With yachts becoming more complex than ever, is it time to invite the experts on board? Will Bruton finds out what private coaching can offer boat owners

What it takes to run a happy, safe – and hopefully fast – yacht demands a diverse range of skills, knowledge, and experience. As a baseline, RYA courses offer an excellent framework to build on, but first-time yacht owners tend to realise quickly how much is not covered, and particularly how much they need to know that is specific to the model of yacht they have bought.

With first time yacht owners increasingly ambitious in their plans, many planning bluewater adventures for their first yacht, the option of getting some expert tuition aboard your own boat is well worth exploring.

Inherently flexible, shaped around the specific requirements of the owner, tuition at a one-to-one level is also far more intensive than the usual 1:4 – or more – students commonly found on a sailing course.

Sailing coaches Peter and Su Stirling run PSA Prime Marine. Photo: PSA Prime Marine

Knowledge download

Peter Stirling’s sailing CV is, by anyone’s standards, extensive; 400,000 miles at sea, including 39 Atlantic crossings and skippering two Clipper Round the World Race entries. The latter is perhaps the best indication of his skillset and temperament when it comes to helping others, with varying levels of experience, get the most out of their yacht Together with his wife Su, Peter formed PSA Prime Marine (psaprimemarine.com) on the south coast of England with the aim of making his experience available to others, seeing that many were struggling to find more than generic yacht training.

He explains: “Our biggest advantage is that we shape everything to what the owner needs. Sometimes I step on board as the yacht is leaving the yard brand new. I spend a good length of time with them getting used to the fundamentals, perhaps over the course of a week, then come back a few weeks later and undertake their first long passage with them after they have had some time to enjoy the boat on their own. By that time, they’ll have found what they want to tackle and work through. We’re not working to any fixed framework.”

Outremer runs its own training academy for new owners as part of the buying experience. Photo: Robin Christol

Stirling recently did this for the owner of a new Hallberg-Rassy 50, sailing with the owner and his wife from the Hallberg-Rassy yard locally before bringing the boat back to the UK.

“A delivery like that is a great opportunity to really learn the yacht inside and out, in real world conditions, so it’s a huge confidence booster for the owner. They get to see that the boat can do what it was built to do, usually in less than perfect conditions.

“Unlike a normal delivery, we are prioritising the learning, rather than getting from A to B as quickly as possible. In a warranty period for a new boat we can also put together a comprehensive snags list which I can help ensure the owner is really well informed about when they take it back to the yacht builder.”

Helping hand

James Lawlor ordered a new Southerly 47 after sailing on the Clipper Round the World Race as crew in 2014, where he had got to know Pete Stirling as his skipper on a leg from Australia to China.

“I ordered the 47 while I was still finishing training for the Clipper Race, with a long-term view to sailing when I got back. Taking part in the Clipper was an adventure for me personally, while the Southerly was part of a broader retirement plan which very much included my wife. We wanted a comfortable and safe boat for Med cruising.

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“In some ways we were part of what I believe is a wave of owners that buy one big boat rather than working up through ownership of increasingly large boats. With our decision though, came a very steep learning curve.”

Lawlor, like many new owners, was looking to get to grips with his new yacht fast, so he could enjoy his purchase and feel confident. He found himself disappointed by the handover given by the manufacturer. “Southerly gave me a day on board, which, I thought, for a yacht I paid a lot for, was lacking. I engaged a couple of other skippers before Pete became available, but what he brought on board was much more; not just a breadth of knowledge, but a brilliant delivery of it – always, always, calm! My confidence grew so much and in such a short space of time.

“We tackled teething problems on the boat that needed fixing while moving the boat at the same time to a new cruising ground. As Southerly also went bust, Pete became even more invaluable. When sailing I learned by talking things through, he would nudge me to coming to the right conclusions myself, rather than saying outright that there was one way to do things.”

James found the experience and knowledge imparted by Pete Stirling invaluable, but questions why it’s not something engaged by more manufacturers as standard.

Bringing an expert onboard can help with writing a detailed maintenance and snagging list, or setting up new gear such as sails. Photo: Richard Langdon

“I think my experience with a boatbuilder in financial difficulties at the time was particularly bad, but the reality is that there is so much to learn, you really need at least a week of handover from a builder. Ideally a manufacturer handover would involve an initial week on board, then additional input of a few days each week as the owner gets used to the boat on their own, being able to call on that support.

“In the long run it’s going to get you up to speed so much quicker if you start off right.”

Since engaging Stirling, James has also brought him on board for Biscay crossings, in the Mediterranean, and when the yacht ended up in Sardinia due to Covid 19 lockdowns and needed work doing before she could be sailed away.

“While, to some, I might appear to have quite a bit of experience, the reality is that I want to really enjoy the sailing we do. Knowing Pete is on the end of the phone was invaluable when we were cruising the Med and in many ways that was a big part of the ongoing learning.

“That, of course, is the real reality of boat ownership. There’s no fixed course that covers it!” explains James.

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