Knowledge is Freedom


How upper-level cruising courses can take your passagemaking skills to new distances  (published August 2014)

Somewhere between Tortola and St. Martin I sat on the leeward side of the cockpit on a windy, pitch-black night and dropped a blinking strobe light into an empty one-gallon water jug and then sealed the top with duct tape. Across from me, two students sat watching, waiting; probably wondering how we were going to pluck this thing out of the ocean in such conditions. Moments later I heaved the flashing orb over the starboard rail along with some attached ballast and turned to watch it hit the water and shrink from view as the students shouted “Man Overboard! Man Overboard!”

We were two days into a coastal passagemaking course and after practicing crew overboard maneuvers during the daylight and going over the theories of trying to pick someone up at night, the students were quickly realizing how hard it was to spot an intermittently blinking light in a heaving seaway while trying to turn the boat around, trim the sails and get back to rescue the jug that we had endearingly named, Bob.

It is learning skills like these and more that make advanced sailing courses worth the time, cost and effort. So if you are thinking about taking the next step in your cruising education, here’s how it typically works.

The first levels of cruising classes are designed to get you familiar with the systems and characteristics of larger keelboats, introduce you to some basic navigation principles, solidify your skills operating the boat under power, teach you some intermediary storm tactics and hone your overall sailing skills. Effectively, sailing associations and schools are setting you up to competently and confidently take a cruising sailboat out for a week in a relatively small cruising area and then return the boat damage free.

But the question is often, what next? What are the next steps to learning the necessary skills to achieve your dream of sailing over the horizon? And what is the best way to continue using and polishing these skills once the classes are over?

Learning how to navigate should not be taken lightly, as being an able and prudent navigator is essential to completing safe and timely passages. Once you have taken basic and bareboat cruising courses—or have similar experience—the next step is to advance your skills at navigating the boat near shore or just out of sight of land.

Coastal navigation classes are typically done in a multi-day classroom setting and are bundled as a coastal passagemaking program so that you are learning theory and then applying it in real-world situations on the water. A good coastal navigation course will start by examining the basic principals of navigation that you already have and then delve deeper into how to navigate and pilot without electronics. (Learning how to navigate with electronics is usually done aboard the boat during preliminary cruising courses and then again during a passagemaking course.)

After reviewing the fundamentals of navigation you will learn about the different navigational references that are available to you and will cover topics such as dead reckoning and estimated positions; how to take quality bearings and ranges; the different types of fixes and how to plot them; how to calculate set and drift; how to read and interpret tidal and current charts; how to keep and use a deck log, and much more.

The majority of cruisers who put a fair amount of miles in their wake each year are doing so coastally. And with good reason, the coasts of the world are beautiful places to explore under sail. But they are also fraught with navigational challenges and idiosyncrasies that can test even the most experienced skippers.

For many students a coastal passagemaking course is the perfect extension to what was learned in the previous cruising courses coupled with your own practical experience, whether it was bareboat chartering or cruising on your own boat. Where coastal passagemaking curriculums usually take it up a notch or two is by putting students in charge of a voyage that will take them into conditions they have likely never faced before. Whether that is navigating in fog, practicing crew overboard maneuvers and sail changes at night, or learning how to be a better leader in an offshore sailing environment, you’ll probably be outside your comfort zone—which is how you’ll learn.

In coastal passagemaking, students will take what they’ve learned in coastal navigation and directly apply it to the planning and execution of navigating and piloting during every phase of the voyage. You’ll also work on skills including creating and maintaining a watch system; executing crew overboard maneuvers and handling other emergencies at sea; practicing various anchoring techniques; entering and leaving port in reduced visibility; reefing and changing sails, and more.

The thought of navigating with the heavens is a romantic notion that for many, unfortunately, is becoming a lost art. But if you are going to sail out of sight of land and across the world’s oceans, it is a good idea to learn the principals of how to use the sun, stars, planets and moon to help you find your way.

Just as a coastal navigation classroom course is bundled with a practical coastal passagemaking course, celestial navigation is often packaged with an ocean or offshore passagemaking experience. Typically taken over multiple days in a classroom setting, celestial navigation courses emphasize learning the theories and practical skills necessary to help you successfully create fixes on the boat with a qualified instructor during an offshore passagemaking course and beyond. There are also excellent celestial navigation courses that can be taken online and done in your own time at your own speed.

Celestial navigation courses usually start with a review of advanced navigational principals and discuss how they can be applied once celestial has been learned. From there you will learn how to use a sextant, sight reduction tables, an almanac and H.O. 249; how to properly use the sun, stars, planets and moon to navigate; and you’ll work with plotting sheets using various scenarios to plot fixes. Once the classroom portion of a celestial navigation class is complete you should head out on a passage soon to put your newfound knowledge to the test.

For many sailing schools, instructors and students, an offshore passagemaking class is the final step in the cruising curriculum. From preparing the boat to leave the dock to raising the sails and pointing the bow offshore, you’ll literally use everything you’ve learned from the classes that preceded it. And being that it is the zenith of cruising classes, it should be the most rigorous and stimulating, yet rewarding and inspiring, course in the whole series.

A true offshore passagemaking course will take you well out of sight of land for multiple days at a time for a true blue water experience. Here you’ll get to run-through the celestial navigation you spent so much time mastering in the classroom while practicing other types of practical seamanship—many of which were introduced in coastal passagemaking—including thorough vessel preparation, passage planning and watch systems; satellite and SSB communications and weather routing; offshore helmsmanship; emergency protocols and procedures; heavy weather management and much more.

Once all the classwork has been completed, the miles have been sailed and the tests have been taken and passed, now it is up to you to go out and keep advancing those skills you’ve just put so much time and effort into learning. During your end-of-course evaluation, at almost every level, most instructors will send you off with one piece of sage advice: get more experience.

And it’s true. Nothing can take the place of actually heading offshore in a sailboat and learning from what the sea throws your way. Find an offshore rally or race where participating boats are in need of extra crew, or put your name on a list to help deliver the boat back. Get in touch with delivery skippers who may be looking for qualified crew and let them know you are eager, willing and up to the task. You may not get paid, but you’ll keep ticking off those sea miles. Or, check out an expedition sailing experience that will have you crossing oceans with some of the most knowledgeable and mile-tested offshore sailors in the world. And if you’ve got your own boat, plan a voyage, cut the dock lines and set off across the horizon. You’ll be glad you did.

Find a course to fit your needs:
American Sailing Association
The Royal Yachting Association
U.S. Sailing