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Learning to Sail – Competent Crew

4 people sitting not the deck of a white yacht in a calm sea on a bright sunny day

Updated on June 22nd, 2023

I had it on good authority that the best way of learning to sail is to take an RYA Competent Crew course. I decided to take the course in The Solent, UK & was also told that this was one of the most well regarded places to learn. Here is my guide to everything you need to know if you would like to do the same.”


Lymington (Hampshire), Isle of Wight & The Solent, UK – July 2017

A close up map of the Solent region on England's south coast with an avatar of a blonde woman, taking in Hamblene-Rice, Gosport, Beaulieu, Lymington, Yarmouth and Cowes


Learning to sail was on my Life List & the first step for me was to gain a qualification which allows me to crew a yacht (& the opportunities overseas this could bring for future trips).

Having asked friends who are sailors, I was told the best courses are run by the RYA. In addition, The Solent in the UK is such a busy channel of water that it is a very well respected place to learn. While on the course I heard that if it is a choice between 2 people to join the crew if one learnt in The Solent, they would always take that person. I was also told the Mediterranean wasn’t ideal as it’s not tidal so, much as I wanted to learn in warmer climes, it didn’t seem to add up.

I have since gone on to gain much more sailing experience & am keen one day to also take my day skipper course. Why not check out the stories of my experiences in at the deep end with my posts on learning to sail in the Caribbean & taking part in my first sailing regatta? Or you could check out my video to see my escapades for yourself.

For all the inspiration you need on Adult Learning Vacations, check out my blog post.

Competent Crew Course, The Solent, UK, Learning to Sail
Competent Crew Course
What do you need to know?

To find a list of approved RYA Sailing Courses follow THIS link. You will also be able to find a rundown of all up to date sailing qualifications & RYA courses there.


In my experience, most sailing courses last for either a week or are spaced out over a could of weekends. I chose to do learn to sail on a one week course. The sailing lessons started at 9am on Monday & finished at approximately 4pm on Friday. However exact timings will depend on if there’s anything outstanding on the syllabus & what the conditions have been like on the final day.

What you will learn

The Competent Crew course itself takes you through the sailing basics such as terminology, parts of the yacht, rigging, sail handling & safety, effectively the practical instruction which you need to crew a yacht. No previous experience of sailing is required but it does help if you have some. I had spent 10 days on a yacht with a friend in Turks & Caicos but this week made me realise how little I knew! Believe me when I say that the Competent Crew course is the best place to start & learn sailing for beginners.

Competent Crew Course, Boats in the harbour on a cloudless sunny day Cowes, Isle of Wight, UK

On my course, there were 5 of us & our Skipper, Euan. Myself & 1 other guy were doing the Competent Crew course & the other 3, the Day Skipper Course. This worked well as it meant we got to take part in some of the curricula for the next level up. We also got lots of practice as the others completed their drills. In addition, unfortunately, one of the Day Skippers had to leave after the 1st 2 days. Although this was a shame for him, it meant we had to step up a bit more in terms of our roles on the boat.

Throughout the course, our Skipper made sure we all took turns to do various positions each day. This meant that we gained experience with all the key areas, as well as sailing in many different wind (& low wind) conditions.


I learnt & stayed on a 40’ yacht. It may be possible to stay on the boat on Sunday night before the course which makes travelling easier. Although bear in mind you may not get the same quality of sleep you’re used to while on the course. We all lived on the boat for the duration of the course.

As the only woman, I was lucky enough to get my own cabin. It felt more like sleeping in a coffin but at least it was my own private coffin!”

Each night (& most lunchtimes) we docked at a marina which gave us the opportunity for showers, nice toilets, shops & dinner.


Breakfast & lunch are catered for on the boat but don’t expect an impressive spread. You have the option to buy supplies for yourself. The skipper will also take requests for breakfast & lunch options. We did have a cooked breakfast one morning and some of the group made some bacon sandwiches on another morning too.  We had the chance to eat out each night which most of us did, there was also the option to cook for yourself on the boat or get a takeaway.

Our skipper said because we were sailing, just sitting on the boat you can burn 1000 calories in a day. I chose to believe him & upped my consumption of biscuits accordingly!”

