Sunday, 9 February 2014

Sailing Instruction? Sometimes I wonder

I have more or less been a desk wallah for most of my life, being an engineer. You get out onto the factory floor now and then. You also get out into the field on testing, but basically you are a desk wallah, getting your hands dirty from time to time.

Now I am a sailor. I like the outdoors, the wind and the waves. Recently I started teaching. Instructing. I wonder which is the right word. This is a somewhat new world to me, having been at student or colleague level in my career forever.  Your career can be viewed in three stages: student, colleague and mentor.

In the student stage you are still learning. Absorbing knowledge and gaining experience. That stuff that can't be taught in class. The next stage of one's career is when you have sufficient knowledge and experience to actually add value to what you are doing. This is when you get paid the most. Well, hopefully.

The last stage is that of mentor, where you transfer knowledge and experience to the next generation of people in your industry. I made a jump from engineering to sailing at this stage, with some interesting side effects.

Being a mentor or teacher has its moments.

Like this last week, for instance.

I was instructing students at competent crew level. Fresh from dry land onto the boat. Some knots, the names of the parts of the boat, hoisting and stowing the main sail. And some reefing practice. All with the boat tied neatly and securely alongside, bows into the wind.

Then we went on to sail a little out in Table Bay by way of introduction to the vagaries of sailing a mono-hull boat. A real sail boat.  The next day I took them on an outing on a schooner to show the differences in the lines and the size of things on a bigger boat. The wind was blowing at thirty five knots that evening and the skipper had the number three main sail stowed and the number four reefed. The boat still dipped a rail in these conditions. Quite an exhilarating experience for the fresh students.

The next day we carried on with sailing exercises on the mooring and went sailing later when the wind came through. Cape Town is notorious for having no wind in the morning, then a howling gale in the afternoon. This is sailing school, so we go out. Three reefs in the main, the jib furled away not to overpower the boat and giving us a neutral helm. So we sail merrily along, every one of the students getting their chance at helming and trimming the sails.

That is until I notice that most of my words are falling on deaf ears. These people are only watching the heeling indicator. No sense of situational awareness at all. All eyes on the little gauge at the bottom of the compass.

This is where I had a sense of humour failure and launched into a long speech about sailing, situational awareness and being just generally on the lookout. This is after I had the compass cover put back on.

During this tirade I also notice a little face peeking surreptitiously under my arm at the other compass. On further enquiry he told me that he was looking at the compass to steer the correct course.

Well, after recovering my composure and having this compass also covered, I launched into a proper tirade. This time about using non-instrument methods to navigate.

And then the penny dropped. This bunch had ganged up to see who could heel the boat the furthest in the gusts. Not what I had in mind, but quite funny nevertheless.  They fell about the boat laughing.

Needless to say, I had them furl away more of the jib and the sailing instruction went a lot smoother then.

After all this, one wonders if things were under control. The answer is yes. It is part of instruction that we do things in a safe manner. However, this little incident brought home to me the idea that sailing should be fun, without stretching the limits of sensibility and safety.

Did these students have fun? You can bet your bottom dollar they did. Did they learn to sail? I think so. Having ganged up on the instructor means that they had enough knowledge to make the boat go fast and heel. Chalk up one for proper basic instruction.

I get the idea that the knowledge retention will also be good as a direct result of having great fun on the water.

Perhaps teaching is not just about preaching.

Authored by Johan Zietsman.

Last updated on 2014-02-09

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