Skipper Academy

Skipper Academy:

From the Skipper Academy Facebook page – photo credit: Fredrik Nystedt

I have just finished one of the most intense weeks of my life.

As some of you may know, I have been trying to land a job skippering yachts for a vacation company called The Yacht Week this summer. Unreal, right? Well, the dream is now one step closer to reality. I made it through their academy in Croatia. Before I go into details about my week of insanity, a little background: I first heard about The Yacht Week back in 2012, as a result of a Youtube trailer that went viral. A friend – who knew I sailed – showed it to me while I was still at school. From then on, the idea of doing the Yacht Week kind of got stuck in my mind. At the time, I was unable to attend Skipper Academy (their annual training week) due to time conflicts with my exams. I let the dream go for the moment, disappeared to Japan for a year and came back with a renewed determination to make it happen.

This spring, I spent several months figured out exactly what this job would require: Skipper Academy in April, a Yachtmaster Coastal certification (which I planned to take in Gibraltar, at the beginning of May), a commercial endorsement from the RYA, STCW training courses, and so on. By the beginning of March, I had most of it planned out. I booked a flight to Croatia, decided to backpack around the Mediterranean for a few months. I started working in a factory to make some extra money for my trip.

I flew into Split – the party capital of Croatia – last Thursday, giving myself an extra day before training week started. This proved to be a good decision, as my bags got delayed when I transferred plans in Zagreb and I had to wait almost 24 hours to get them. While waiting in baggage claims, I ran into two of the Skipper Academy instructors. From that moment onwards, I began to realize the training week was not going to be what I expected – nothing like the Youtube videos.

“It’s going to be a lot of work,” one of them told me. “Don’t expect much sleep.”

He couldn’t have been more right.

Still, I was excited to explore Split and even more excited to meet the rest of the skippers. I spent the day wandering around, then hung out with people from my hostel during the evening. I stayed at the Split Guesthouse (run by an awesome local guy named Josko), a place I recommend to everyone visiting the area. I was a bit hungover the next morning, when I took the bus from Split out to Kastela Marina just north of the city. I met a bunch of other skippers en route and as soon as we got to the marina, we found tables and ordered coffee. Just after 9am, the instructors took us to a hall in the main building where we were checked-in, our credentials were photocopied, etc. The set-up was very official, all the instructors looked very serious. We spent the morning listening to various people talk about the history of Skipper Academy and the Yacht Week, then sat around for most of the afternoon in a café across the street, waiting to be checked into our boats and divided into groups for the week.

During this time, we all took the opportunity to mingle and talk with each other. The group was a grab bag of nationalities; a multilingual stew, where the only common denominator was English. It was mainly Europeans: Finns, Swedes, Danes, Germans, Austrians, Dutch, Belgians, French, British, Scottish, Irish, Spaniards, Portugese, Italians, Croatians, even a Lithuanian; but other continents  were represented too: an Aussie, a Brazilian, a bunch of Americans and Canadians. Most people had a background in this kind of work; many had been through a marine academy or worked in the navy. I fell on the lower end of the spectrum, when it came to experience working with big boats, and only my sailing experience gave me an edge.

I was put on a boat called the Festina Lente, crammed my stuff into a cabin and we set off just after dark. The first leg was a night sail to the nearby town of Trogir, a couple of hours away. I won’t go into details on my boat mates, but we had a French instructor who had a very particular teaching style. Essentially, he wanted us to fuck up first, so he could tell us what we were doing wrong afterwards. I found this method pretty stressful; I like guidance and I’m not the most experienced when it comes to sailing keelboats. Nevertheless, I came to appreciate his hard-ass attitude by the end of the week.

I won’t give a blow-by-blow of what happened either; it wouldn’t make for an interesting read. What I will say is the weather we got that week made all of the drills and exercises twice as intense. Croatia is notorious for the bora wind, which blows from the north/northeast (although rarely in the summer), resulting in sudden and extreme weather. A bora hit us on the third day of the week (Monday), in the evening while we were harbored on the island of Vis. We had spent the day practicing stern-to moorings (unique to the Mediterranean) in the harbor and the academy instructors had planned to spring an emergency drill on us that night, around 4:30am.

Thanks to the bora, we’d already been forced to break up the raft we’d made in Vis and switch to mooring buoys. Ironically, the mooring lines for two of the boats snapped that night around 2am (one of them being the main crew boat), potentially creating a real crisis. Luckily, the instructors on the crew boat had posted watches and realized what was happening. Both boats were drifting in the middle of the bay at the time and narrowly avoided ending up on the rocks. No one else found out about the actual crisis until later, after we’d played out the mock disaster scenario.

The weather continued to throw wrenches into the works as the week continued (as it tends to do when you’re sailing). Two nights after Vis, our attempts to build a raft in a bay near Palmizana resulted in total chaos when the wind started to pick up. Watching ten boats going around in circles – in a space not more than a few hundred meters across – is both hilarious and extremely stressful. I was steering at the time and ended up just hanging back from the mess. It was like seeing some bizarre dance, especially as it got darker; lights bobbing in the semi-darkness. In the end, the rafting plan was axed and we returned to Palmizana, with the instructors driving us through winds of 30-40 knots.

Of course, the weather cleared completely on the final day of the academy (the day we were supposed to be sailing) and we ended up motoring all the way back to Kastela marina. It made a stark contrast to the rest of the hectic week: all of us burnt-out (from sun and physical strain) and taking the opportunity to nap on the deck. Our boat was even treated to a fly-by visit from a pod of dolphins! Perhaps a good luck omen for the summer…

Despite all challenges of the week, I came out of it feeling incredibly positive. The instructors were extremely competent and professional. The organizers adapted well to the obstacles that were thrown our way and had obviously planned the week out really thoroughly. The weather conditions we endured made me feel (if anything) more confident in my ability to deal with problems, as summers in Croatia are usually mild. Even if I hadn’t passed (which I did, narrowly), I would’ve been really glad I came to Skipper Academy. I learned so much.

One of my fellow skippers put it best: “If I’d come to this job without doing the academy, I think I would’ve quit after a week.”

I completely agree. Like most of the other people there, this week contained a lot of firsts for me: it was my first time rafting with other keelboats, my first time doing Mediterranean (stern-to) mooring myself, my first time dealing with crossed anchor chains, and many other minor situations. I’m not sure I would’ve been able to handle it with a crew of first-timers. The instructors at Skipper Academy did an amazing job of preparing us for these challenges in a short amount of time. They were hard-asses, but they needed to be and I respected them for it. The Yacht Week feels much more like a real job now, less like the pipe dream I had two years ago. It will be intense and tiring, but I’m looking forward to it just as much as I was before – if not more!

Showing 2 comments
  • Anne

    Xano – congrats on your blog, and on your new adventures! Very exciting to live vicariously on the water with you, way over there. How appropriate that you were on the Festina Lente…your whole week on it is full of symbols – and lessons – that you could only live to know. Look it up on Wikipedia (if you haven’t already).

    have fun!

  • Patricia Hamilton

    Grammy writing . I love your blog – the look of it and the content. Your writing is very good because you include all the details. I can see that you are on your way to becoming “a writer”. It sounds like the course has been a more rigorous challenge then you were expecting. I hope the winds will moderate. I had a lovely stay in the Cotswolds. The village I was in was like dropping into a time warp. I had a very good trip; am happy to be home with Sweet Pea. and am looking forward to hearing about Gibraltar . Much much love Your Grammy xxxxxxxxoooooooo.

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