In early 2013, I did the RYA Yachtmaster Theory course with the intention of completing the full practical course and test in the Solent during 2013. Unfortunately that didn't happen. As I was planning my sabbatical travel for early 2014, I had the idea of completing the Yachtmaster course in the Caribbean as January is the start of the main season. That would be much warmer than the Solent! A search through a number of RYA sailing schools lead me to one in Antigua that offered a Yachtmaster course that fitted in with my travel dates.
Antigua is part of the Leeward islands and has a very British history. That was evident landing at the airport as there was a BA plane next to ours and a slow immigration queue! I made my way to Falmouth Harbour and prepared to start the five day sailing course. Falmouth Harbour is next to English Harbour and now offers a large dock for superyachts. During the peak season, the number of people on board the superyachts far outweighs the town's population.
The RYA course instructor was a local Antiguan who is a cousin of non other than the great Viv Richards. Our yacht for the week was a 39ft Dehler which we lived on for the duration of the course. Most of the week was spent on a combination of navigation, sailing skills and theory as we took turns as skipper. There was plenty of man overboard drills where we had to pick up a buoy under sail power only. The Caribbean is known to offer "barefoot sailing" and we hardly wore shoes all week. The temperatures were in the high 20s and winds steady at 15 - 20 knots, perfect for sailing!
We made our way around the west side of the island and had time in Jolly Harbour (can't think of where they named that from), St Johns and finally Parnham Harbour on the north side of Antigua. That was next to Long Island which has some exclusive resorts which are US$10,000 per night. Our yacht moored right next door for a much cheaper rate.
We called into St Johns on the way back to the south side of Antigua and tacked between two large cruise liners. The dock offered duty free shopping, English beer and Premier League football on TV. Very tacky. Yuck. Fortunately we didn't stay there long as we waited for the cruise liners to leave and then headed out for our night sail. Navigation was with a chart, compass and depth meter only, no GPS allowed. It was a challenge as we negotiated a narrow channel between a long reef and the mainland which had no navigation lights. We survived!
It was a very intensive week as we were overloaded with information that was hard work to digest. We were all a bit weary by the weekend which was even more intense as it as a two day practical exam as we had to demonstrate we had learned the skills sufficiently to demonstrate we were good enough to be qualified as Yachtmasters.
The exam was assessed by an independent RYA examiner. He was a contrast to our laid-back Antiguan instructor as he was English and very strict with the requirements required to pass the exam. One of the sailing school staff ominously said that he was very strict and wished us luck for the weekend.
The exam itself was much the same as during the week but obviously we received no help from the examiner. He gave us a number of sailing challenges both with skills and navigation and then took us aside individually to ask chart and theory questions. In my wisdom (or stupidity) I had booked the course and exam to finish on my birthday. I skippered the last part of the exam as the sun set across the Atlantic and we came back into Falmouth Harbour.
We had to all wait and see if we'd passed as the examiner spoke to us individually about our results and feedback. Fortunately I'd passed! Out of the four students assessed only two of us passed so I was very relieved. We all headed out to celebrate and commiserate with some obligatory rum. To make the evening even better the Australia vs England one day game was on TV where England managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory :-)
Keywords: Antigua, Caribbean, Sabbatical, Sailing, Travel, Yachtmaster
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