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A season at sea: my sailing career break

Rich came out for a sail with us on the SaltyJobs yacht, sharing stories from his sailing career break. We asked him to guest blog a post for us… Rich lived the dream, and you can too – read on to hear about his adventures…

In April 2014, I left my job and embarked on a 24-month sailing adventure that took me from Brighton to Hamble-le-Rice, Central America, California and ‘Le Sud De France’. What started as a ‘time for reflection’ escalated into a life changing adventure. Here’s my take on why a sailing career break could be just what you need…

The time is now

After eighteen months of working 60-hour weeks at a digital marketing agency in Brighton, I was beginning to question whether I had my work-life balance in order. I was financially secure, had good friends and a close family; but something was missing. When the U.S. company I worked for decided to restructure the UK arm of its business, I was offered a change of role or redundancy.

I decided that this was the time to take a leap into the unknown, this was a time for change, but the question was – what change?

 Finding my sea legs

 After a little reflection time, I decided to follow up on a long-term ambition and learn how to sail, a great first step in any sailing career break. I’d always been drawn to the sea and regularly found myself looking out from land, a salty wanderlust in my eyes.

I enrolled into some courses with an excellent sailing centre based in Kent, Elite Sailing, and went back to school. I took Competent Crew, Day Skipper theory, & Day Skipper practical. This training impacted me in two ways; firstly, it fuelled my already lit fire for heading out to sea, secondly, it made me realise how utterly useless I would be during any form of emergency, especially mechanical.

That led me to take some more RYA (Royal Yachting Association) based training; a diesel engine maintenance course, first aid at sea and VHF SRC radio licence. At least if I was in trouble, I could call someone to help!

By the time this sailing training was finished I was convinced I was going to be the next Ben Ainslie, well, sort of. Before I could get there – I was painfully aware that I’d only scratched the surface of the complex mechanics of a sailing yacht. If I was serious about being a competent sailor, I knew I needed more hands-on experience of the varying components and hardware of a sail boat. This was my next quest.

Refitting my way forward

 I spent a good few weeks scouring the internet for practical boat based work or internships at boat yards & builders. Then one day, I came across an advert from Clipper Ventures – the round the world yacht race. Clipper were recruiting for a refit team to work on their fleet of twelve race yachts before the start of the 2015-16 race. After several phone calls and a meeting down in Gosport, I was putting my life’s possessions into storage and heading down to Hamble-Le Rice, near Southampton to begin work on these incredible race yachts.

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The work was challenging, dirty, exhausting and completely rewarding. Every six weeks two yachts were moved from Gosport to Hamble before being lifted out and slowly rolled into a huge warehouse. All hardware was stripped off and serviced, repaired or replaced including the rigging, winches, grinders, rudders, you name it – if it could be serviced – it was. Some of this work was fairly technical, such as stripping down and servicing Harken winches, with scores of parts that fitted together intricately.

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Fortunately, I had some great support and training from the teams at Clipper and Harken. Some of the work was less technical but nethertheless challenging. If you’ve ever had to antifoul the underside of a boat you’ll know that size matters. 70 feet is not a small vessel, each yacht had two coats of this toxic tar like paint applied.

Inside the yachts, the work was more physically demanding; each boat was cleared out entirely before being washed down and thoroughly cleaned throughout. As you can imagine, having sailed 40,000 miles around the globe these girls had accumulated some serious grime. It all needed to be washed down, pumped out and sponged clean. This was the first step before a bow-to-stern power sanding that created more dust than the Sahara Desert. It took our team nearly a week to complete.

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After further wash downs we moved onto the most exhausting task yet: applying a new coat of glistening white paint throughout. These tasks ran alongside a complete re-plumbing of the whole boat, including the black tank pipes. To those that are not familiar with boat terms, the black tank is where all the human waste ends up. The process of replacing waste pipes in a confined space is as gruesome as the mind imagines, occasionally worse.

