Florida Sailing and Cruising School
Press Coverage Of Florida Sailing and Cruising School

Electronically redistributed from the
March 2000 Issue of Halifax Magazine.

Sailing 101

text and photos by Bev Hanson


Sailing 101 Article for March 2000 Halifax Magazine The invitation came over the fax machine, one of dozens of faxes from all over the country, and as far away as Australia and Japan, that come into our office every day. This one caught my eye because it came from Southwest Florida Yachts and it was an invitation to learn how to sail at the Florida Sailing & Cruising School. I've been sailing about 20 years; and, like most people, I was taught by an individual. I looked at the invitation and wondered what a bonafide, accredited school certified by the American Sailing Association (ASA) with Coast Guard Certified sailing instructors had to offer. I decided to find out. Believe me, it was a real eye opener.

The school, a division of Southwest Florida Yachts, is located in North Fort Myers. SFY owners and managers, Vic and Barbara Hansen keep a small fleet of power cruisers ranging in size from 32 to 42 feet long at Marinatown Marina in North Fort Myers. Another small sailing fleet consisting of boats ranging in size from 24 to 44 feet long occupy slips in Marinatown and a short distance north of there at Burnt Store Marina in Punta Gorda. The Hansens are serious about boating and have made teaching others the rules of safe boating and the correct way to experience it their livelihood.

When students are at the helm (a wheel or tiller that operates the rudder which steers the boat.) Capt. Gary Graham doesn't get too far away.

Founded in 1984 by this pair of licensed captains, the school has been in continuous operation for 15 years. It has seven captains who can prepare even neophytes for power cruising as well as basic sailing (Sailing 101) to coastal cruising right through bareboating. Then they test students and see them through ASA certification procedures for every level of recreational boating expertise. If Florida ever starts requiring licenses for boat owners, those sailors with ASA certification will only have to pay for a license. Others will be required to pass the same tests to get licensed.

Vic and Barbara Hansen have made safe boating their livlihood for 15 years now.

"There's immense satisfaction in learning to do things the right way," Barb Hansen says. Florida Sailing and Cruising School has established a sound reputation as one of the top seamanship schools in the country through longevity and a philosophy that, according to Vic Hansen, makes learning a special experience. "We believe that people learn and remember when they are having fun, and we believe they learn with their hands, hearts and their heads," he says. "This is the philosophy upon which we design all courses." In addition, safety is emphasized in every course whether it's power or sail. "Safety isn't boring. Safety isn't mean," Hansen says. And teaching safety shouldn't mean stern faces or raised voices.

This immediately reminded me of the lesson I was given years ago about watching out for the boom­the piece that holds the main sail across the bottom and attaches to the mast. My original instructor cracked me in the head with it when I wasn 't looking. My black eye was gone in a few days but, needless to say, the memory of what the boom can do lingers on almost two decades later and I've never been caught by another one.

Having had family in Tampa and Fort Walton Beach for a long time, I'm fairly familiar with our west coast; but Punta Gorda, situated on Charlotte Harbor just south of Port Charlotte and Venice, was a totally new and beautiful experience. The southwest coast position of Punta Gorda is almost due west of our southeast coast city of Ft. Pierce. From the Funcoast, it's about a four-hour drive across I-4 then south on I-75 for about 100 miles. Making this trip in early January traffic was light and the weather was beautiful. That time of year in Punta Gorda afforded perfect temperatures and excellent sailing conditions on Charlotte Harbor.

There were two other students, Rob and Chayla Walton of Sanibel Island, involved in my class which began sharply at 8:30 a.m. Our school room was an Island Packet 32 cutter named Argot and the Harbor was our playground. Our captain was Gary Graham and I have never met a more calm, cool and collected skipper. Capt. Graham has been with the school for 10 years, and he seems qualified to handle just about anything that could happen on a boat. In keeping with the Hansen philosophy for learning, he made our two-day session a lot of fun as well as entrenching the things required by the course deeply enough in us for us to pass our tests and become ASA certified for the basic sailing skills level.

