On May 14th, Julie Mira came to meet my daughter Ella and I in Folleux for 4 days of sailing au feminin. The young skipper and founder of Les Marinettes (lesmarinettes.com) drove down during the night after eing awarded first prize in a Young Entrepreneurs contest in the north of France for her new concept and business: Les Marinettes: Femmes des mers – Coaching nautique – Naviguer au feminin. We were her first official customers! I’d like to think my request for this coaching session encouraged her to officially launch the business, although I know she has been doing this kind of coaching for years. Whatever the case may be, I’m sure glad she did it. What a great idea.
Day 1: I can hardly believe it myself, but on day 1, I maneuvered Opsimath out of her slip in Folleux all on my own. My apologies to neighboring boat, Barnstormer, as I gently nudged her bow upon departure! But, Julie assured me, it just wasn’t that big a deal: Boats will occasionally knock, and there’s little chance of damage at slow speeds (first de-dramatisation and de-mystification in a long series, thanks to Miss Mira!). Then we navigated down the Vilaine, and Julie taught me to use the navigating equipment: keeping an eye on the depth, checking the currents and winds and programming an itinerary.
She took me through some basic maneuvering on an empty visitor’s pontoon near the lock in Arzal. Approaching, docking and leaving the pontoon in fair weather conditions was simple enough. I learned to use reverse as a brake, which was a complete eye-opener, and how to stay steady with either stern or bow aligned with a buoy. Taking time to execute these maneuvers gave me a real sense of how to control the boat and better understand how it pivots on its axis. I would never have been able to do this with Peter, as he would be too anxious and would probably over-explain! With Julie, calm, zen, precise vocabulary and clear explanations are the name of the game.
Next came negotiating the lock at Arzal, which is usually packed to the gunnels. Luckily, it wasn’t too bad and I pulled in like a boss :)! We got tied to the guide chains easily, and I was feeling pretty proud! When it was time to leave, I had to accelerate and move us off of the wall of the lock, it was the perfect application of the maneuvering lesson that came before: I had not yet really grasped the pivoting on a single axis, and I turned the bow a little too sharply away from the lock wall, pivoting the stern the other way. We razed the wall of the lock for about 3 meters aft! Luckily, a protruding piece of the metal guard rail saved any damage to the bow, and we got out with absolutely no damage. Learning curve!
Our destination for that day was a small uninhabited island nearby where Julie taught me to position the boat in between the wind and the buoy, which makes picking it up a buoy a snap. It sounds simple, and it is, if you do it right. If you don’t, this seemingly simple operation can be a real nightmare.
Julie is a terrific storyteller, and she uses this in her teaching. She uses stories to help fix information and images in your brain. Using anecdotes, humor, mnemonic techniques and a genuine desire to share both her professional and personal experience, Julie delivers information in an unforgettable way. For example, thanks to her, I’ll never forget which side of the boat the red and green lights should be on when you’re entering or leaving a harbor! But you’ll have to sign up for your own training course to find out why…
Unfortunately, that first night was anything but restful. Howling winds and a strong current had the boat pulling at its tethers all night.
Day 2 turned out to be a wild ride! We had planned to sail to Houidec Island, but then… As the photo up top will attest, the sea decided otherwise! Gale force winds made us change plans. As we headed out, winds were at 20knts, but they quickly ramped up to over 25knts once the sails were up, with stronger gusts, a good swell, and waves. With Julie by my side, I navigated for a while, but as the winds got up to 27/28, I passed her the helm. It was frazzling for me. I have always been terrified to take the helm with strong winds and the boat really heeling. I never know what to do, and I feel panicked.
Julie, true to herself, is always calm, and clear in her instructions. I was very happy to pass the helm back to her. But she suggested that I stay by her side, leaving my hand on the helm to feel what she was doing and how she was reacting to the sea and wind, just so I could get the feeling of it. It was a very good technique, a sort of passive learning that let me get the feel without the stress.
We decided to head into the port of Le Croisic, with it’s tricky entrance. Julie brought us in, finding our way to a buoy through the very shallow channel. I was EXHAUSTED when we finally got tied up to our buoy, and I made lunch, then declared nap time (seniority gives a girl some authority!)… and all three of us fell sound asleep until about 7pm. I think we all needed a rest. Now, truth be told, at that point, I was counting the days and thinking “has it really only been 36 hours?” and “4 more days of this? I can’t! Oh, what have I done???”