What can you expect?
  • Not much space! If you are learning in the UK during the summer, you will need a lot of clothing for all weathers. However, space is limited so pack lightly. There is no need to bring anything smart. Enjoy the natural look!
  • Get stuck in. The more you do, the more you learn. I found myself getting comfortable with certain jobs. As a result, I tried to always take on new things which helped me learn a lot more. I like to believe this helped me become a better crew member as a result.
  • Work as a team. If it’s not your job, it doesn’t mean an extra pair of hands/muscles won’t go amiss to get things on track as soon as possible. When we were tacking especially, a bit of help pulling the rope gets the sail in place quicker & therefore makes the sailing better.

    Expect all weather conditions. We had sun, no wind, lots of wind, a bit of rain, lots of rain. Being cold & wet is not pleasant so I spent most days in my full wet weather gear (rain or no rain). I would recommend overdressing rather than underdressing.”

  • Toilets & showers. For me, the “head” (toilet) on the boat was highly unappealing & I managed to avoid it all week (impressive?!). Most of the time we docked for lunch & in the evening. There we could use the facilities in the marinas which were all very good. Shower facilities were also available there & were clean and very welcome.
  • Keep your wits about you. If you want to see most things the sea can throw at you then The Solent is a great place to learn. We had aircraft carriers, container ships, ferries, windsurfers, kite surfers &, of course, yachts (professionals & people there to just have fun). It was a great opportunity to learn about avoiding others & who has the right of way (even though I panicked constantly when I was at the helm!)
What to take

The sailing school sent us a kit list before we started. If you don’t have anything on it, improvise, just in case you find sailing isn’t for you.”

The list was helpful but I also have some top advice to share:

1. Use the waterproofs supplied by your sailing school if possible. Ours were all new & fit for the job. Even one of the guys who had his own wished he’d used theirs. Consider this so you don’t have to deal with wet gear on the way home or are struggling to dry things. This can be a reality with limited space. If you choose to buy your own set then I would recommend investing in a jacket & waterproof trousers

2. Bring your own sleeping bag. Two of the guys didn’t bring one & suffered on the first night. I also took my sleeping bag liner which was useful too.

3. As before, expect all weather. Pack shorts, t-shirts, thermals just in case & don’t worry about packing anything that’s not practical.

4. Sunscreen. This is VERY IMPORTANT! Even with the British weather you will need this on your face & check the Use By Date. Our skipper had used children’s SPF50 on his face 2 weeks before & had burnt badly as it was out of date. The sun can be vicious, reflecting off the water & even when it’s not out, you can get caught.

5. Sailing Gloves. Having suffered from blisters on my first day sailing previously I wasn’t taking any chances & if you buy nothing else, I would recommend investing in a pair of sailing gloves. They protect your hands from the ropes & weather.

Day by Day

The day to day activities & locations were decided by our Skipper as we went through the week, depending on the conditions.

Boats in the harbour on a cloudless sunny day Cowes, Isle of Wight, UKDay 1

The morning was spent going through the basics of being on a yacht & a full safety briefing. Then we headed off sailing to the Isle of Wight (IOW) & spent the first night in Cowes.

The sailing was straightforward, with all of us taking our turns to steer. However, the wind meant we sailed directly, with minimum tacking etc (& when we did tack, we were shocking!).”

In the evening, we went to the pub to go through a test of lights on cards, mainly for the Day Skipper attendees. This helped us learn more & realise that for Day Skipper Course you really need to make sure you’ve studied your theory well enough before you start the practical! After a pub dinner, we sat in the cockpit of the boat, having a couple of drinks & watching the sunset on a beautiful British summer evening at the marina.

Boats in the harbour on a cloudless sunny day Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, UKDay 2

We woke to beautiful sunshine & the only day which was fit to sail in shorts & without any wet weather gear. Unfortunately, this came with a lack of wind so we spent the morning practising under power, stopping the boat & mooring on buoys in a nearby bay. The afternoon brought the wind so we had an intense afternoon tacking constantly… and improved no end as a result! That evening we docked in Yarmouth on the IOW.

Day 3

The British Summer struck & we woke to pouring rain but not much wind. This was the first day one of our Day Skippers took charge with charting, planning & overseeing the mornings sailing. As Competent Crew, we took the helm & everyone got involved in a few tacks along the way. We headed to Beaulieu (Bucklers Hard) for lunch before the wind & weather took a turn & we had much larger waves to deal with as we headed back to Cowes for the night.

Day 4

2nd morning with a Day Skipper in charge as we headed for busy Portsmouth for lunch.

