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Grapnels, Grab-Bags and GMDSS: Learning the language of the sea

Going back to school in your sixties is an 'interesting' experience (especially when everyone else in the classroom is half your age) but in our case it’s not only mandatory, it's essential. As nautical novices, we’ve been on (yet another) mighty learning curve getting to grips with all things oceanic...

The good news, after eight days at sea school in Teignmouth, we now hold RYA (Royal Yachting Association) qualifications in Sea Survival, First Aid at Sea, Short Range Radio (VHF) and Essential Navigation and Seamanship. This is a mandatory requirement for everyone entering the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge so along with ten other intrepid Atlantic rowers, we packed them all under our belt in one go with an intensive residential course.

Being based in Portsmouth, we have a number of sea schools on our doorstep but we opted to head down to Devon for this all-in-one course because of its specific focus on Atlantic rowing. It not only ticked all the RYA boxes, but the learning revolved specifically around the elements we will need to survive up to 70 days alone at sea in a rowing boat. It taught us some invaluable lessons.

For example, whilst learning how to navigate, we also plotted our course from La Gomera to Antigua and looked hard at courses taken by rowers in previous years – what worked and what hadn't worked around the North Atlantic weather systems.

Survival at sea was an eye-opener and covered one of the things we are most worried about – capsizing. This year’s Atlantic Challenge saw many capsizes with relentless 40-ft waves tossing the boats around like corks, so it’s something we need to be prepared for.

The boats are designed to self-right, providing all the hatches are closed, so this is a safety precaution we have already drummed into ourselves. The other is clipping on our safety line at all times, so even if we do end up ‘in the drink’, we’ll still be with the boat.

We learned that leaving our boat will be a last resort as it’s far safer and far more comfortable than what amounts to a large inflatable tent! Clambering into a life raft in a swimming pool is difficult enough but probably twice as hard sea in choppy conditions and worse still, if someone is injured. Once you’re in, it’s claustrophobic and generally quite unpleasant, so we'll only use it if no other options are available.

We were glad to spend two days with Ian Couch, duty officer for the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. His insights into what to expect and the safety procedures that are in place left us greatly reassured. The scrutineering process for each team before they embark is extensive, to say the least but as novices, we want to know that we've ticked every box.

Next on to First Aid at Sea, which gave us all a bit of a giggle as we bandaged each other’s heads (Grandad Neil is NOT happy that this photo is on the internet but we wanted to share the smiles...!) We also got on to the unmentionable subject of blisters on bottoms (the rowers curse!) Surgical spirit, wet wipes and plenty of foam padding is all we’ll say... you can imagine the rest!

Another bonus of choosing this study option was getting to know our fellow rowers and what a great bunch they are. All there for different reasons but each with a determined spirit to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. We can't wait to see them all again at the start line in La Gomera this December.

The weeks are flashing by quickly now so as soon as our boat arrives next month, we'll be putting our new-found theory into practice around the Solent. We want to spend as much time on board as possible. Not only rowing, but practising our boat handling until it's automatic, such as deploying a Grapnel anchor, knowing where the grab-bag is and not accidentally setting off our GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System)!

See you next time and thanks for your support,

The Grandads

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