A dream come true...
Learning to sail has always been something I’ve wanted to do.
It’s romantic: it’s just you, the boat, and the crew. To get from one place to another it has to be through the combined efforts and skills of you and your crewmates. You’re all in it together, and together you can visit utterly beautiful places whilst being mindful that you’re always at the mercy of the weather.
I know my outlook is simplified. It’s way more complicated than this. My grandfather was a sailor in the Navy and sailed around the world several times. That sounds ‘romantic’ but I’m sure he had days where he wished he wasn’t on a Navy ship in the middle of the ocean sharing a hammock.
Where to begin?
I love to learn new things and learning to sail had been on the skill bucket list for a while.
So I knew that I wanted to learn to sail, but where and how? Do I take a course or do I join a crew and simply learn on the go?
I decided to sign up to a website that connects skippers and crew members but was quickly deterred by the number of crusty old Captains on there looking for female only crew that would be keen to engage in ‘extra curricular activities’.
Errrm, no thanks. Back to the drawing board I went.
Everyone knows that the Portuguese are known for being some of the greatest explorers by sea. So by that crude logic, I should learn to sail in Portugal. Why not? I was already there, I knew enough of the language to get by and in the summertime the weather was fantastic. I had visions of me being sun-baked in 30 degree heat during the height of summer (this did actually become a reality).
I decided that taking an actual course would be the best way for me to learn. After some research, I learnt about the Royal Yachting Association and how they were the bees knees of sailing accreditation bodies. AND they ran courses in Portugal! Brilliant! I could avoid the crusty old Captains and develop my sailing skills in a more structured way.
Before I knew it, somehow I had booked five days of sailing in August down in the South of Portugal. I would be on-board a world class racing yacht named the Firefly X-35 with an highly accredited English-run training centre called Rusailing based out of Lagos in the Algarve.
To the Algarve I go!
The course began in the town of Lagos, in the Algarve region on the Southern coast of Portugal. I was up in Central Portugal, some 530km (335m) north of Lagos. The question was: do I drive, take the train, or fly? I decided that taking the train would be the most environmentally friendly option and cost effective. And it really was! For the grand total of 34,25€ I could take the train all the way from my home railway station to Lagos.
It was around a 7-8hr journey in total and I had to make several connections along the way, including in the capital city of Lisbon and then again when once I got to Faro, which is considered the capital of the Algarve. I love long train journeys – for me they’re a perfect time to just sit and reflect, binge listen to podcasts, or listen to a new Audible book.
The train timetable got me into Faro late on a Friday night, so I decided to spend the night in a cheap hostel called Hostellicious. What a name for a hostel, eh? From reading the reviews I knew that it was a party hostel but after living (/existing?) in a hostel for 6 months in Canada, I had developed an ability to sleep through almost anything so that didn’t bother me one bit. I’m a cheap traveller.
Once I had checked into my shared room and tightly locked my bag away into a locker, I went for a quick walk. This is actually one of my favourite things about arriving in a new place. I love aimlessly wandering around, soaking up the new scene, and then trying to find my way back by following my own in-built sense of direction.
I was fully anticipating the shock of going from a sleepy town in the countryside of Central Portugal to Friday night in bustling city of Faro in August. The Algarve certainly delivered.
I managed to find an all-you-can-eat sushi bar (very Portuguese, I know…) that cost next to nothing and then was tucked up on my top bunk by 10pm. Party animal, I know right.
My sailing course was scheduled to begin late afternoon on the Saturday, so I had plenty of free time to explore until then. My plan was to get up early, explore Faro and the marina during the morning and then catch the train to Lagos around midday and explore there.
In Faro, I stumbled upon a healthy food cafe/restaurant called PAPAYA and enjoyed a tasty breakfast there. You gotta start the day right, right?
