Sailing school 1: sailing into trouble

The motley crew aboard the good ship, Perseverance.

It’s bad luck to whistle on a ship – you might call up a storm. But there’s another historical reason not to whistle. The British Royal Navy used whistled patterns to communicate. The thoughtless whistle of a crew member might be misinterpreted, causing confusion. One might even be a call to mutiny.

This is a story about sailing school but it doesn’t have anything to do with learning how to sail. It’s about signing up for one thing and getting something different. It’s about learning under difficult conditions. And it’s about being trapped on a boat with a captain who may not be fit to be captain.

Dreams of sailing

This could be us someday

For those who don’t know, we see backpacking around the world as phase one of our family adventure. From the very first month, we hoped sailing might be phase two. So, I (Matt) have been taking sailing courses over the last year in anticipation of eventually climbing aboard our own floating home and exploring the world by sea. No, we don’t have much sailing experience. But we have YouTube – and YouTube has a way of narrowing that gap between dreams and reality until you start believing that with a good running start, you might just make the leap . . .

Of course, it’s always possible you might trip on that running start and plant your face in the dirt, twist an ankle, smash your pride – the whole nine yards of reality crushing the dream. As it happens, a few days ago I found myself in mid-stumble.

Steps to the sea

If you want to skipper a sailboat internationally, one of the most widely recognized training programs is the RYA (Royal Yachting Association). One year ago in Antigua, I took the Competent Crew course, which is level one. Five days on a sailboat with other students – I loved everything about it. The second step was chartering a boat with a captain to see if the whole family liked sailing – we do. Third step was the Day Skipper Theory course, which is online and takes roughly a week of full time study and assessments – surprisingly enjoyable. Last, you need your Day Skipper Practical course – another five days aboard with an instructor, putting all this theory into practice.

Studying for the Day Skipper Theory course – Sri Lanka

So, that’s how we landed in Thailand. We literally organized our trip around me getting this qualification. The RYA school got great reviews and had availability. It wasn’t cheap ($1480 CAD), but the sailing dream depended on it. I sent the deposit from Istanbul in November and we kept traveling east.

First contact

View from the marina – the first night

The alarm bells started ringing on the first night. I arrived at the marina right on time at 4pm and called Paul (not his real name). He sounded quite friendly on the phone, actually. His long term girlfriend, Jess (not her real name), came out to meet me and bring me to the boat. Jess is a tiny, happy Thai woman who explained that because of Paul’s “accident”, she would be sailing with us for the week.

“What accident?”

“Oh, he had a very bad motorcycle accident in June. Broke his leg. In a coma for twenty days. Now he doesn’t move around so good so I help.”

We were still talking about the accident when we got to the boat – a nice Beneteau First 45f5. Paul stood up with a cane and gave me an inventory of his injuries which also included chronic pain and very limited mobility of his shoulders. “I just can’t sail by myself anymore.” I thought: No problem, as long as he can teach.

The crew

There was one other Competent Crew (level 1) student on board when I arrived. Rudy, a 38 year old Brazilian pilot who now flies for Hong Kong Air, was quiet at first, but soon opened up and was full of good questions, entertaining stories, and a genuine interest in sailing. We hit it off quickly as the four of us walked past the marina to a local restaurant. I wanted to hear all about Brazil. He wanted to hear all about our travels.

Dinner was excellent but Paul was conspicuously quiet. Attempts to bring him into the conversation mostly fell flat. His greatest contribution was a long lament about the incompetence of the Thai staff at the marina who he called “brainless monkeys”. Another story he was particularly entertained by is how male tourists are fooled by the Thai “lady-boys”. I thought: Ok, he’s a little strange, but we’re just getting to know each other. I can relate to social awkwardness.

Then came the walk home.

The first red flag

I struggle to write about what happened next. None of us would want our private conversations published on a blog. On the other hand, it is a vital part of understanding the story. It’s not enough for me to be honest about myself on this blog – I also have to be equally honest about the events that unfold on our travels so that you, as the reader, can have a better understanding of those events. This is why I have changed names and not identified the school – I want to tell the story while respecting the privacy of the people involved. So, here it goes.

“I’m so damn slow with this leg,” Paul said to Jess about ten feet behind me.
“It’s alright, we’re not in a rush.”
“I told you, Jess – You should have let me die in that hospital. I didn’t want to live. I’d be happier if I was dead.”
. . .
Jess says, “What about your kids?”
“My kids – they won’t talk to me. I never wanted kids anyway. They’d get over it.”

I’ve had thousands of conversations with depressed and suicidal people over the years as an ER doc. This was different. I was not a doctor here, I was a student. His statement was not a plea for help but an expression of anger, maybe even a manipulation. For once, it was not my role to intervene. Besides, if I were to engage and things went awry, I had a lot to lose.

We walked back to the boat in awkward silence. Was it just a really bad night? Some weird relationship dynamic? Or was I getting on a boat with a suicidal captain? I laid awake in the soupy hot air of my cabin for hours hoping that the incident would not be representative of the coming week.

Day one: the start of something special

The view from my cabin hatch on the first morning

The next morning we all went up to the marina for breakfast and met our third student. Tom is a security contractor in his late thirties, with an arm full of tattoos and a ragged northern England accent that sounds like Brad Pitt in the movie “Snatch”. I joked that I could understand the Thai people, but I might need Google Translate for him. He’d never been on a sailboat before.

After a brief orientation, we prepared to leave the dock. For some reason, Paul put Tom in control of the stern line (the rope connecting the back of the boat to the dock). This line needs to be released in the right way at the right time. Problem was that Tom didn’t understand the instructions. The stern drifted away from the dock and bounced gently off the wooden pier. Paul started cursing at Tom.

“Jesus Christ, what the hell are you thinking?!”

Jess ran over and wrapped the line around the dock cleat, pulling the boat back in. The greatest damage was to Tom’s first impression of sailing. It took me a few hours to get him alone, to tell him the incident wasn’t his fault. He laughed it off but I could tell there was a wound. Turns out Paul’s reaction of anger, blame and lack of insight would be a recurrent theme for the next five days.

And with that, we set off from the marina. A rough start, but early enough that I was still hopeful. Click the button below for the next post and listen closely for the whistle of mutiny . . .


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