Skippertraining | Elba – Corsica

Skippertraining | Elba – Corsica

Sailing trip: 7 Days Elba – Corsica | September 2010 | Beneteau 47.3 Mistral III built in 2003 | Provider: DHH Yachtschule Elba

Saturday, 4th Septermber

I land after a short flight in Pisa. From the airport I take the train and slowly make my way along the Ligurian coast to Piombiono for just 7 Euros. I could have taken a faster shared taxi for the trip, but I like rail journeys. The ferry to Elba takes about an hour from Piombino to Portoferraio – the capital of the island.

The Café del Porto at the ferry harbour is our meeting point. The skipper picks me up with the VW bus of the sailing school and takes me to our yacht. It is moored in the marina of the nearby Esaom shipyard. The crewmembers that came directly by plane from Munich or Friedrichshafen in Germany to the island of Elba are already on board since early afternoon. Most groceries were bought already and we just go for the forgotten remainder to the nearby supermarket.

Our homeport Portoferraio

Our homeport Portoferraio

As it gets dark our crew is complete. We decide not to cook today but to go to the town for dinner. There we get the weather report from our people from back home via mobile. In Germany it is 12 degrees Celsius cold and it is raining. Meanwhile we sit outside with the view of the nice historic harbour and enjoy the mild evening.

Sunday, 5th September

We wake up with beautiful sunshine. Over the marina of the Esaom shipyard a light refreshing wind is blowing and we enjoy our breakfast in the comfortable cockpit of our yacht. We could sit here for hours but our captain has a lot on the agenda for today. We booked a skipper training and want to be prepared to command a boat on our own.

Before a sailing trip can start a skipper fist has to ensure that the yacht is fully seaworthy. But what does that actually mean? Our teacher takes a lot of time to explain all relevant details to us. After that he continues with the safety instructions: How do the life jackets work and how do we have to check their functionality? Where is the life raft and how does one put it into operation? How does the toilet work and how the seacocks? Where are the fire extinguishers and which one has to be used for the different types of fire that can appear on board? Where are the bilge pumps, the tools and the torches? What kind of equipment can I expect on a charter yacht? And so on and so forth… The skipper always involves us into his explanations. He tries to integrate our existing knowledge into his lessons and extends it pedagogically skilful. As the engine is on the timetable he uses the “Chinese whisper” method. He takes one crewmember to the engine compartment while the others look around on deck and enjoy the sun. The first needs to remember what has been explained to him by the skipper and has to tell it to the next one. It goes on like this till all prospective skippers have had their turn. The last one then explains it to our patient teacher. He now knows what his pupils actually took away and adds what got lost. With this method our attention is at a high level because nobody wants to be the one who forgot a detail. Everybody is working with great joy, many questions are asked, many things are tried out and after we check the papers of the boat we start with the practical training.

Most prospective skippers are afraid of the port manoeuvres. Especially the mediterranean way to berth with the stern at the jetty and the mooring on the bow needs some getting-used to and has to be practiced. With a lot of patience our skipper lets us berth and leave the pier again and again. He is only satisfied when we have the feeling that we are able to operate the yacht on our own in the next harbour. In between he always gives hints on how to keep the boat manoeuvrable, how to use the wind and how to react to unfavourable winds.

Bucht von Portoferraio

Bay of Portoferraio

With all these things we forgot to check our watches. Suddenly it is afternoon – time to say goodbye to our port of departure. Because of the busy ferry traffic it is not allowed to sail in the harbour area of Portoferraio. So we leave this wonderful bay by engine. The surrounding mountains are forested with green pine trees. On starboard the Volterraio enthrones with its little fortress at the top. On port side lies the picturesque historic town centre with its horseshoe-shaped harbour. Spread up above are the fortifications of the castles Falcone, Stella and Linguella. They are connected through an impressive wall. Also visible is the palace of Napoleon who spent 9 month of his exile on the island of Elba. The highest mountain of Elba, the Monte Capanne, appears as silhouette behind the town. In front of us, to the north, the Mediterranean opens up. After we crossed the ferry way and passed the small island Scoglietto with its little lighthouse we hoist the sails. The incredible light, the blue sea and the lovely north coast of Ebla fascinate us immediately. The scent of essential oils that are released by the warming sun on the green island rise into our noses. The yacht heels a little bit and starts to glide through the water. We are sailing!

Our destination for today is Marciana Marina. The main village Marciana lies high up in the mountains. People never lived directly by the sea in past times because they feared pirate raids. The small harbour is protected to the north by a huge wall and we berth behind it on floating jetties. The boats of our sailing school are well known here. So the Marinero on the pier is not surprised as we do not take the mooring line he holds up for us. We first fix both docking lines on our stern. Then the helmsman goes into the forward gear. This way the yacht lies still in the box and we can take the mooring calmly and cleat it on the bow without any hectic.

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The evening passes by with cooking and a little walk through the village. It ends up in the cockpit where the whole crew gathers together for a drink. We learned a lot today and we look forward to continue the trip tomorrow.

