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This moment so imagined, dreamed and awaited for since your first sailing course, is now very near. Your first cruise without supervision is an important milestone to be remembered with pleasure, provided that a careful planning has left nothing to chance as plans may be suddenly changed by the sea, the wind and unforeseen events.

A one- or two-week holiday on a sailboat requires a careful preparation as you must be aware that, once the lights of the port are only visible from the stern of your boat,  you can no more turn for advice to your instructor or experienced friend about maneuvering or solving unexpected technical problems onboard. Once at sea you alone are the master of the boat and it’s up to you to make everything work successfully.

And you alone have to take any decisions, including those disappointing the rest of the crew but which, at your own discretion, are the right way to escape potential risks to safety. A classical example of this is to decide to give up spending the night in a beautiful natural harbour because the sea and weather conditions or the crowding of the area would make it difficult to find a proper shelter. And never mind those who will grumble for not having taken a bath in that crystal clear water.

Most of the courses teach how to adjust sails, to maneuver via engine and to set a route on the charts, while little tricks, port rules, spare parts to have onboard to avoid spoiling your holiday and this kind of tips are hardly ever taught. All this leads to one single word: experience, which no one may ever teach you, but, on the contrary, can only be gained by spending time at sea. If you are a novice, three are the key points to keep in mind: crew, boat, route.


If your crew consists of your family, it’s better you explain your wife and children some weeks before you leave, which manoeuvres are they expected to take part to, from the common call to the port to the use of boat hooks during mooring, etc. If you are sailing with a group of friends, they all can be involved in training, which never hurt anyone!

But, no matter who is part of your crew as one thing must be clear above all the others: it is you and only you that have the last word aboard. And this is because only you have the legal responsibility of the boat and all the people aboard. Keep this always in mind!

The boat. 

If you rent a charter, carefully check the reliability of the company, which is usually proportional to the standards of maintenance and the levels of efficiency of its fleet. Wide areas onboard  to provide a living and resting space for the crew are very well welcomed by everybody but, if you are completely new to sailing cruises and, moreover, with wife and children aboard, choose a boat whose size combines comfort and a good seakeeping and manoeuvrability. It is one thing to moor a 34-foot vessel, but it is quite another to manoeuvre a 45-foot one!

Once you have chosen the boat that best suits both your needs and your abilities and you are ready to rent it, check carefully every details as trust is good, control is better! Moreover small mishaps may escape the attention of even the most rigorous charter.

So, check if halyards, sheets, winch, stopper systems slide, if electrical systems, WC and basin drains, interior lights and, above all, navigation lights, VHF and safety equipment work properly. And don’t forget to check the anchor line if you are going to spend some nights in a natural harbour. As for docking maneuvering you should be well informed on boat propulsion, extra steering wheel, if present,  and how to use it, right-hand or left-hand propeller and so on in order to have as full a picture as possible of the boat to which you are entrusting your long-awaited holyday. If, on the contrary, your first cruise is onboard the boat that after years of reflections you have decided to buy, well, I hope all the checks mentioned above have already been carried out! It only remains for me to give you some practical tips: actually a complete workshop onboard in not required, however, remember to have at hand some spares that can make a difference such as a WC pump, engine filters, impeller, belt, oil and tools for technical assistance.

The same goes for sail equipment, following the rule that a spare block or shackle should be available for any of them installed. The same for the ropes: it is a good idea not to get rid of old halyards and sheets and to have onboard a couple of lines of adequate length, just in case of an extra mooring, or required to extend a scope. But you already know all this if the boat is yours.

The route.

A new world will open up, as the route you are going to choose will largely influence your holiday. The time factor plays a key role. Enchanting areas difficult to reach due to orographic and weather conditions may be a successful choice in a given month but a problematic one in another one. A glaring example of this is the West coast of Corsica, which is no doubt much more charming than the East coast and therefore constantly crowded in high season.

What does this mean? All or nothing, meaning that if you feel like getting stuck for three days in a shelter with heavy sea, which is anything but remote, no problem! But if only the idea brings you out in hives and you are confident that you could stay safely in a port, well, things can get complicated as it is very difficult to find a place in August in case of very bad weather forecast, also because reservations are usually not accepted and for sure not just for two or three nights!

And in addition to this, the best coves are besieged by boats seeking shelter, of course. This will suggest two possibilities for you, both certainly not idyllic: either your boat will be exposed to roll and pitch with a makeshift mooring or you will have to face rough wind and sea sailing many miles southwards or trying to reach the East coast. Therefore pay the utmost attention while choosing the geographical area of your first cruise.  And, in case of a sailboat, do not forget to increase the length of any straight-line route by 30% and more as, as you know, one of the wind peculiarities is to come often from where you are heading.

I would just add that, talking about speed, if you keep an average speed of 4 knots, you can count yourself fortunate considering unmooring, bathing pause, detours, mooring. At this speed it will take you about 7 hours at sea to cover a distance of 20 miles. Once you have carefully singled out the ideal route for your holiday, you only need to get marine charts and navigation maps to study the route, the stops and, of course, a plan B and even a plan C, if possible. This is very important because, despite the myriad or weather reports available, both wind and sea and sky conditions are unpredictable. Sudden changes in weather have often to be faced such as the violent summer storms frequent in the Mediterranean sea.

Always remember to call to ask to access the port. Tune your VHF on the channel on the marine chart (often written in capital letters on the lights of the port). Tell the name of the boat, its length and draft. The last information is very important in case marinas have low and sandy depth and this is why it is better to get informed in advance. If no one answers by radio or phone, wait along a quay reserved for boats in transit until you have been noticed. This because in some ports, especially in France, the own initiative of yachtsmen in transit is not very welcomed. For those who are choosing Corsica or Côte d’Azur bollards provided with 32A sockets are very common. A suitable connector on board is very useful to load batteries when you reach the port. Marinas can usually provide some socket adapters but the following day you have to wait for the office to open in order to return the adapter. If you had planned to set sail at dawn, this means to waste at least three hours!

Now you just have to buy food for your pantry……and sail!

Stefano Sergi
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