As you read the above, I imagine a question arising “why would this ever be rewarding?”. The answer is simple: these are the challenges that you face at sea. Being able to unblock or replace broken plumbing is essential and wash-downs are a daily part of good sailing practice. Repairing and maintaining winches, gearboxes and other hardware is vital to keep the boat sailing. Alongside learning these essential skills, the camaraderie that comes from this type of gruelling hard work is second to none. The team bonded over burst poo pipes, we paired up on painting, supported each other during sanding – we grew closer as a team as the work got harder.

 

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This camaraderie and teamwork is what makes sailing the adventure it is. At sea things can go from bad to worse very quickly and if the black tank hits the fan – your fellow sailors and team mates are who you rely on … they may even save your life. I thank Clipper Ventures and the team I met there for showing me how vital these relationships are in the marine industry, both at sea and on land.

Networks count

As my time working at Clipper grew to a close, I decided it was time for a spot of relaxation and was craving some sun, sea and sand. I took a one-way flight to Miami with just my backpack and a lonely planet guide to central America. Three months and five countries later I was sitting in a coffee shop in San Juan Del Sur [Nicaragua] when I received a call from one of the managers of the Clipper refit team who I’d also become good friends with. He was taking on a captaincy of a 90ft yacht, ‘Dark Star of London’ and was looking for a deckhand for the upcoming season.

To be considered I needed to complete some more training. If you’re considering a sailing career break, you’ll also likely need a STCW 95 qualification for safety training. I also needed a RYA Powerboat Level 2 course for insurance to drive the tender. Within 24 hours I’d booked both courses. I have family in San Diego, California, which happens to have one of the largest naval bases in the U.S. with over 20,000 military personnel. This was the perfect place to complete my week long STCW 95 course so I searched around for the best training school in the city and found The Maritime Institute. The training was thorough, run by ex-navy commanders with stern looks and sharp wits.

A highlight of the course was the firefighting training at the naval base itself, an incredible experience to visit a cog of the US military machine.

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 After completing this course, I flew back to the UK, rushed down to Southampton to complete the Powerboat Level 2 course, spent a week with friends and family and then flew to the south of France to join Dark Star and the other crew. It was on this flight that I took stock of how amazing an opportunity I was on route to.

In the marine industry, networks count. The industry is small, work is seasonal and often short term so people move around a lot. My advice to anyone trying to break into the industry is take on projects that will introduce you to a large mix of people – the rest will follow.

A season at sea

 Arriving in Marseille, we headed straight to a tiny town; Port St Louis Du Rhone. Dark Star was in a large warehouse and in need of some maintenance work before we could set sail. The experience of the Clipper refit stood me in good stead for the work ahead.

We embarked on a ten-week maintenance refit and had her back in the water ready for the height of summer. Shortly after, the yachts owner arrived and we took her out for sea trials. We set sail up the south coast of France; Marseille, Nice, St. Tropez – Dark Star was built for cruising these waters and was a pleasure to sail.

A true highlight was a night passage which coincided with the super moon of September 2015. The sky was lit up by a huge orange-red moon that shone brightly down on us as we kept watch over the dark waters and silhouette of the coastline. It was a stunning evening of sailing.

Being a GoPro lover, I filmed some of this experience and created the below short video – A Season At Sea:

Achieving my goals

As the season aboard Dark Star drew to a close I began to contemplate the next steps after my sailing career break. I’d had an incredible adventure, learnt more new skills in two years than I had in the last ten and met countless extraordinary people.

I felt my knowledge of yachts, the marine industry, and sailing as a whole had developed well and I could now be an asset on-board a sailing yacht rather than a liability.

I’d achieved my short-term goals so decided it was time to return to my field of expertise in the corporate world. I will continue my love affair with the sea and marine industry, on a more part-time basis.

I hope this article may inspire others to take a salty leap into the unknown and try a sailing career break.

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