By Michael Domican
Offshore Sailing School's Head Instructor
Michael Domican and Tara McClure
enjoy a sail in the British Virgin Islands.
The British Virgin Islands may just be the best place in the world to learn how to sail -- or to learn to sail better, no matter what your skill level.
A few other places can boast relatively unspoiled scenery, pristine waters and year-round sunshine and warm weather, but what makes the BVI so special for learning is the fact that we enjoy consistent 'trade' winds. The trades can be relied on to blow from the east-northeast during the winter and from the east-southeast during the summer and range from ten to twenty knots most of the year. In late December, twenty to thirty knot 'Christmas winds' often kick in giving more adventurous sailors a taste of more challenging conditions.
These consistent winds allow repeatable drills for the beginner and reliable conditions for more advanced students who can almost guarantee that their course won’t be 'skunked' for lack of wind.
Yet another advantage of the BVI is that it is an archipelago of 50-60 islands (depending on what you define as an 'island' or a 'rock'). This allows instructors to start beginners in the more sheltered and protected Sir Francis Drake Channel and yet easily get to the more testing Caribbean Sea or Atlantic Ocean as students gain skills and confidence.
So, if the BVI is the best lace to learn how to sail, how should a student go about choosing a school and getting the best out of a course?
All sailing schools in the BVI teach to one (or more) of these three governing bodies that dictate and control curricula and standards: US Sailing (the national governing body of the sport in the US); the Royal Yachting Association (the national governing body of the sport in the UK); and the American Sailing Association (a network of over 200 accredited sailing schools).
All offer qualifications that will be accepted by all of the leading charter companies. And all have different price structures that largely reflect the type of equipment and hotels that they use. Obviously, the schools that use newer boats and nicer hotels will cost more. As with other goods and services, you tend to get what you pay for. Check out school web sites, ask around, get recommendations and you'll soon find a school to suit your budget. And you'll find that spring, summer and autumn will be less expensive than winter.
British Virgin Islands Sailing Instructor
Michael Domican and Tara McClure
at the docks on Tortola.
Perhaps even more important than the school you choose and the boat it uses will be the quality and personality of your sailing instructor. As with skiing, scuba or flying, you'll either personally like your instructor or you won't. Fortunately, the sport of sailing seems to attract the most decent sort of people that I've ever come across, and so your chances of finding an instructor who's motivated to teach you and fun to be with are very good.
So, you've decided to learn to sail in the BVI. You've researched and found a sailing school that suits your budget; you've received the text books from the school and booked your tickets. Great! Now how to get the best out of the thousands of dollars (including airfare) that you'll end up paying? Three words: preparation, preparation, preparation. The more time that you put in to your text books at home, the quicker you'll learn when you get to the BVI and the more fun you'll have in the process.
And be honest with the school when you sign up. If you're an absolute beginner then no prior experience will be expected of you. But if you're planning to do an advanced course then don't mislead the school with your sailing skills. If you do, you'll only end up on a boat doing a course that's out of your depth and with fellow students who you might slow down and hold back. You wouldn't sign up for advanced tango lessons if you've only tried it once or twice, so don't sign up for advanced sailing lessons unless you're sure that you're ready for it. If in doubt, do a 'refresher' course ahead of the advanced.
Last but not least. Make sure that you have a good time! Don't stress out and put yourself under unnecessary pressure. Your instructor is there to help you and he or she much prefers students who ask for help than those who pretend to know it all. This is what they want to do for a living, after all. And if you do screw up (and you will), RELAX…you're back at school and everyone expects you to make mistakes. Those are often the most valuable lessons and, after all, if you knew it all to begin with you wouldn't be enrolled in a school!
Michael learned sailing as a Sea Scout on the south coast of England. After that, he has sailed on boats ranging from an engineless oyster dredging cutter to luxury super yachts. In 1983, he was a crew member aboard Britain's entry in the America's Cup.
Since 2002 Michael has been Branch Director and Head Sailing Instructor of Offshore Sailing School, Tortola.