Monday, 6th September

In the early morning we leave Marciana Marina and take course to the small island of Capraia. It lies between us and Cape Corse. The sun shines, a calm sailing wind blows, there is nearly no swell – the yacht makes good progress. The mood on board is good. Everybody wants to be the helmsman. Our skipper endeavours to answer all our questions and asks us some too. We try to remember the things we learned yesterday and retain our knowledge that way.

It gets warm and our captain suggests to take a dip in the open sea. We tie loops in a line and bind fast a fender at the end. Then we cleat the line at the stern. The courageous among us jump overboard from the bow. It is frightening to see how huge a yacht is from this perspective and how quickly the boat passes by. So we can almost imagine the feelings of someone who fell overboard unintentionally. We try to catch the line that is hard to grab and even harder to hold. The skipper reports 3 knots speed. He eases the mainsail to sail slower. But even with one knot speed it is impossible to follow the yacht swimming. A remarkable experience!

Back on board we let the sun dry us. We heave-to and take a snack. The sea seems to be made only for us. Nothing but blue water around us and above us the blue sky with some small white clouds.

In the late afternoon we reach the island of Capraia. For the most part the rock is a nature reserve. Around the harbour the village seems to be glued to the slopes of the mountains. The residents have to earn their livelihood for the whole year during the short summer season. Accordingly high are the harbour fees. But I fear that in spite of this the public investment of the last years does not pay off. Even the four Euro we have to pay for the shower later on do not seem excessive when thinking about the island’s water shortage.

Isola Capraia

Isola Capraia

When we berth the Marinero holds up the mooring line for us. Then he recognises our boat and watches our manoeuvre very satisfied. He tells us that he would visit our sailing school if he would ever want to take up sailing. We have plenty of time to explore the village. We follow the roads up the hill and enjoy the view down to the harbour. The daylight fades away over dinner in the cockpit. On the promenade behind us the Italian evening performance starts and we enjoy watching it from our boat.

Thursday, 7th September

The day again starts with sunshine and breakfast on deck. We want to leave the dock early because our destination for today is Corsica. But before the skipper gives us today’s weather report. The wind will increase in the afternoon at the latest and turn to northeast. But so far everything is calm. One of us is assigned to be skipper of the day. He is responsible for navigation now. Berthing and leaving the dock is done in order of rotation. It is everybody’s turn once. And naturally everybody wants to be the helmsman on such a beautiful day. So we glide over the blue sea in glorious sunshine. Time goes by and everybody has a job to do. Again and again the skipper comes up with problems that we will have to solve alone eventually when we are captains. Just when the crew repairs a torn line of the lazy jack the helmsman reports a cargo ship on starboard coming towards us.

The skipper shortly looks up from his work in the indicated direction and gives the command to keep course. The man at the steering wheel remains concerned and after a short time again reports the fast appearing vessel. But the course shall be still kept. Now the following happens: The helmsman starts the engine by his own decision. With the turn of the ignition key he however turns the current legal situation to our disadvantage. Now we are a steaming vessel and have to give way to a vehicle that approaches by engine on starboard. After a pronounced command of the skipper the engine is switched off. The mood seems suddenly out of balance. But after calmly talking to each other the different opinions are swept out of the way. To lead a ship also means leading people! The cargo ship then passes far behind us. The captain headed towards our stern just from the first sight on.

Slowly the wind increases. The sky starts to overcast. But fortunately the lenticular shaped clouds that would announce the Mistral do not appear. Slowly swell builds up. For my companions that is absolutely no problem. But my stomach is usually very sensitive during the first days of a trip. I realise how I get tired and tetchy. To solve required tasks I have to overcome myself. And then it is time to drain the contents of my stomach over board leewards. Someone gets me a bucket from the back locker. I go under deck with it. I do not want to disturb my companions with the disgusting noises I make from now on. I lie down on the galley floor where the movements of the boat are not felt so strongly. There for the first time I read the sentence that I will not forget anymore. On the bottom of the bucket the words is stamped “Made in Spain!” As I mentioned before my first skipper described seasickness this way: “First you are afraid you might die. Afterwards you are afraid you might not die!” But it is not that bad this time. I do not get totally apathetic and in my view I am still the master over my own senses. Anyway the skipper tells me to wear a life jacket. Minutes feel like hours. Finally Macinaggio in the north of Corsica, where we want to berth today, comes into sight. Just in front of the harbour there is bad news for me. By the harbour entrance there is a treacherous wave. The skipper fears to be thrown against the harbour wall by the breaking waves or to hit the sea bed in the wave troughs. He sympathises with me but has to give the command to turn away. The safety of boat and crew is more important. He wants to go north to wait in the wind shadow of Cape Corse till wind and swell decrease. Immediately I can start reading the sentence on the bottom of the bucket again. Another horrible hour beckons.

Right behind the rocks of the cape the sea is smooth and my stomach smoothes too immediately as if nothing has happened. I can go on deck again and enjoy the impressive backdrop of the Corsican mountains. We stay in the wind shadow and turn some laps. Far away a yacht under full sails produces one broach after the other. They are not able to tack anymore and the boat slowly approaches the rocks. The coast guard sends gale warnings and subsequent Pan Pan-messages, of course consistently in French. The skipper has to call them by radio to get a review of the situation in English.

