104 Regiment Royal Artillery (the Welsh Borderers) is an Army Reserve unit specialising in the operation of Unmanned Aerial Systems, or Drones to the civilian, and for the last 3 years it has had the opportunity of conducting an annual flying camp utilising the facilities offered by the Californian National Guard based out of Camp Roberts on Route 101 half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
For the second year running it has taken the chance, whilst having soldiers on this camp, to provide a once in a lifetime opportunity to conduct sailing in the clear blue Pacific Ocean waters off the Californian Coast. Nearly all those students who took part this year had never sailed before and of those that already had, the stunning setting and balmy weather afforded by the West Coast US seaboard during September and October made a heck of difference from the dull and dreary experiences previously offered to them back in Blighty in and around the Solent and other popular UK coastal waters!
The aim of the activity was twofold. First and foremost, to introduce Reserve officers and soldiers to the Joint Service Sailing Scheme and to train personnel up to Royal Yacht Association Competent Crew level. Second, to develop individual leadership and team cohesion skills within a controlled risk environment, enhancing the physical and mental robustness of service personnel. It is safe to say that in the 4 weeks during which personnel took part this aim was achieved.
Whilst the sailing itself began on 22 September and ran through to the 15 October, planning began way back in the autumn of 2014 once the dates for the Regiment’s deployment to Camp Roberts had been confirmed. The biggest challenge facing the main organiser Major Taff Arundell, was the identification and selection of a crew that not only had the requisite skills and experience to handle the boat and its students, but to find those who had the spare time to give up!
To Taff’s huge relief the vastly experienced and previously utilised RYA Ocean Yachtmaster Instructor and Examiner Bombardier (Bdr) Bob Beggs made himself available to be the Skipper for the entire duration and with several other experienced day skippers and competent crew raring to take part, we had ample choice for a crew to run the activity. Being responsible for the second half of the sailing expedition I met Bdr Beggs at Los Angeles Airport along with Taff who had overseen the first 2 weeks and was flying back to the UK. Taff and I conducted a handover and he explained that the first phase had gone excellently with several soldiers gaining competent crew qualification and a number of others having the opportunity to conduct a day or two sailing in and around the Santa Barbara bay area. The first 5 day expedition had gone smoothly and all was set for me to take over and run the next two weeks. Things seemed perfect and as Bdr Beggs drove myself, my Battery Sergeant Major and a few others to the yacht moored some 2 hours away in Santa Barbara I couldn’t have been happier. When we arrived some 3 and half hours later, having entered the wrong information in the SatNav my mood was not quite as chirpy! We had been travelling for over 26 hours and were dead on our feet. So, once all crew were ensconced on the yacht the BSM and myself retired to admin HQ some 20 minutes away from the marina in Carpintaria to get some much required sleep.
Once the students were brought down to the Marina from Camp Roberts the next day, a few days of steady but thorough boat and sailing familiarisation was undertaken under the expert tuition of the skipper. Whilst the atmosphere remained relaxed, for those who failed to grasp the finer details of a Competent Crew’s responsibilities, Bdr Beggs and his other crew members were quick to point out the fact that things change very quickly at sea. A few tales regarding an indifferent attitude toward your team duties in heavy weather were regaled for the benefit of those who seemed to be enjoying the sun more than the education to become a qualified sailor! It was very gratifying to see students begin to work together as a team during this period as they became familiar with each other, the boat and their respective duties. Each day sail into the bay gave them an opportunity to put into practice the new information they had been taught during the mornings ‘in harbour’ teaching phase.
Throughout the second 2 week sailing period the weather remained very calm with light winds and not much swell which, whilst ideal for teaching basics, unfortunately did not give Bob and his crew the opportunity to really show the students how hair raising things could be in high seas. The few days spent sailing in and around the bay area gave the students the confidence that they would need during the 5 day expedition to be undertaken at the end of their 2 weeks sailing. As part of their preparation all students were made to scale the main mast with the aid of two others whose job it was to hoist them aloft which, for some of the less muscular amongst the team, was a little more challenging than they had anticipated. For those without a head for heights, the magnificent view of the harbour afforded from the top of the main mast was not something they were fully able to admire! Man overboard drills were completed along with emergency action procedures and, whilst all took on the seriousness of the task being drilled, the good humour and banter continued throughout with nobody thinking they might actually have to put the drills taught into practise!
During the penultimate days sailing in and around the bay area the students were being taught how to steer the boat using the yachts Inertial Navigation and GPS system as well as with the emergency tiller. Once all had been given the chance to learn this skill Sergeant Kim Lee took control of the helm and began guiding the yacht back toward her berth in the marina. On entering the mouth of the marina the yacht’s day skipper Staff Sergeant Langshaw noticed smoke emanating from the entrance to the living quarters which quickly produced a speedy and concisely executed immediate action drill under the guidance of Bdr Beggs. The ships engine, which was being used to take the boat back to her berth owing to the lack of wind, was immediately turned off. Thankfully the engine had not fully caught fire and after turning it off the smoke cleared to reveal a suspected seized starter motor which had been unable to disengage when initially used to turn the engine on. With a sizeable yacht now sitting directly in the entrance to the marina, at what was the busiest time of the marina’s day, it took some deft and skilful handling of the yacht in very light winds by Bdr Beggs to manoeuvre the boat onto an emergency jetty. This was done through a series of tacks and jibes whilst utilising the limited momentum retained from the now defunct engine and a whisper of a breeze. All students manned their emergency action positions as taught reacting well to instruction. Under Bdr Beggs’ confident and assertive leadership and control all aboard were able to help in making this skilful manoeuvre possible with what appeared to be consummate ease on the part of Bdr Beggs!
After one week learning the ropes, practising the basics and enjoying the short and steady day excursions into the bay area, it was time for the students to undertake the 5 day sailing expedition which would see them put all they had learned into practise so that they could return to the UK qualified as Competent Crew.
The plan devised and agreed with the Skipper was for the boat and crew to sail out of the bay to 4 islands Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. These islands constituted a protected nature reserve and to get to the largest one Santa Cruz, off which the yacht would anchor overnight, a day’s sailing from Santa Barbara marina was needed. Following this the boat would sail around the islands achieving a night sail and a number of anchorages off the islands’ coast line before returning to port at Santa Barbara and Ventura where resupplies would be taken on board. The yacht would eventually make its way from Ventura to Los Angeles from where she had been chartered on the 5th day and from there she would be scrubbed clean and handed back to the charter company.
The expedition went exactly to plan and all crew and students arrived safely in Los Angeles harbour in one piece. The overnight sailing had been an exciting and exhilarating experience for those who had not had the chance to do this before. Many remarked that at night the vast expanse of the ocean really brought home the fact that the yacht and its inhabitants were infinitesimally small in comparison to its unending blackness! The cramped conditions to which the 5 students and 3 crew were confined made for some interesting team dynamics and students learnt a great deal during these 5 days about needing to work together to get through things. This was especially evident following the night sail when those who struggled to sleep well were forced to contain their grumpiness and fight off their tiredeness at the risk of being berated by the crew for slovenly seamanship and poor team playing attitude!
Overall, Ex DRAGON SAIL 2 can be considered a resounding success. All who took part, be they soldiers who took the chance to get away from Camp Roberts for a day’s sailing, or students who took part in the expedition, completed their time on the boat having achieved something rewarding and worthwhile.