Sailing the Mercury
Garden Route Sailing Adventures offers day-long courses to teach inexperienced people like me how to sail. It is a great opportunity to get to know a bit about boats and sailing on your first trip out to sea on a proper ocean sailing yacht. I am very glad that my first yachting experience was on this course, since otherwise if I'd gone on a simple leisurely trip out to sea instead I would have had no idea what was going on.
All the course participants gathered at Garden Route Sailing Adventures offices on Thesen Island, where we first had a little lesson about the basics of yacht sailing. We each received a "Start Sailing – Introduction to Yachting" booklet, and over cups of tea and coffee the skipper explained the main parts of a yacht, the principles of sailing, how to use the wind and how to do some basic knots. There were various lengths of rope for us to practice knots on, which everyone did with enthusiasm. At this point I guess I should note that I am quite young, but most people I see taking part on the many activities that I join are well older than me. Clearly all ages go out and enjoy new experiences.
The lesson was interesting, and it made me quite eager to get onto the yacht and put it all to practice. We went on the SA3 Mercury, anclassic sailing vessel with a lot of history. It is a lightweight timber hull racing yacht, built in Germany to compete in the first Cape to Rio race in 1971 (The 'Cape to Rio' is a quite exciting and famous transatlantic yachting race). It was named Mercury after the Natal Newspaper that helped raise funds for the building of the boat. A "sister ship" was built at the same time here in Knysna by the Thesen family, made after the same original design as the Mercury. It was named Albatross 2, and the two yachts competed together in the Cape to Rio race. The Albatross won a lot of fame in that race, and whilst was the 8th yacht to cross the line in Rio, she won on handicap and stood everyone in Knysna very proud.
In 1973 the SA3 took part in the race again, this time under the name "Mainstay": It was quite a famous boat for a time, as it bore the name of and provided the branding for the famous cane spirit, Mainstay. Many television ads were shot aboard the SA3, and many South Africans remember the Mainstay..Some years later, the SA3 returned to being called Mercury.
Recently, in 2012, the Mercury went through some major restorations and repairs here in Knysna. Now people like me (and you) can enjoy a few hours on the ocean aboard this over 40 year old classic yacht and learn to sail. When we got to the Knysna Yacht Club and I saw the Mercury for the first time, it did not look its age – after all the restorations, the yacht is as new. We got on board and, after a short introduction, set out for the heads. In spite of being a sailing yacht, the Mercury also has a potent motor (the motor alone was more expensive than the building of the whole yacht back in 1971 – that is how much effort and commitment was put into the restoration of the Mercury). This motor was of much use to us as we were making our way towards the heads, since it was not a particularly windy day. People took turns standing at the helm of the boat and steering it, with the help of the skipper who pointed out where the canal of deep water runs through the lagoon out to the heads. Sailing on a yacht, I paid much more attention to the surroundings than when sitting in a speedboat - it is a completely different feeling and a new way to experience the area. I learned many new things about the Knysna area: when going out to sea we had to use the motor to ensure a safe passage through The Knysna Heads.. I imagined what it would have been like for seafarers of old times going through the heads without motorised assistance.
We had a very relaxing trip. The ocean was quite flat and there was little wind, so it was more of a "sit back and enjoy" kind of ride. This always depends on the weather and the ocean of course, on rougher days I imagine it must be a more active ride, especially since the Mercury is a racing boat built for speed. I took the opportunity to take some nice photos while the rest of the group was sitting and chatting at the back of the yacht. Again, we took turns steering the boat, with the skipper there to help us keeping a straight line. It's really a great feeling; the yacht was far more responsive to tiny adjustments than I thought. After a while of doing it you settle into the motion of the boat and get a much better feeling of how it moves. I personally would tend to go more for the action rides, but even without any waves I really enjoyed the sailing. The white sails cut out against the blue sky and ocean were a beautiful view to sit back and take in, and although the sun was shining bright and hot there was always a nice breeze in which you couldn't help but feel good.
When everyone had their turn at the helm and sheeting the sails, we returned to the lagoon. After eating a snack-lunch on the boat we practiced some more tacks (turns) on the way back – I would never have thought that a yacht could make such quick and sharp turns! Upon returning to the Knysna Yacht Club we received our certificates for having participated in the day course – which counts as the first day for an officially recognized four-day sailing course.
It really was a great experience. I feel the trip was a good introduction to sailing and I learned lots of new things. I find that taking part on an introductory course like this is a much nicer way to experience sailing than to just be taken out on the ocean, because I learned actively and felt much more accomplished afterwards.