So, You Want To Be A Sailor?

Founded by legendary yachtsman Steve Colgate, the Offshore Sailing School has been teaching the land-bound to sail since 1964.

S ailing, and in particular sailing in the Virgin Islands, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. You’re out there in nature – the sea, sun, wind and water are the ingredients that make for memorable experiences. You become the master of your destiny in a life of freedom and multiple choices. The wind calls the tune and at the end of the day you are moored in a quiet cove sipping a cool happy-hour cocktail. How many times have I been in a local beach bar or hotel veranda and heard a visitor look seaward at a sleek sailing vessel and say, “Oh, I wish we could do that.” Well you can… and you should.

The Virgin Islands is now famously named “The Sailing Capital of the World” and this is no idle brag. With hundreds of beautiful and diverse anchorages all within easy reach, the archipelago is a sailor’s paradise. Pioneers like Charlie Carey of the Moorings and Bill Hurst of BVI Bareboats (now BVI Yacht Charters) saw this and began successful charter yacht operations. Not far behind these visionaries was Steve and Doris Colgate, directors of Offshore Sailing School. They saw the need for sailing instruction and took the plunge. Today they are still at the helm of the BVI’s premier sail training operation.

Colgate started his sailing school in 1964 with a Soling, sailing the waters of Long Island Sound.  By 1972 he had a long list of successful students but many of the graduates had no boat of their own so he put together a flotilla for a sailing adventure around the BVI. He chartered four of the Moorings’ fledgling fleet with 20 excited neophytes on board. At the end of the week the sailing graduates had loved it and heralded the cruise a huge success. It was the beginning of sailing flotillas in the BVI and it soon extended to many locations around the world. By the mid-70s the Offshore Sailing School had set up shop in the BVI.

Today the Offshore Sailing School boasts two magnificent locations: one at The Moorings and the other at the luxury resort of Scrub Island. Each location has two custom designed Colgate 26s for the initial Basic Keelboat course. Both locations have a dedicated classroom for learning the theory of sailing and a scale model to assist in understanding terminology and names of the various parts of the boat. A slide show is projected onto a large screen to detail many aspects of basic sailing: points of sail, tacking and jibing, reefing, rules of the road etc. A comfortable way to begin a course.

The Colgate 26 was designed by Steve Colgate and Jim Taylor with the sole purpose of providing a safe, stable, on-the-water sail boat. It even has built-in buoyancy in the form of close cell foam to make it unsinkable. The Colgate 26 is the official training vessel of the US Naval and Coast Guard academies and as such is the industry leader.

The Basic Keelboat course takes two days and marks the beginning of the seven-day Fast Track course to bareboat qualification. The Basic Keelboat section allows for two hours of classroom work and about six hours on the water daily. Each student (a maximum of four) will helm the boat and act as crew. The instructor has a dedicated position aft with his/her hand on the main sheet and easy access to the tiller. A 6 h.p. outboard motor is provided too.   

At the end of the second day students move aboard their cruising sailboat, usually a Moorings Beneteau 43, 45 or 50 depending on numbers. Nowadays catamarans, both power and sail, are an option and are becoming increasingly popular.

Day three begins with a chart briefing, inventory check, safety briefing and stowage of supplies for the next five days. Yacht systems are explained in detail and a dinghy and engine check are done before departure. As the yacht motors out of the harbor, navigational aids are observed and discussed. This is all part of the Basic Cruising section, which highlights seamanship in all its many aspects. Knots, tying correctly to a mooring, docking, crew overboard and preparation for heavy weather are just some of the important details covered.

In the evenings a slide show on a tablet cements the information learned and a helpful quiz adds to the fun. Yes, the program involves fun as well as instruction and time is often allocated for a swim or snorkel during lunchtime stops.

Days five and six, the Bareboat section, involves navigation, reading the weather, log book entry, radio communication and trouble-shooting potential problems and maintenance issues. If students need more practice at any particular facet of the course, docking, for instance, then this will be repeated until all students have confidence in their abilities. By the end of the course all students must be able to demonstrate a practical ability to sail a yacht up to 50-ft. No-one is expected to be an expert after a week but a level of confidence in sailing coupled with safety and security is the requirement. Three multiple choice tests must be passed to show sufficient understanding.

The last day of the course allows for the students to sail to an overnight anchorage on their own, secure the boat and prepare their evening meal – and to reflect on the week’s activities. On returning to the dock the following morning assistance will be given to dock the boat in often crowded and precarious conditions. In other words marina staff will board the boat and dock it for you. The instructor will meet and greet you and go over any issues. Log books and certificates will be issued as proof that you are now a certified sailor. The adjudicating body affiliated with Offshore Sailing School is US Sailing and their certification is recognized world-wide unlike some other associations that administer sailing courses.

Some students may wish to further their sailing knowledge and other courses are available, though not all in the BVI. The BVI offers the Catamaran Endorsement and a Coastal Navigation course is available on-line. Other courses are Coastal Passage Making, Celestial Navigation and Offshore Passage Making.

About bviwelcome

Official webpage of The BVI Welcome Guide. Source of information for everything in the British Virgin Islands since 1971.

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