Over the rushing sound of a choppy sea and the crashing of waves, the skipper yells the dreaded words ‘man overboard!’
Immediately we spring into action, preparing a rescue mission and trying to locate the unfortunate person who has managed to hurtle over the side of our 72ft yacht into the restless brine.
At least my fellow sailors spring immediately into action. I’m half in a state of panic and half thinking ‘who’s gone over?’
I probably should have known what was happening when the skipper tossed one of the yacht’s fenders over the side as he bellowed those awful words.
But it takes me a good few minutes to realise that this is an exercise and nobody is in imminent danger of drowning.
This is the most dramatic moment in my maiden voyage with the Tall Ships Youth Trust – an organisation that provides sailing adventures for youngsters and adults.
Usually hung from the side of the yacht to stop damage when it’s docking, the fender is now bobbing helplessly in rough waters
Several people on board keep their fingers pointing at the ‘casualty’. In waters as choppy as this, it’s easy to lose sight of a person.
Skipper Paul Prentice manoeuvres the large yacht towards our ‘helpless crewmate’ while not putting him at risk.
The waves are being whipped up by a Force 6 wind, but Paul pulls it off perfectly and two members of the crew head out to the side to bring in the fender.
The man overboard exercise has taken place on a three-day trip on one of the trust’s 72ft Challenger yachts. I’ve joined nine other fee-paying voyagers – of varying sailing experience – and three staff and volunteers of the trust for a short sail training adventure in the Solent and across to Brighton.
Our trip has been fairly plain sailing so far, but somewhere around Brighton the wind has picked up and altered the sea state.
Not long before the overboard exercise I’ve found myself at the ship’s bow helping to haul a hefty spinnaker pole and trying to keep my footing in conditions that I find pretty scary.
I’m not exactly thinking ‘this is the life’ but it is exhilarating. Although as fun as being blasted in the face by sea spray is, I’m grateful to escape into the calmer conditions of Brighton Marina.
After tying up, Paul explains that carrying out the exercise without warning gives people better experience. Some of the voyagers are building up sailing skills and they seem to agree.
But he says that, without actually throwing a crew member in – and I’m certainly not volunteering – it would be difficult to practice the whole job.
‘It’s important to approach the casualty carefully. In a lumpy sea state, the last thing you want is to see this yacht rising above you and threatening to crash down on you. And we push the boat alongside the shelter . But what we’ve done is only part of it. Getting the casualty in is about 60 per cent of the job.’
Paul says the choppy sea state is due to the wind picking up and the fact that we have entered shallower water.
But he’s only calling it moderate to rough. He probably has a point – this is a man with more than 20 years’ experience who has sailed through a hurricane.
We’re in safe and instructive hands with Paul and mate David Booth and watch leader Tom Drake.
It’s their job to guide whoever is on the voyage and David has quite a job overseeing just about everything that takes place before, during and after a sail.
‘I’m always surprised at the end of a weekend or week how much people have taken in and the fact that they know what to do,’ he says.
‘With the adults it’s often a reintroduction to sailing or an experience for people who have never sailed. But with the young people, it can completely change their direction in life.’
We adults should be a doddle, although my lack of experience is as obvious as a distress flare. I’m the sort of person who thinks laying out sheets is a laundry task (in sailing they’re ropes) and listens to the shipping forecast for relaxation.
The day before the man overboard exercise is my first as a sailor and you could say I’m all at sea.
Only about half-an-hour into the Solent and there’s already an accident involving my little finger and the yankee sail (common sense should have told me not to keep it tucked into the sail as it was about to be raised).
But I’m soon learning that out here the snake pit isn’t a scene in an Indiana Jones film and is in fact a very important area where most of the working lines controlling the sails are operated.
And that Milton Keynes is the crew’s name for an area of the yacht where you can pass through but really don’t want to stay. Here you’re in danger of the boom hitting you and on this yacht the boom is a five-man lift and could probably send you flying to Ryde.
Out in the Solent and there’s plenty of heavy work to be done. The tasks of raising and bringing down sails are a whirlwind of activity involving ropes, winches and teams of people hoisting heavy canvas into the correct position.
Even folding up the sails at the end of a trip is a major task. The Challenger mainsail is 112 sq m, and weighs 200kg. The crew lines up for a folding process called flaking.
And out on the water there are plenty of changes to the sails as we manoeuvre through the wind (a process called tacking).
It’s tiring work and on our first night at Cowes Marina it’s easy to get to sleep, despite yachty types belting out 80s classics far into the night.
During the next day’s trip to Brighton we all have a go at taking the helm.
The trick is to find two markers on the yacht and keep a distant object within those – or steer to the correct compass degree. I simply do what I’m told and eventually get the knack of not over-steering.
Paul says problems often occur in our busy waters because of inexperienced sailors. ‘All you need is money, you don’t need a licence,’ he explains. ‘I’d say a good 30 per cent of the people out here don’t know what they’re doing. I wouldn’t send them out in a pedalo on the Serpentine.’
Afterwards, when we’re steering a safe course around the rocks off Selsey Bill, I’m thankful we’re learning the ropes from experienced people.
And when I finally leave the yacht for dry land – still swaying slightly – I’m grateful for a fabulous experience.