Before we ever left the dock, our skipper-instructor spent about two hours going over general boating information. Some of it was review because the School sends out in advance a copy of Sailing Fundamentals, the official learn-to-sail manual of the American Sailing Association and the U.S. Coast Guard (page break) Auxiliary written by Gary Jobson. When students are at the helm (a wheel or tiller that operates the rudder which steers the boat), Capt. Gary Graham doesn't get too far away. (upper photo caption this page) Vic and Barbara Hansen have made safe boating their livelihood for 15 years now. (lower photo caption this page) If you're thinking about a sail boat, it's a good idea to actually read this enlightening book whether you have plans to go to such a school or not.

Since we were going to be sailing, we talked a lot about sailing necessities. There are no ropes on a sail boat except the one that runs up the luff edge of the mainsail and fits inside the mast. Capt. Graham made the names of all the non-ropes on a sailboat finally make sense to me. It's really very simple. Halyards raise and lower sails. Sheets let sails out and haul them flatter for varying wind conditions. No one ever put it to me that way before. I had to just remember this was a halyard and that was a sheet and oh yeah­that's a line.

Capt. Graham shows a student how to "flake" the sail so that it fits inside the cover better and is easier to raise.

We practiced some knot-tying and at last I learned why certain knots are required for different things. Two half hitches for example is good for the ends of lines. (Lines secure things ie: anchor to boat, boat to dock etc.) Two half hitches form a knot for a line that can be adjusted quickly without being untied and retied ­ something a sailor might not have time to do for various reasons.

Of course, if the line isn't secured to the dock or boat somewere, well ­ "This is the bitter end," Graham says, holding up the free end of a spring line attached to the beam of our boat which goes around a specific cleat at the dock when the boat is in. "Why is it called the bitter end?" he asks in response to our queries. "Because if it isn't properly tied at each end and you cast off without checking it, it can all disappear in the water. And that's the bitter end." Which means, when you come back to the dock and want to tie up the boat, the line will be down on the marina bottom. Quit laughing. These are the types of careless things that can happen all the time, even to experienced boaters.

During our review and first-morning information session, it occurred to me how much I was hearing for the first time and I've been around boats most of my life. "I wonder how many people out there," I say, indicating boaters in general, "have all this information?" His answer stuns me.

"When you finish here," Graham replies, "you're going to have 90 percent more information than 90 percent of all the people out there. And the Coast Guard will tell you the same thing." This is mind boggling when the number of boaters loose on Florida's waterways as well as the rest of the nation is taken into consideration ­ mind boggling, and pretty scary when you really stop to think about it.

I personally have seen dozens of power boaters (PBers) who have no idea that a boat being propelled by the wind always has the right of way. Why? Because a boat under sail can't manuever like a power boat. Their reaction time is much slower if the wind is the powering agent. Even a sail boat running its auxiliary engine must give way to a boat operating under sail power only. Too many boaters just buy a boat, put it in the water and take off without any explanation or understanding of waterway rules.

Since we sailed from Burnt Store Marina which is located in a cove off Charlotte Harbor, our training area was only minutes away from our dock. At Florida Sailing and Cruising School, all students take turns at various boat tasks so everyone learns the proper way to perform every task which provides for a well-rounded feel for the boat and how it handles.

Even though our boat was a cutter (three sails), we sailed it as a sloop using the main and the jib. I have always known that a helm, whether it's a wheel or a tiller, left unattended will usually turn the bow of the boat into the wind until it puts you in irons (no wind) but I never knew why. Capt. Graham takes the mystery out of that.

"You'll notice this boat has a weather helm," he tells me when it is my turn at the wheel. "Some boats have a lee helm, but most people want weather helms." I hadn't known there was an option, and my expression must tell him that, because he goes on. "If you have a weather helm, you'll never have to worry about the boat sailing off and leaving you if some mishap occurs."

A weather helm means the bow of the boat will turn windward until it's pointing straight into the wind. A sailboat pointed into the wind will stop forward motion and drift in a neutral attitude. A lee helm means the bow of the boat will turn away and put its stern to the wind. A sailboat has forward motion with the wind behind it.

"With a lee helm," our Skipper says, "the boat can turn down wind and run off on its own. And you'll be swimming after it."

