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Sailing on the Information Super Highseas

· August 31, 2015

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It’s about five thousand years since various civilizations around the Mediterranean began attaching sails to boats, and about five days since my last sailing trip. Over summer, Brussels, London and Washington all slow down: what better excuse for a Project DisCo summer holiday special about the internet and sailing.

Having discussed last time how every holiday experience can be rated, discussed and enhanced online, it’s worth having a look at sailing separately, because getting on the sea is bit more complicated than just booking an all-inclusive resort and staring at it. It’s also, in my opinion, a lot more fun — and the internet helps simplify that process. Forget the preconception that you have to be rich, or know someone with a boat — you can do everything from looking up a taster day via the Royal Yachting Association to chartering the luxury yacht of your dreams online.

“Without the internet, we wouldn’t have a business,” says Adam Purser, who set up Classic Sailing with partner Debbie in 1996 and went online in 1998. It turns out the best way to market voyages on 18th-century tall ships is the 21st-century internet. When they started out, they spent £600 on one newspaper advert, and got one enquiry. “If we spend the same on Google or Facebook, we’d expect 100 enquiries,” he says. Not only are online ads better targeted, sailing is highly visual, so a selection of beautiful shots of majestic ships on the high seas is the ideal marketing tool: Classic Sailing’s Facebook page has 16,000 likes.

Now the company owns Eve, a replica 19th-century Pilot Cutter. Once you’re on the boat, the modern world seems a long way away — there’s no internet, sound system or fridge, and the dinghy has oars for rowing, not an outboard motor (as Debbie points out, oars are more reliable). Still, modern technology — like the weather forecast — comes in handy, even if you access it by waving your phone in the air to get a signal on the side of a pontoon.

Having researched and booked various sailing courses online, I’ve found the internet invaluable. You’re still making a commitment to spend your free time sharing a very small space, sometimes with people you’ve never met before — and looking at who likes a sailing school’s Facebook page or has given an online review helps a lot. Even better, you can do the theory part of most courses online. You want to spend your holiday sailing, not sitting in a classroom, so online learning can be very handy. If you just want to go for fun, another joy of the internet is you can find sailing holidays for every niche from women only to a food-centric gourmet cruise in New Zealand cooking local produce on board.

Whether you feel confident enough to sail yourself, or you want a skipper (yes please), that’s also easier on the net. In fact, it’s an ideal market for going online. If you have a boat, but also a job, chances are you’ll only be able to get out for a few weeks each year. The rest of the time, your craft just sits there, costing a fortune in mooring fees. So what could make more sense than peer-to-peer boat hire. GetMyBoat, Yachtico, and Boatbound are new-ish entrants: other classic charter companies, like Boatbookings have developed apps, or if you want to go luxe, check out YPI Selection. Normally somebody would make an “Uber for Boats” comment at this stage, but that already exists — though we’re talking about a cheeky new way to do your commute in Istanbul, rather than yacht hire.

The internet hasn’t just revolutionised holiday sailing though. A few years ago, I had a career break, and spent far too much time in the yachtie bars along the Paseo Maritimo in Palma de Mallorca. They had boards covered in cards of engineers, cooks, stewardesses and deckhands seeking work on the superyachts which dotted the huge harbour there. While it meant you were never short of hilarious characters to tell you celeb-filled anecdotes over a drink or seven, it’s also a very inefficient way of seeking work. Sites like Crewseekers, YachtingCrews.com, and Crewbay.com make it easier for captains to find the people they need to keep sailing in style. This said, they’ll never replace the Corner Bar in my heart, and you can’t see how fast someone can tie a bowline knot while leaning sideways in a force seven online.

Once you’re at sea, there’s a ton of apps worth having — here’s a dozen selected by more experienced seafarers. Of course, bear in mind that you have to pay attention to what’s going on — we once went through the traffic separaration scheme in the straits of Gibraltar. A friend was showing off his iPad app which would tell us the AIS data for every vessel going past us. Of course, it’s nice to know — but there’s a lag on that data getting to the iPad, and by far the most important thing about huge container ships is staying the hell out of their way! There’s no substitute for actually keeping a good lookout. Finding out who’s in town for sundowners later? There’s an app for that.

If you want to take the ultimate plunge and buy your own boat, guess what, the internet makes that easier as well. For a start, you can see boats all over the world — handy give they’re an inherently transportable purchase (if you’re not up to sailing your own boat across the Atlantic or wherever, you hire a qualified skipper to do it). On top of that, you can see pictures, specs and even videos of them under sail before making a decision. Fine, your classic yacht broker might have had a fancy blazer and great chat, but here too, the internet has changed everything.

Of course, the single biggest factor in whether you have a good trip or not is the weather — and the internet can’t change that. It can get you all the information possible, with multiple different forecast providers available. Of course, it’s up to you to figure out which one seems most auspicious — and plan for the worst case scenario — before heading out of port. My voyage on Eve was rainier than I’d have liked, but that’s all part of the experience — along with spotting the odd seal and eating vast amounts of seafood (yum). If you’re heading off for some September sailing, then all I can do is wish you fair winds!

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