The National - Sail away
March 17, 2012

Hone your sailing skills on a cruising course off the California coast.

As a child, my choice of bedtime reading was not about fairies or princesses but instead about great women sailors. One of my favourites was Naomi James's At One with the Sea; she was the first woman to sail single-handed around the world via the Cape Horn route, a voyage that lasted 272 days. I also adored Clare Francis's books; in addition to her solo Atlantic crossings, she was the first woman to skipper in the Whitbread Round the World Race.

So when Tasha, an old college friend, suggested enrolling on an eight-day sailing course - as an unconventional way of getting together for a catch-up - I jumped at the idea. With her home in Canada and mine in London, we decide on the neutral territory of sunny southern California. The sailing school we chose, Blue Pacific Boating, is in Marina del Rey, one of the world's largest yacht harbours and home to thousands of berths and an even greater number of keen seafarers. We pull on our stiff new sailing gloves, tie back our hair and prepare ourselves for the mighty Pacific Ocean.

On our first day of class there are three American students: a middle-aged couple from the Midwest and a young woman in her teens with dreams of sailing professionally. Their sailing experiences are mixed - the couple had owned boats of their own; the teenager sailed Lasers every weekend at a local club. Even Tasha regularly went sailing as a child. I am probably the least experienced of our clutch. Although I had always eagerly accepted invitations to head out to sea, whether a leisurely day's sailing off the south coast of Cyprus or joining a crew on the Antigua "Round the Island" yacht race - I never amounted on board to much more than ballast.

Our first hours, disappointingly, are spent in a classroom. Fran Weber, the teacher, hands out reading material about the behaviour of wind, navigational tools and maritime law. Opening one book, I find myself on a page explaining the inner workings of a boat's lavatory.

Yet this is a hands-on course and by the afternoon we are on the deck of a 37-foot-long Beneteau called Teacher's Pet. We set about exploring the boat and attempting to name off different parts: the head, leech, clew, luff, foot and tack are the corners of a sail, for example. It is an overwhelming amount of terminology to remember but it slowly begins to make sense. Taking turns at different roles, we repeatedly practise how to untether the boat and motor safely out of its berth. Our first rushed effort is underpinned by panic; the last is much more calm and orderly.

We head out of the protected harbour and into open waters. The coastline here does not have the singular beauty of the Mediterranean nor the tropical feel of the Caribbean but there is something alluring about the long stretches of shore, and the contrast between the desert tones of the land and inky Pacific Ocean. The sea is dotted with sailing boats and motorised vessels throwing up a wake. Above us, planes soar up from Los Angeles airport- one of the world's busiest - which fronts the water.

We take turns at skippering and surprise ourselves at how easy it is to yell commands at fellow students who were strangers a few hours earlier. We learn to trim the sails, aiming to make the most of the wind whatever its strength or direction. Switching positions, we rotate between tightening and loosening ropes, as well as raising or lowering sails.

The most popular exercise is the man-overboard drill, because it demands skill in a pressured fast-paced environment. The "man overboard" is a life jacket we nickname Jean-Philippe. It is flung into the water, someone shouts aloud "man overboard" and then we swiftly take up our roles. One of us fixes our eyes on Jean-Philippe while shouting out to the skipper his distance and direction from the boat. Others handle the port or starboard lines (ropes). A nominated skipper instructs the crew about when to make a turn, be it a tack or a jibe. Another grabs the boat hook to recover Jean-Philippe from the water.

It astonishes me how Fran manages to turn a group of incompetent, although enthusiastic, landlubbers into somewhat decent sailors. Soon we are handling sails, lines and winches, and taking the helm.

In the evening, we return to port at dusk, my favourite hour of the day. The light is soft. Sea lions lounge on pontoons. Flotillas of boats jostle their way back into harbour. On board we are contentedly weary, our shins bruised and muscles aching. Gulls cry out overhead.

Unlike the other students who are staying at local hotels, Tasha and I opt to sleep on board Teacher's Pet. It turns out to be a wonderful arrangement. We walk to nearby beaches for an evening swim, stroll to Santa Monica for dinner; and read our sailing books, testing each other on sailing terminology or the boat's electric or plumbing systems.

Later, Fran informs us that we've passed our first theory and practical tests; we had notched up two ASA certifications in basic jeel yacht sailing and basic coastal cruising.

For the last few days of the course we move on to an elegant 42-foot-long Jeanneau called Altair. Our mission - and what we will be examined on - is to sail south to Catalina Island, off the coast of San Diego. There is a new trio of shipmates - a doctor from the east coast of the US and his grown sons - and we bond instantly.

Using a compass, nautical charts and dead reckoning, we set our course and head out to sea. En route we consolidate our sailing skills: tacking, jibing and reefing. We take turns at navigating both the old-fashioned way and using a GPS app on a smartphone. With so many instruments and backup devices it requires no genius to find Catalina Island but there is still a sense of satisfaction as we pull into Two Harbours to anchor for the night. Hearing music onshore, we swiftly launch the tender to investigate and find a beach party in full swing. We might have found Two Harbours without any navigation skills at all just by listening for the music.

On the last day, we sail back to Marina del Rey without a word of guidance from Fran, who awards all five of us the Bareboat Chartering Standard, a certificate which allows the holder to charter sailboats anywhere in the world. Tasha and I are now planning our next adventure on one of the seven seas.

Sailing events

Antigua Sailing Week
This world-class regatta on one of the Caribbean's loveliest islands draws hundreds of yachts here every April and this year they are reintroducing the beloved Round Antigua Race on April 28. Before that, the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta takes place showcasing elegant vintage yachts and tall ships. If you are not on the decks of a boat the next best place to be is Shirley Heights Lookout with its sweeping ocean views. There is a midweek rest day during Antigua Sailing Week when historic English Harbour hosts street parties and steel bands.

Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race
Sometimes referred to as the "Bluewater Classic", this race begins in Sydney, Australia, on Boxing Day (December 26) and ends in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. The benign nickname belies what is one of the world's toughest yacht races, which covers 1,000km and attracts boat owners from around the world. Head to Nielsen Park to watch the boats leave Sydney Harbour in the direction of the southern head. When the winner sails into Hobart the celebrations begin; watch the boat cross the finish line from Sullivan's Cove.

Les Voiles de St-Tropez Sailing Regatta
This is the final event of the St Tropez summer and the highlight of the Mediterranean sailing season, with an eclectic mix of some of the world's finest yachts (September 29). The fleet races in the Baie de St-Tropez where conditions can vary from a gentle breeze through to a gale-force mistral. Classes include classic yachts, the ultra-modern Wally class and America's Cup Yachts. The most popular event is La Grande Classe Trophy- by invitation only - and designed in the spirit of the English Regatta.