experience: "I'm having the time of my life," she was overheard telling her parents on her cellphone, "and everyone's ready to be certified!"
And they were. Each woman achieved her International Sail and Power Association's Competent Crew and Day Skipper qualifications.
- The Seawise Women Cruise is offered by Nanaimo Yacht Charters www.nanaimoyachtcharters.com 1-877-754-8601
- Tailor-made cruises can be designed to meet your needs: beginner to experienced
- Varieties of cruise and learn options are available from many operators on Vancouver Island, check the Internet or telephone directory.
- Don't let age hold you back - there are good boating instructors for all types of people.
- Don't be put off if the boats seem big, or look complicated: learn about them.
- Boating theory, navigation and practical courses and qualifications are offered by a variety of organizations including Canadian Power Squadron, Canadian Yachting Association and International Sail and Power Association.