Luckily, when we woke up, we debriefed on the day, and talked about everything and nothing, including fishing, sailing, school, men 🙂 and life in general. Julie is also very artistic, and she uses her skills as an illustrator to explain different elements of navigation. Then we had a late supper and off to bed.
Day 3 was totally different, and I’m so glad it was! Croisic is a tricky port to get in and out of due to shifting sand banks and pretty shallow water. We had planned to leave on the morning tide, but missed it by a good 20 minutes, so we decided to stay put. That didn’t stop us from an incredibly productive morning doing a lot of important checks and tasks. First, we took stock of the boat; balconies, sails, sheets and ropes, tools, first aid, electrical installation, head and organization. It was a great occasion to get a professional opinion on the entire vessel. Julie tightened the balconies and showed me how to do it the proper way. She unstuck the emergency rudder, which had been epoxied to the cockpit locker wall, rendering it useless in case of emergency. She told us which sheets (ropes) had to be changed, and advised on hardware and tools we needed to gather. She explained simple (and dirt cheap) modifications we could carry out to make things safer and simpler to use.
We looked through the pharmacy and first aid supplies, which were in pretty good order, thanks to the 2 day on board medical training class I took with Sail The World back in March. She explained how to dismantle and change the joints and parts of the toilet – an important job that I plan on doing soon.
We sailed out of Croisic on the 2pm tide. The weather was fine, brisk winds about 15knts and blue skies. This turned out to be the first time I actually enjoyed being at the helm while on sail. On motor, I have no problem with navigating. It’s a cinch. In fact, since this training, I think that I could do just about any maneuver necessary on the motor without too much problem (dock, get a buoy, etc.), barring tricky weather conditions. But under sail, there’s just something I’ve had a hard time grasping.
We had a gorgeous sail on our way back up the coast to Arzal. It was beautiful and warm with nice winds, and I really got to take time to get a feel for how the boat responds. The photo above of my daughter, Ella, represents an ‘aha!” moment for me: I had been so stressed at the helm, concentrating and stressed and forgetting to breathe, furrowed brow, tense shoulders, just minutes before she took over. Same wind, same tack, but a totally different take on navigating from Ella. She was so relaxed! She has spent time on small catamarans and such, and I realized, seeing her, that I was just SO STRESSED OUT! I was doing far too much! Trying way too hard! There was just no need to be so stressed.
When I took the helm again, I went for an Ella-attitude, and I can tell you, for the first time ever, I enjoyed sailing the boat. I breathed. I relaxed my shoulders. Cool as a cucumber thanks to a couple of super Marinettes!
Things went very smoothly as we made our way to the lock in Arzal, which was busier than I had ever seen it. When you think they can’t fit one more boat in that lock, you see 10 more coming… and let me tell you, they will pack all 10 of them in. I learned a couple of very important things from this experience.
First, we had always kept loops on one end of our tethering lines, which we would slip on the cleat and then attach ourselves to docks, buoys, lock chains, etc. with the other end. Julie advised against this, and I said that was how we were used to doing it. She said “sure, fine, do as you please”.
However, getting through the lock demonstrated her point indisputably. I found out one of the reasons this is a terrible practice (in addition to the fact that they often slip off the cleat while manipulating the lines). With all of the jostling of the other boats, going through this lock was really tricky and lines had to be passed and re-passed from boat to boat and chain to chain. At the lock master’s instruction, we had to temporarily attach to a guard rail at the top of the lock. When the water in the lock started going down, the loop got stuck on the cleat with the tension, and we could not get it off! Julie ordered me back, then kick-boxed the rope and was able to release it safely. It could have created some real problems if we’d been held up on it. After, she showed me how to quickly and easily secure a line to a cleat, no premade hoop necessary, and it works so much better! I’ve been a convert since then.
