Learning the Ropes

A ten-day “final exam” in the British Virgin Islands
Story and photos by Kathleen Seccombe

Graduating from UC Santa Cruz in spring 2011 wrapped up 17 years of education and left me with a yearning to do something “hands-on,” maybe a back to nature experience. To be honest, I wasn’t totally sure. Some people get their jitters out climbing Half Dome or heli-skiing. I decided to go with a ten-day sailing trip in the Caribbean.

In my final year at UCSC, I took a sailing course from Rusty Kingon, the head of the boating program. I found sailing around the Santa Cruz Harbor in a 15-foot dinghy to be exhilarating, so you can only imagine my excitement when I heard Rusty talking about a sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands.

The islands are world renowned as a “postcard” sailing destination. For the past four years, Rusty and his wife Nicole have led students on their independently organized sailing trip to this beautiful archipelago.

I signed myself up the following week, and took two more summer sailing courses to acquire the basic skills necessary for big boat sailing. Six months later I was on a flight to St. Thomas, where I met many of my shipmates for the first time. Fourteen in all, we took an hour-long ferry ride to Tortola. Here, we met the captains, Rusty and his friend Rick, on the dock of Footloose Charter Company and spent the rest of the evening settling into our two 52-foot Beneteaus.

The next day we set sail in 30 knots of wind, the windiest day of our trip. We reached the middle of the mile-wide channel where we could see two parallel strings of islands. Over the next nine days, we would circumnavigate the islands stretched out before us.

A couple days later, the wind had died to a mere 3 knots. Having to motor the boats between islands, we did not achieve quite the same amount of thrill as on the first day. Yet there was still plenty to learn. Navigating around islands, close to shore and through straights was a new challenge for most of us. Mooring our boat for the afternoon or anchoring for the night were additional skills we had to master.

Hitting a different island each day, we saw how each one was unique. The water took on different shades of blue and green while the landscapes varied from shrubbery and flatlands to steep rocky cliffs. Some islands offered amazing snorkeling, others white sand beaches, and some had the whole package.

I slept on what would have been the dining room table if it hadn’t been dismantled to become my bed. This was probably the least privacy I have ever had, but I couldn’t have asked for a better group of strangers to bunk up with. Whether we were facing a new boating challenge or just lying around the deck, there was constant teamwork and compatibility.

What I learned was that the true value of sailing is experienced when all of its elements are brought together while on an extended sailing mission. Sailing for ten days, the light bulb turned on. This is not just a fun activity, it is a way of life.

UC Santa Cruz sailing classes are open to the general public as well as students through the UCSC Community Boating Center at the Santa Cruz Harbor. Both dinghy and keelboat classes are available. Learn more at www.adventuresportsjournal.com/sailing/ucsc.edu or call (831) 425-1164.

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