A family sailing holiday off Gibraltar with Rock Sailing - RYA Day Skipper Sail (Practical) Course

Sailing on a yacht is the ultimate escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The experience of sailing through the calm waters of the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, with the wind in your hair and the sun on your skin, is one that many people dream of. But what if you have no experience or qualifications in sailing?

Surprisingly, there is no legal requirement in some countries – including the UK – that requires a boat owner to have any qualifications whatsoever before they take to the seas. It’s a scary thought that, with no sailing experience and no understanding of the rules of the sea, you can still, technically-speaking, take to the helm of a yacht and sail off into the sunset. Of course, we wouldn’t recommend it. Every day is a school day, even for experienced Yachtmasters, and there is always so much to learn that it would be unwise to venture out without at least some basic experience.

We do like the idea of chartering a yacht or joining a flotilla, though, for which the basic requirement nowadays is usually that you have an ICC licence (International Certificate of Competence), which is the globally accepted licence required to rent a boat in most countries. This can be obtained by successfully completing the RYA Day Skipper practical course, since this qualification allows you to apply for the ICC without taking any further tests.

We had already completed the RYA Competent Crew course, when our eldest son did his RYA Day Skipper, as well as been on a week’s experience builder, on previous trips to Scotland ( 1 | 2 ), so when just the three of us saw a spare week in the calendar last month (our eldest is now at University), we seized the opportunity to try for the RYA Day Skipper qualification ourselves.

The prospect of a week’s sailing off the coast of the UK in February didn’t exactly fill us with enthusiasm, so we looked at what alternatives were available in Europe. With many of the Greek and Mediterranean options not really operational until their tourist seasons were fully underway, we opted to work with ROCK Sailing, a sailing school based in Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory located on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula.

Before you embark on the practical Day Skipper course, it is recommended – but not a requirement – to do a theory course. Since we knew bits and piece of the theory already, and had limited time ahead of the trip, we opted for a self-taught solution, using the RYA Day Skipper Shorebased Notes, RYA training charts, a variety of useful YouTube videos and various other online resources. If you have more time, a proper course is recommended and will stand you in good stead for the practical part of the course.

We arrived in Gibraltar and met our skipper, Nick, at a pre-arranged time, at a restaurant and bar just a short walk from the marina. He is a Yachtmaster, ex-Royal Navy, and with an extensive sailing career, having worked with the likes of Neilsons, Med Sailors and Dream Yacht Worldwide.

He showed us to our home for the week – Rockefeller – a sleek Juneau 360i racer sailing yacht, designed with speed and performance in mind. (All ROCK Sailing’s yachts have rock-themed names: Rockabilly, Rock On, Rockstar, etc.)

As training vessels go, Rockefeller is actually quite a high-tech yacht that can deliver exceptional speed even in demanding condiions – when handled correctly, of course!

The interior has spacious cabins and modern amenities, and provided us with a comfortable base to rest and relax each evening. ROCK Sailing recognises that, although you’re with them to learn to sail and to achieve your Day Skipper (or whatever course/qualification you’ve signed up for), you’ve also chosen somewhere like Gibraltar to enjoy a holiday at the same time. This is not always an easy balance to achieve when there’s some serious learning to do, but one that they got spot on.

Once we’d settled in and spent our first night on the boat, we had a chat with Nick before starting on our WOBBLE checks – a term that any seasoned sailor will know as it is a crucial part of ensuring a safe and enjoyable sailing experience. WOBBLE stands for Water, Oil, Belt, Bilge, Leaks, and Electrics (or variations on this theme depending on who you talk to) and is a simple but effective system for checking the key components of your yacht before setting sail.

With that done, it was time to prepare the spring lines, leave the marina under motor and take up the fenders. We waited briefly as an easyJet plane came into land before heading out into the bay. The wind was a little wild, but we did manage to fit in some sailing with a reefed main sail only.

Our docking on our return was a little challenging because of the wind, but we got there in the end after a fun first day on the water, learning everything from points of sail to flags. I knew a little bit about points of sail already, but for the first time – thanks, I think, to a consistent wind direction, maybe some better wind awareness on my part, and helpful instruction from Nick – it was all finally starting to ‘click’.

Ordinarily on a week with ROCK Sailing, we would probably have ventured across the Strait of Gibraltar – the stretch of water that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean – to places such as the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the northern shores of Morocco but, with winds gusting up to 37 knots, this probably wouldn’t have been safe, or that enjoyable!  Instead, this meant we ended our first day’s sail back in Gibraltar’s Ocean Village Marina (where ROCK Sailing has its main base). 

Although we were somewhat confined to the Bay of Gibraltar (the winds never did drop that much all week!), there were actually some benefits to this; it meant that we actually gained more sailing experience  – tacking, gybing, etc. – than we would have gained from going from A to B, and that in the evening, we had the centre of Gibraltar within easy walking distance and plenty of choice for eating out.

Our course continued with us usually covering a bit of theory in the mornings and then braving the winds, implementing some of what we learned, covering subjects such as ‘dead reckoning’ and ‘course to steer’. (In short, ‘dead reckoning’ is the art of estimating your current position based on your previous position, course and speed, allowing you to navigate the seas with confidence and precision, whilst ‘course to steer’ refers to the direction you need to sail in order to reach your destination, taking into account factors such as wind and tide.)

After a couple of nights in Gibraltar, we had a change of scene by staying at Alcaidesa Marina, on the Spanish side of Gibraltar’s border, next to La Línea de la Concepción. In this picture taken at the marina, you can see the cloud over Gibraltar, which was pretty much evident all week and signifies the area’s typical levante wind system which is caused by high pressure in the Mediterranean and low pressure in the Atlantic, resulting in a funneling effect that creates strong gusts.