This morning reinforced the learning experience of the busy Solent. We had to deal with ferries, commercial vessels (& as such shipping lanes), an American aircraft carrier, naval base & numerous yachts doing their final preparations & practice for Cowes week (starting the weekend we left).”

In the afternoon, the weather turned again & started to look like it would get tough for the route back to Lymington on the final day. We had 32-knot winds & a lot of rain. The aim was to get as close as possible before docking for the evening & we ended up in Port Hamble. As we came in we heard Mayday signals of boats on fire & yachts that had shredded their spinnakers (2 days before Cowes week!).

SueWhereWhyWhat, at the wheel, while taking her competent crew course sailing on The Solent off of the coast of the south of England in a grey wet weather jacket, UKDay 5

The final day brought bad weather & a race to get back to Lymington & finish all the rest of our syllabus. It also had us battling directly against the wind & tide. We started with man overboard drills and finished with “pontoon bashing”. This gave the Day Skippers chance to practice manoeuvring in the marina & us, as Competent Crew, plenty of mooring experience. We finished around 4-4.30pm after cleaning the boat & receiving our logbooks & certificates.

Where I ate & drank

The Anchor Inn, Cowes – decent pub food and a good place for a beer after a long days sailing (as it’s the first pub you find when you exit the marina!). On our 2nd night here they also had a live band playing which made for a fun night out for all!

Salty’s, Yarmouth – very good food. I sat downstairs on a bench but apparently upstairs is a bit more formal.

Victory Inn, Hamble-Le-Rice – nice pub & although I didn’t eat here, apparently the food is good

King & Queen, Hamble-Le-Rice – seems like a different meal on offer each day of the week & we were there on steak night. This was clearly a popular evening, it was busy & we were lucky to get a table – book ahead if you get a chance. It was delicious!

The Haven, Lymington – great location on the marina & very good food.


For the weeks’ tuition, breakfasts, lunch & accommodation it cost £430. In addition, we paid an extra £10 per day to cover any extra food & moorings for the night.

Where next time?

I am keen to increase my sailing time & looking for opportunities to crew to get my miles up.  When I feel ready I would like to take my Day Skipper course & this time I may go for a warmer climate. Watch this space if you want to see more of my adventures crewing on the high seas or read some of my many tales.

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Learning to Sail – Competent Crew

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  1. Sue – Have you heard of any good sailing courses in Croatia. Also I’m a vegan – would this be catered for on the boat??
    Did anyone get sea sick??

    1. Thanks Janine for getting in touch. I have been looking into a number of sailing courses recently & although I don’t have any recommendations, I did read a great article on a sailing holiday for inexperienced sailors which recommended Sunsail. I have looked them up & they do offer a RYA Competent Crew Course in Croatia which could be an option for you. The link is https://www.sunsail.co.uk/destinations/mediterranean/croatia/agana/sailing-school

      As I say in my article, do bear in mind that the one thing you do miss in the Med is tides, but my experience with the Comp Crew course is that its more about the basics of helping a skipper to sail so less important at this level (but if you move to Day Skipper Course I would recommend going somewhere tidal).

      As long as you let them know you are vegan I’m sure they will do what they can to provide appropriate food. In my experience this has always been the case for these types of holidays.

      Also in terms of sickness, I’ve been lucky not to suffer & nobody I have sailed with has so far either. I think the only way to know if you do is to get on a boat but start with a day rather than a week as my understanding is it can be incredibly debilitating & exhausting if you do suffer. The top tip from my instructor was that as soon as anyone feels slightly sick – put them on the helm to steer. Focussing on something else helps you feel better.

      I hope that I helped & please keep in touch & let me know how it goes.

  2. Hi Sue just stumbled on your wonderful blog and was interested to now the name of the sailing school where you done your competent crew practical course the internet has many with varying prices and yours was very competitive although in 2017.
    I’m at that time in my life where I want to fulfil my dream to sail.
    I see a lot of jobs for crew members with the rya competent crew requirement.

    1. Thank you Roy & welcome to Sue Where Why What! I went with a company called Sea Jay’s Solent Sailing School. I used to have the link in the post but have just checked & unfortunately it looks like they are permanently closed now. It’s such a shame as I really enjoyed my week learning with them. And I believe that taking the competent crew course would be essential for getting a job on a boat. It’s very basic but that’s all you need. Good luck in your quest to learn & I hope you fulfil your dream!

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