San Diego Sailing Experience

Looking for a sunny, warm ASA sailing school on an ocean, we settled upon the San Diego Sailing Academy (SDSA.com) which featured just 2 to a boat, live-aboard, individualized instruction and the opportunity to take the boat on the weekend after completing the classes during the week – sounded great. The reality is that San Diego isn’t sunny or really warm in May and June. Our instructor Mike Monastra said the word on the California coast is “May Gray and June Gloom.” He was right but it didn’t deter from the sailing experience in a very busy naval base harbor featuring aircraft carriers, destroyers, and amphibious landing craft. Mixed in with the Navy are cruise ships, sight-seeing boats, fishing charters and of course sailboats…it is the sailboat capital of the world. We watched Dennis Conner sailing the Wednesday night Beer Can Regatta aboard his new 60’ Stars and Stripes and yes, he won his class. It was magical, exciting and lots of opportunities to determine who has the right of way.

We boarded our 30’ Catalina on Sunday afternoon – SDSA arranges to pick you up from the airport, helps with food provisioning and delivers you to your yacht for the week. That first night we needed to complete the ASA 101 test and the first chapter of ASA 105. Monday morning began with an overview of the boat and an afternoon of practical sailing experience. Each day we learned more about the mechanical and electrical running of the boat which always presents more problems than the simple sailing of the vessel. We picked up tidbits of information such as “become a member of a Yacht Club because when you start chartering sailboats around the world you may have reciprocal guest privileges at other Yacht Clubs….meaning free overnight guest slips!” Instructor Mike was a wealth of information, he is also the wind technician in yacht races and he provided insight into what to look for with the wind. That evening we completed the ASA 103 test. Day two was much of the same. Some morning review from the previous day and then off to more practical experience. Our favorite maneuver from day two was heave to and have some lunch.

On day 3 we went over docking and anchoring. Mike figured out that we already knew how to sail and emphasized the need to know the mechanics of the boat workings – motor, head, batteries, electrical, propane, refrigeration – the works. His pre-sailing checklist began with 5 areas: to check: 1. Personal (gear stowed, windows, valves closed, etc.) 2. Legal (lifejackets, on-board signs, charter agreement) 3. Engine (bilge, oil) 4. Deck (lines run correctly-have a system) 5. Slip (docking and backing). We returned early in the afternoon and Mike sent us off - alone. On our first sailing solo we decided to head into the ocean. The wind was out of the South which meant a beat out of the harbor. As we came around the Shelter Island Harbor entrance we found ourselves the lead boat of 7 yachts heading for the ocean. Not wanting to show our lack of experience to the others, we turned back to sail San Diego Bay and this time found ourselves leading the USS Nassau (LHA-4) back to the Naval Station Pier. Each tack presented new sailing situations that required planning from our training including sail set, right of way, wind conditions and navigations. We found that our training to that point served us well as we found ourselves challenging our fresh book knowledge with practical sailing decisions and maneuvering.

The fourth day we turned in ASA 104 and completed all but the final section of ASA 105. We learned how to pump out the holding tanks and refuel and then we were off on our own for our second afternoon of solo sailing. We wanted to experience the ocean swells and headed for the ocean again. Again we found ourselves leading some other sailboats on a beat toward the ocean and it felt like racing. The seals in the buoy seats waved to us as we passed and the Navy – trained dolphins jumped into Zodiacs for transport to the mouth of the harbor to check for bombs under the Naval ships before they entered the port. The swells were 3-4’ but you could see clear down to the Mexico. The winds were moderate to light but we found enough wind to experience our first splashes of sea water and waves over the bow. We opted to dock the boat at the slip for the night. We left again the next morning to Coronado making our way through 22knot winds, weekend boat traffic with great views of downtown San Diego, The Midway Aircraft carrier museum, Coronado high bridge, and Naval Station piers. Our anchorage at Coronado featured a beautiful golf course and sand beach with some pretty strange neighbors – homeless people who lived on sailboats that really didn’t look like they could sail. The coast guard checked on us and the others at the anchor spot just before dark. We spent day 6 sailing in San Diego Bay. We became very familiar with the sail set and handling of the boat. We returned to the slip to finish the last question of ASA 105 and turn in the test. As Joe was working through the section he found errors to the calculations of the previous answers. The only way to correct and pass the course was to start over and redo the entire set of navigation calculations. He reworked the entire test and turned it in. Over the course of the week we passed ASA 101, 103, 104 and 105 sailing courses.

At the end of the week we became certified to skipper a sailboat up to 50 feet. We gained a lot of great sailing experience in heavy traffic. We experienced nearly every “who has the right of way” situation and got some great blue water experience. While the test questions never seemed to end we found time for some great barbecue in the evening, walks along the harbor, great sailing regatta viewing, and a taste of live aboard marina life. Mike and Nick Monastra – professional sailing instructors and owners of San Diego Sailing Academy made learning to sail fun and did a great job of tying the information learned in our books to hands-on experience on the sea. We left not only certified skippers but also experienced sailors.