The cloud was still present even when evening fell and we went out for dinner.  We could have catered for ourselves on the boat but, being based at Alcaidesa Marina meant we had yet more dining options to sample. The neighbouring town of La Línea has a fascinating blend of Spanish and British influences and a lively nightlife.

We enjoyed a lovely seafood paella at West, within walking distance of the marina on one evening, and had a very good meal also at Bitácora, just a little further along the seafront.

But I digress… back to the sailing!  As each day passed, we gained more experience with navigating the yacht through different wind angles, focussing primarily on close reach, beam reach and broad reach, all the while adjusting the sails and steering the vessel to maintain optimum speed and stability.

There are multiple dolphin pods in the bay, which were a pleasure to watch, and we were able to take some time out to admire and photograph these wonderful creatures.


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When not distracted by the dolphins, we were slowly but surely perfecting our tacks and gybes, learning about anchoring, improving our understanding of buoys, preferred channel markers and lights, and so on.

The Norwegian Sun cruise ship was docked at Gibraltar, and, given that it can hold up to 2,400 passengers and 900 crew, it was possibly a good thing that we chose to stay a few nights at the much quieter Alcaidesa Marina.

Our course also included man overboard exercises (both under motor and under sail), plus of course parking the boat. And I now feel much more confident also with my knot-tying skills, and know my bowlines from my sheet bends!

One important part of the course is a night sail. Everything looks so different at night and distances become much harder to estimate. Whilst the RYA Day Skipper qualifiation is meant for daytime sailing, it’s still essential experience just in case you should ever find yourself sailing in darkness, which could happen even if it wasn’t planned.

Our final day was a leisurely one – more parking practice, refuelling the vessel, and an anxious wait to see if we had passed!

We had!!! Now all four members of our family are qualified RYA Day Skippers!

So what does this mean exactly? An RYA Day Skipper is somebody capable of safely skippering a small cruising yacht, or motor boat (depending on which course you take), by day in familiar waters. (I should perhaps stress here that you usually only need one of you per vessel to have this qualification in order to join a flotilla.)

We celebrated our success with dinner at Little Bay restaurant, which rather confusingly bills itself as an Indian tapas bar. We saw no evidence of Indian tapas, but it is an excellent Indian restaurant nevertheless, with quality dishes such as the pan seared salmon pictured below. This delicious fillet of salmon was delicately spiced, served atop fragrant quinoa, and garnished with fresh cherry tomatoes and asparagus.

This was a fitting end to an unforgettable week with ROCK Sailing, learning the art of sailing whilst soaking up the stunning views of the Rock of Gibraltar. Our skipper Nick had a laid-back and fun approach, patiently and expertly guided us through the ropes (or should I say, sheets), covering everything from the basics of sail trim and safety procedures, to pilotage and passage planning, and much, much more besides. When not sailing, we were able to explore either side of the border, indulging in local cuisine, so it still felt like a holiday and not a formal training course.

If you are looking to learn to sail yourself, whether you’re starting out with an RYA Competent Crew course or you’re an aspiring Yachtmaster, then contact Peter and Carrie at ROCK Sailing and I’m sure they will be only to help and advise you.

You can watch a short video from our week on board Rockefeller below:

Disclosure: Our trip was sponsored by ROCK Sailing.

Comments (16)

  1. Alex says:

    I’d never really thought about it before but training to become a skipper and being in charge of a yacht is very appealing.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      I must admit, we found it a little daunting at first. There is a lot to learn, but if you take it in bite-size chunks and build up your knowledge over time, if we can do it, anyone can!

  2. Grace says:

    We often sail with friends at our local reservoir. I’m now beginning to think that we could try our hand on the sea. It would be great to learn how to sail properly with all the opportunities that opens up.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      If you’re sailing regularly, Grace, I’m sure you’ll take to it without too much difficulty. I take it you are sailing a dinghy? I’ve heard Yachtmasters say that they like teaching dinghy sailors, as they tend to ‘get’ everything more quickly.

  3. Kristof says:

    Such a fun experience, certainly something I would love to do when my kids get a little bit older.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      I would definitely recommend it, Kristof. Our children have been sailing (dinghies) a lot from a very young age. They are now amassing quite a sailing CV (as well as RYA Day Skipper, they have RYA Powerboat II and RYA Dinghy Insructor qualifications), so the world is their oyster when it comes to jobs in the holidays! It also affords them all sorts of other skills such as self-discipline, atteniveness, anticipation, patience, resourcefulness and much, much more. I honestly believe it’s a great skill to develop through childhood – like languages, it all tends to ‘stick’ better when you learn from a young age, I think.

  4. Kenny Ralph says:

    What a great family bonding experience! It must be a brilliant way of pulling the family together, especially if any of them have been away at school or university.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      Yes, definitely something we can all get involved in together. And since our boys know about sailing than us, a good opportunity to learn from them, too!

  5. Graham says:

    I’m a big paella fan and that one looks like a classic. It seems to me that they always taste better when cooked and eaten in Spain. I suppose that isn’t really a surprise?

  6. Andy Ashby says:

    That’s such a great use of precious annual leave days. There must be a real sense of having achieved something at the end of the course.

  7. Dave says:

    Looking back do you think that learning in blustery conditions was a blessing?

    I would imagine that learning in calm-as-millpond conditions could be dangerous. Surely it’s better to get some experience of challenging conditions before facing them on your own?

    • Paul Johnson says:

      I think it’s a good thing, yes. We’d have been heading to the Moroccan coast if it had been calmer – which would have been fun – but it would have meant several hours doing the crossing, rather than doing the number of excercises we did in the bay.

  8. Cabinkerala says:

    A trip is never complete without visiting your blog page, thanks for the beautiful description.

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