When the main sail is dropped, it comes down on the boom where it's secured then covered up until the next sail. Most sailors leave it in a unsightly pile, the way it's seen here.

The man was psychic! Years before I really got into sailing, that very thing had happened to me with a cousin and his new sailing dingy. We got becalmed on a large lake. Without knowing enough to fix the tiller's position and luff the sail, (leave it (upper photo caption this page.) Capt. Graham shows a student how to "flake" the sail so that it fits inside the cover better and is easier to raise. (lower page photo caption this page.) When the main sail is dropped, it comes down on the boom where it's secured then covered up until the next sail. Most sailors leave it in an unsightly pile, the way its seen here. loose) we finally started swimming behind the stern and pushing the boat ahead of us because a huge black thunderhead looming on the horizon was coming our way.

A sudden gust of wind came up and caught the boat, swirling the sail around and it took off much faster than we could swim. We had to swim all the way back to shore while the boat bobbed merrily along the lake bank. When we got there, it led us a happy chase before we harnessed the rascal and got it back on the trailer. By the time we got inside the car, we were working feverishly in an all-out gusty summer thunderstorm.

Sailors don't just start up an engine and "ride there." They use the wind to take them wherever "there" is. It's a sport or a pastime that really requires expertise and skill since the wind might not be coming from the direction you need it to be for it to take you where you want to go. So, you have to learn how to use the sails to get the boat to its destination no matter how fickle the breezes are. Sailors are always tacking, steering, sheeting in, easing out and otherwise trimming sails to get the best results from air that's often quite invisible. Wenching jibs and hauling main sheets while they're filling with wind can be real workouts.

Keeping track of where the wind is in relation to the course and keeping the boat properly trimmed makes sailing an interesting sport to master. It even has a separate language all its own so the Captain can give commands with as few words as possible.

The wind, by the way, is free fuel which is why so many sailors go island hopping and some even go around the world. Under sail you can speak in a conversational tone or even whisper and be heard. On a sailboat, you can actually hear the water lapping against the hull as the bow slices through the chop.

Unless you're just riding the coastal breezes which are fairly constant, sailors keep pretty busy and our hands-on sailing classes in the Harbor were good workouts. I hadn't worked like that since my racing days on Lake Lanier. Anyone thinking of trying out the school shouldn't go into one of these classes thinking they're going to spend the day just riding around in breezy sunshine. Students are there to learn and instructors are there to see that you do. The first day, filled in a lot of gaps in my previous haphazard training and left me ready for bed at a very early hour.

The second day was all new information. We spent the second whole morning learning and practicing man-over-board (MOB) retrieval. There is a real science to getting a sailboat back to someone in the chop and picking them up safely. I had never had this training and I shudder to think how many more sailors are winging around on the water without any knowledge of these crucial procedures.

Each student played the role of skipper, spotter and retriever until we performed every task to Capt. Graham's satisfaction. That alone, is worth the price of the first-level course. I know I left there feeling much better about my own sailing skills. Receiving professional training boosted my confidence and made me feel more secure about many things that had only been vague notions.

If you have read Unfinished ­ To Boat or Not to Boat in this issue, and are one of those people deciding about a boat of some kind, you owe it to yourself to seriously consider accredited schooling somewhere before you make up your wind. Marine insurance companies will certainly balk on any claim if it's discovered that ignorance of waterway rules played a role in some kind of boating mishap.

For peace of mind and calm assurance on the water, get informed. Practice boating safety. Your life and the lives of your passengers depend on it.

For more information on the power boat and sailing courses offered by Florida Cruising and Sailing School, call 1 (800) 262-SWFY (7939) or (941) 656-1339 or, take a look at their websites, www.swfyachts.com and www.flsailandcruiseschool.com.

Electronically redistributed with the permission of Halifax Magazine.

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Florida Sailing & Cruising School
3444 Marinatown Lane N.W. • North Fort Myers • Florida 33903
(239) 656-1339 (800) 262-7939 Fax (239) 656-2628

Marinatown Marina 26° 38.5'N 81° 53.0'W
Burnt Store Marina 26° 45.71' N 82° 04.20'W

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