Second, I learned about how a good captain gives clear, concise orders, and the difference between an order and “advice.” Julie had to order me off the cleat so she could get in there and kick the rope loose. Her order was calm, assertive and unmistakably clear “Sara, écarte-toi!” (Sara, move back!). No filler, no fluff. Strong voice, but no yelling. When you hear an order like this, you follow it without panicking or reacting emotionally. It is factual and you execute.
We talked about it a lot after, and it is true no matter who you are navigating with: a good captain’s orders will be concise, calm and clear. No extraneous words or sounds. No personal attacks. Elementary, you might say, but anyone who has spent time in ports has heard a lot of arguing between couples as one person (generally the guy) barks unclear and wordy orders, often mixed with personal remarks, at the other spouse. The latter, perhaps less experienced, but perhaps not, may be confused by the unclear terms/wording and by the emotional content and tone of the order. Then, 9 times out of 10, instead of allowing the person to focus on the task at hand (which is often urgent), the clumsily formatted command generates a defensive emotional response on the other end. It is counterproductive at best, dangerous at worst, and it’s a classic of couples sailing. As the “captain” rales, the “first mate” feels insulted and the added stress makes accomplishing the task even harder… It’s a mess! Nothing good ever comes of that! An example of this kind of exchange could be “Whoa whoa whoa whoa… Baby, just take the &@#%ing rope and put it under that thing over there! Look! No, the other one, use your head!!! It’s so simple! Just look at it, use your eyes for Christ’s sake!” How different it would be to say “secure the red rope to the starboard cleat and pass it to me under the railing.” Clarification or correction might be “no, go under the other railing.”
What Julie explains and demonstrates clearly is that there are two kinds of information a captain gives crew members. First, there is advice – what the person may want to try and consider and give thought to doing. Second, there are orders, which need to be executed promptly. Orders are necessary on a boat, and there is an art and science to giving them. I’d say its something like:
- Discuss the maneuver beforehand If necessary: what will need to be done, what you will need to do it, and who will do what.
- Use a minimum of words: Tie it off; slip it though; hold it; ease the sheet; throw the line.
- Use precise vocabulary!
- Avoid all unnecessary sounds, groaning, verbalisations.
- DO NOT USE personal attacks, name-calling, eye-rolling, expressions of exasperation, etc.
- DO NOT RAISE YOUR VOICE unless the other person physically cannot hear you.
- Debrief afterwards, never in the heat of the action.
- Agree on hand signals to communicate.
After the lock, we tied up at Arzal’s visitor’s pontoon and enjoyed a final evening, just us girls. We talked about the day, about life and love, sailing and sailors, boats and far-away lands, setting goals, seeing the world… And we put pay to one of my bottles of flavored rum. A lovely evening entre Marinettes!
Day 4, it was time to go shopping – Julie’s favorite kind of shopping: at the shipchandler! I learned how to buy ropes (elasticity, resistance, sizing, kinds of ropes, and how to get a great deal on the last meters of rope left on the reel), dry oils and lubricant sprays for every occasion, winch grease, small hardware, hull and sail patching, emergency fire blankets and extinguishers, and the list goes on. I bought a few things, but mostly took notes for future purchases. Money goes fast at the shipchandler!
Julie also shared how to get a lot of things cheaper in more “civilian” stores, which was very helpful.
She did a thorough inspection of the mast, boom and halyards and made it clear that we needed to change out a lot of the sheets, which were dry and brittle.
Afterwards, we did more maneuvers on the pontoons, including backing into a square berth, which I finally got after a few attempts. But as she kept saying, even seasoned sailors miss their maneuvers at times. You just stay cool and start over! Who knew? No big deal!
We made it back to Folleux and Julie left us the next morning, in her unmissable bright yellow utility truck signed “Les Marinettes”. She was heading back home to Dunkirk after a meeting in nearby Rennes, and then probably off again on her next adventure.
It was an exceptional experience with an exceptional individual. I would love to be able to do it again, and I hope I will. She’s skilled, talented, funny, charming, ambitious and determined, with the heart of a true Aventurière. I absolutely recommended the experience to any person, man or woman, who spends time on the water and wants to become a more knowledgeable, qualified boater. Her gentle but solid and sure approach is a welcome change from a more traditionally “masculine” attitude, and I think it would benefit anyone who wants to learn.
Coeur de Marinette ❤