Most of my morning was spent enchanted by the old town of Faro. Next to the marina is a plaza of gardens called ‘Jardim Manuel Bivar’. It’s simply stunning, and so Portuguese. I must’ve spent an hour sat on a bench there just watching the world go by (yes, I was that creepy person people watching).
After an hour of contemplating my existence and getting nowhere, I got up and walked through the old town’s gates, called Arco da Vila.
I wandered around pretty aimlessly, saw the old town hall and then eventually circled my way back to the train station. Every train station in Portugal seems to have a cafe attached to it, either Buondi or Delta. At least you always know what you’re going to get…
From Faro to Lagos
It was roughly a 1-hour train journey from Faro to Lagos across the Algarve coastline. My carriage was full with a good mix of holiday makers in their Union Jack shorts, the typical travellers, and locals. The quality of people watching was quite high! We travelled past the places I would soon be visiting by yacht, such as Vilamoura, Albufeira, and Portimão.
The last time I had visited the Algarve I was a small child and so I have no memory of it. I can see why people flock here for their holidays or expats move here: the coastline really is beautiful and the weather is perfect. The Algarve sees 300 days of sunshine and very little rainfall. It’s basically the Florida of Europe.
Upon arriving in Lagos, I was able to drop my bag at the marina office and so wandering around aimlessly was less exhausting in the 30 degree heat.
It was early afternoon on a Saturday and Lagos was in full swing. It was a little overwhelming. The marina was absolutely packed with people eating and drinking in the open air cafes and restaurants. There were people waiting to go on booze cruises and the party music was pumped out across the marina. I walked around the marina, gaping at the different boats. They had everything: small dinghies, huge party catamarans, power boats, and magnificent yachts.
And there she was alongside the dock: Firefly.
Firefly was going to be my home for the next few days. But it was still too early in the day for my course to begin, so I could see the course instructors loading up supplies and getting her ready. I didn’t want to interrupt, so I decided to go and find a bite to eat and wander around.
Alongside the waterway into the marina, there were market stall after market stall selling everything a tourist would ever want to buy. I squeezed past the crowds and made my way to the town centre and just picked any half decent looking restaurant and had a veggie omelette.
Now refuelled, I headed down to one of the sandy beaches off Lagos. I had heard about the caves and grottos of Lagos. You can explore some of them from the beaches, or better yet rent a kayak or go on a boat trip to really see what they’re like. If I had gotten to Lagos earlier in the day then I definitely would have rented a kayak and gone for a paddle – there’s always next time!
It was finally time for my course to begin. At this stage I was feeling a mix of excitement and nervousness. I had never even stepped on a yacht before – what if I stepped awkwardly and fell between the boardwalk and the yacht? What if I got seasick? I had purchased a pack of anti-seasick tablets just in case. What if my course mates aren’t friendly? What if I don’t pick it up as fast as them?
R u Sailing?
rusailing is owned and run by two British expats called Rob and Jules. They moved to the Algarve some 14 years ago and have been running sailing courses ever since. They’re actually the longest established sailing school in Portugal, so needless to say: they are very good at what they do and I was in good hands!
There were two other people who were joining the Firefly crew for the week, one from Russia and the other from Belgium. They both had been sailing several times and were taking a course called ‘Day Skipper’. I was taking the ‘Competent Crew’ course. So basically, their roles were to tell me what to do and my role was to try my best not to fall off the boat whilst doing it.
We all went for out for dinner to become acquainted with each other and for Rob and Jules to lay out the plan for the next five days. We would spend the first two days close to Lagos to teach me the basic skills of sailing and to refresh the skills of the other two students. Then we would set sail for real and explore the coastline.
We slept on-board Firefly that first night. I had a private spacious cabin in the bow of the boat with a sky window. I left it open all night and let the cooling sea breeze drift in. As I lay on my back waiting for sleep, I looked out to the stars and watched them sway as the boat gently rocked. The full moon was still a couple of days away, but it still lit up the whole sky. I felt so content in those last waking moments, knowing that I was exactly where I was meant to be.