“My first sail” - by Cathy Mullan

My First Sail
by Cathy Mullan
There was a sharp bite in the air and the wintery evening sun was fading fast as I jumped on board the Cracker, a 44 footer docked at the boat yard in Kinsale. As I descended the ladder the warmth of her wooden interior immediately enveloped me. The trainee skipper was taking the grub list, and I was just in time to hear him shout out: “Wine or whiskey?” The unanimous response was “Whiskey!”  Instant visions of Jack in Father Ted sprang to mind as I took one look at the boat’s owner, Eddie English, and pictured him at the helm in big seas and lashing rain, bottle in hand and roaring: “Drink, feck, tack.”


Sailing at the Fastnet RockIt was a strange new world. I had never sailed before, but when I moved to Cork a few years ago I decided that had to change. I had spent the best part of the summer of 2007 knocking on doors and getting nowhere fast, when a friend at work told me about I immediately signed up for the last cruise of the season, on that first weekend of November.
Introductions were made and we sat through a lengthy briefing on safety at sea, passage plans, etc. Then it was off for a night sail out of the harbour to the Sovereign rocks. The excitement was palpable as we made our way in the darkness towards the twinkling red and green lights, then on past the fairway marks of Scilly, the Spit and Bostun. We sailed against the backdrop of the town of Kinsale, all lit up. Heading out past Charles Fort and into the bay, the drone of the engine quickly gave way to silence as we hoisted the main sail.


Kinsale at nightAs the boat yielded to the power of wind and waves and gently heeled to one side, I instantly experienced that feeling of immense happiness that every sailor talks about as the switch from noisy engine to nature is made.


Steering a course for the Bulman Buoy, we left it to port and eased the sails on the southerly breeze for the comfortable beam reach to the Big Sovereign. My first sailing lesson had begun! The trainee skipper was in charge of a mixed group, and quickly set about giving us jobs and explaining the various bits of a boat. I had scant knowledge but was hungry to learn, and he had my undivided attention as I absorbed the difference between halyards, sheets and lines, fairleads and cleats. After rounding Big Sovereign we headed back to our berth for the night and the hot toddies served up by Eddie were certainly welcome as the night time temperature dropped to zero. Settling down for the night in the cosy cabins, we were quickly rocked into a peaceful sleep.
The smell of a big fry up was our wakeup call the next morning, and after breakfast we set off for Oysterhaven Bay. With all the crew assembled on deck, we hoisted the main and the jib and we were off in the early morning sunshine. We arrived around lunchtime and dropped anchor.
Lunch was relaxed, and I remember sitting back enjoying the winter sun on my face, and thinking how pleasant and relatively easy this sailing lark was. What I didn’t know, of course, was how a sail can suddenly change when at the mercy of the sea and weather, and the frailty of human nature. I was about to get my first real lesson!


As we motored under main sail out of the bay for Cobh, we had only turned the corner when three things happened at once. A thick fog descended out of nowhere, the belt in the engine snapped, and the skipper, who had been suffering migraines all morning, suddenly charged past me like a runaway train towards the stern, with such an intense look on his face that I thought he had decided to jump overboard to quell his pain. I soon learnt that this is the normal appearance and actions of a seasick sailor who is about to throw up! And believe me, I have been that sailor.  
The wind had picked up too, and now the boat was heavily heeled. I remember looking to Eddie to gauge how serious the situation was. He looked concerned but not panicked. The next-in-charge took over while Eddie went to sort out the engine.  I felt an awful sense of powerlessness as I hadn’t a clue how I could help, and I promised myself that if I was to get into sailing I would learn how to do everything on a boat. As I went below and found some tissues and water for the seasick skipper, it occurred to me that no matter how experienced a sailor is, if he is sick on a boat he is pretty much rendered useless: a valuable lesson.


It didn’t take long to replace the belt, and we were quickly under engine again. We dropped the main and turned the navigation lights on. Within half an hour the fog lifted, and in the distance we could see the welcoming landmark of Roches Point lighthouse. It was my first time to enter Cork harbour, the second biggest harbour in the world. We sailed past the lighthouse, flanked by the row of picturesque houses, and on past Crosshaven, Spike Island and towards the Spit mark leading us into Cobh and Hawlbouline. All the while Eddie entertained us with his tales of the harbour’s history. We then headed towards East Ferry, where we berthed at the marina and cooked dinner on board.

 Cork Harbour from the air

Yacht Racing Cork HarbourThe following morning Eddie took us to watch the Sunday racing out of RCYC and we hovered near to the windward mark just outside Roches Point. Suddenly sailing took on a whole new dimension and the competitive spirit in me took note! As the boats raced up to the mark and rounded it, all hell seemed to break loose! I watched the frenzied activity taking place, and took in the roaring and shouting. But there was order to the chaos, and I was amazed as one by one the boats hoisted their beautiful, colourful spinnakers and quietness descended.
Feeling very much the novice sailor I looked on with admiration, and fervently hoped that one day I would be part of all this. All too soon we headed back for Kinsale, and after a debriefing, sadly bade our farewells.


Sailing in GibraltarLittle did I know that my first sail would be life changing. Since then I have spent all my free time on the water, from February to December each year. I enrolled in the day skipper theory course with Eddie, which kept me going through the winter until I could get back out sailing again. And my second sail was also with Sailcork, when we spent a wonderful week cruising from Marbella to the Rock of Gibraltar and across the Straits to Morocco.


After that, I started crewing on boats in Cobh, going down to the marina and asking if they needed crew. It’s not always an easy thing to do on your own, but a must if you want to get experience.


Four years on, I have clocked up nearly 5,000 nautical miles. Highlights have included taking part in Sovereigns Cup, ICRA, the Dun Laoghaire Volvo Regatta, and this year I got into offshore sailing with ISORA, racing across the Irish Sea to Wales on a regular basis. Luckily, my two children have caught the bug as well and their first sailing experiences were also with Sailcork. My dream is to one day skipper my own boat - I even have her name picked! 
Sailing Gibraltar
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