Now I am allowed to be the helmsman. With perhaps one and a half knots I start tacking after a while when the unbelievable happens. The boom slowly goes to the other side and when it arrives there it suddenly sinks down. The gooseneck is broken! Everybody is shocked as somebody calls I should shoot up head to wind. Immediately the skipper commands not to do so and to keep course. The boom hangs at the mainsail and in the lazy jacks in a safe way in these calm winds. To sail up head to wind and to let the boom swing from one side to the other would be an incalculable risk. The crew starts carefully to loosen the thin lines of the lazy jacks. Then the main halyard is eased and the sail secured cautiously on the edge of course close-hauled. The manoeuvre works and the boom can be taken down and safely be fixed on deck. Everybody is relieved. But what shall we do now? We furl the jib and initally stay in our position with the engine.

After an hour the wind recognisably decreases. But when we turn around the cape the swell sends me down to the floor of the galley again. I start my reading of the by now well-known sentence. So I do not notice anything of the trip and stay under deck till the lines are moored in the port. During the evening the wind picks up again and the water sprays over the harbour wall on to the pier. We are all happy that we are safe now and this time we enjoy our dinner under deck.

Wednesday, 8th September

In the morning the sea has calmed down. The sun comes through some larger clouds. It got cooler but a light jacket is still enough when we sail down the picturesque coast of Corsica with the only sail we have left. The mood is good and we see the loss of the boom as a good skipper training. You do not get offered something like this everywhere. If it would not have happened on its own we would have had to cause it.

At about noon we reach Bastia. Most guest berths are located just on starboard behind the harbour wall. But our skipper knows the perfect place. He guides the helmsman through the floating jetties and it gets more and more narrow. But he finds a berth that suits his taste. There we lie with the stern to the historic city centre and have a wonderful view from our cockpit. Priceless!



After us a very long Russian yacht drives into our narrow lane. We cannot see where the skipper wants to berth. All places seem to be full. The crew potters around on deck and they hold the lines as if they are not very experienced. We stand up to watch the spectacle. Our cameras are brandished because we expect sensational pictures. On other boats fenders are prepared. The showdown follows. But with some skilful moves of the throttle the man gets the boat perfectly into the narrow gap. There is much applause.

After a snack we are excited to see Bastia. The old houses, the narrow alleys, the wonderful places and the view from the higher parts of the town down to the harbour fascinates us. So the afternoon passes by till we meet on our yacht again. A family from Germany comes on to the jetty. As they read our yacht’s port of registry they want to know if we sailed here from Hamburg. Of course we did…

In the evening the skipper guides us to a rustic restaurant that we would have never found by ourselves. It is located in a small side alley in the second floor of a shabby house. There is no menu and everybody has to order the same. I only remember the Corsican wild boar and the bottle of grappa never running out. It keeps everyone in high spirits this night and so we go back to our boat very satisfied. We enjoy the view of the wonderfully illuminated town from our cockpit for a long time and eventually fall into our bunk.

Thursday, 9th September

The skipper has been in close contact with our sailing school since yesterday. They managed it to find an appropriate gooseneck for our boom. First they thought about sending a technician to Corsica by ferry. But they changed their mind because the weather will change the next days. So we have to sail back to Elba today.

Sonnenaufgang Bastia

Sunrise in Bastia

To have the whole day for sailing we get up before sunrise. We just lie in the harbour entrance when the bright celestial body appears at the horizon. Before we can leave we have to let in a big ferry. Out on the sea we hoist the jib and take course to Portoferraio. First we make good progress but then the wind decreases. The skipper fears that this way we will arrive too late. The man who should repair our boom might have finished work by then. So we drive the last miles by engine towards Elba and reach the harbour in the afternoon.

Meanwhile the sky is overcast. From far away we already hear thunder. As the technician arrives at the port with his van, lightning run through the air. He looks at the damaged boom and recognises that he has the right replacement part. But he does not want to work at the mast because of the incoming thunderstorm. Shortly after the lightning storm really gets started. We stay under deck and our skipper explains to us in detail what we have to look out for when we want to charter a yacht on our own. So the rain passes by and we can go to town for dinner.

Friday, 10th September

We awake from the sound of work on deck. After breakfast the boom is already attached to the mast again. The sun comes out and a strong wind from northeast is blowing towards the island. Because the bay of Portoferraio is protected in this direction the water is calm in the harbour. Today is the last day of our skipper training and we will not go to another port anymore.

As a first exercise the crew chooses to practice berthing in the marina again. At about noon we leave the port and there is already high swell outside the bay. Now we learn the man overboard manoeuvre in all variations. With a quick-turn, jibe, quick stop and some special tricks the skipper knows. And anything under realistic conditions. If anybody will ever fall into the water it is in conditions like today, with breaking waves. It is impressive to see how agile the long and heavy yacht is riding over the foaming wave ridges. The crew is fully concentrated and everybody wants to practice every single manoeuvre.

In the late afternoon we go back to the harbour. Everybody is exhausted but happy that we had such an instructive and exiting week. And I am sure that I will never forget the sentence I learned on the galley floor: “Made in Spain”!