We have described elsewhere how John absorbed his love for sailing from his father, and much of the knowledge from friends who provided the opportunity to learn. Not everyone is so lucky, and for those taking up the sport for the first time, learning the ropes represents quite a challenge. Many horror stories circulate amongst those who sail, as opposed to those who drive motor boats, about people who make a fool of themselves going to sea unprepared. The sea is an unforgiving element in which to make stupid mistakes by going out ignorant and poorly equipped. Those who sail their boats are not blameless in this respect, but a yacht is not quite so dangerous to others when out of control. It is increasingly likely that the regulators will step in unless we ourselves ensure that we are properly prepared.
Within the UK the RYA sets a standard and provides an agenda to which accredited training schools adhere. While RYA accreditation is an indicator, it is important to make enquiries and if possible go by personal recommendation. Ultimately, we all know that the enjoyment and benefit we derive from a training course is very much down to the knowledge, personality and approach of the trainer or lecturer. This is especially true of a practical sailing course, within the confines of a sailing boat for perhaps 5 days or more.
John dropped out of one of the early RYA Yachtmaster evening classes because he found some of the material (e.g. morse code) irrelevant to practical sailing. His former wife and a friend went on a practical course in the mid 80's to improve their confidence, but the course was a disaster because of the approach of the instructor, and because of the condition of the chartered boat. No doubt things have moved on, but it is still important to make sure that you define what your objectives are up front, and if possible make sure that you are happy with the sea school and instructor.
Mo returned enthused from a 5 day Day Skipper practical in a blustery mid-October Solent. She wanted above all to gain confidence, and improve her understanding of sail handling and manoevering; a certificate would be good but not essential. She had been advised to find a wheel steered boat that would handle similarly to Fuga. She and her fellow students found her experience with John Wetton in a Bavaria 36 of Haslar Sea School inspiring, and came back not only waving a certificate, but found it difficult afterwards to drop the 'skipper' habit! Mo related how another yacht, apparently undergoing instruction, not only disturbed the marina until 1 a.m. but obstructed the Red Funnel ferry from leaving Cowes harbour.
John had also been on a GMDSS Long Range Certificate with Yachtcom and even found this rather dry material interesting and helpful.
There is however a limit to what can be taught on a course, and there is no substitute for doing it. The sea does not take prisoners, and the skills required do have to be acquired over a period of time and in different circumstances. A classroom certificate is useful, but cannot substitute for experience. It is easy enough to do the courses, and do the miles necessary, but you will never encounter the range of conditions that you might encounter in different geographical locations and climates. You will inevitably encounter the unexpected, and conditions that you have not had to deal with before. This cannot be prescribed, and takes time. Crewing web sites such as Crewseekers, or Findacrew, or within clubs such as the Cruising Association, can provide invaluable experience.
Systems on boats are increasingly complex. A good understanding of everything from the workings of your diesel engine, your water pumps, refrigeration, electrical installations, and how your electronic instruments interact, is necessary if you are to deal with problems as they arise. Engaging local experts is a risky and expensive business: rarely will they have the knowledge of your particular equipment and installation, and you will be paying for their learning. With a good appreciation of all these aspects, you will be able to undertake a range of projects, and where you do have to involve other trades you may be able to limit and control your costs. Acquiring this knowledge and ability may be more difficult. There are some good books around, for example the one by Nigel Calder, that can provide some guidance when approaching something new.