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Why I paid to do the RYA Dinghy Instructor Course

I recently finished an RYA Dinghy instructor course in Sydney run by Flying Fish, and to say I learnt something would be an understatement, I learnt a tremendous amount.

This article is not so much a rave review about Flying Fish (who were awesome by the way!) but an insight into the differences between the Yachting Australia method for teaching instructors and the RYA method.

Dinghy Instructor Course

Flying Fish Dinghy Instructor Training.

First of all a little about me: I am British and Australian, but I speak with a strong Pommy accent even after 9 years! I have been coaching sailing in a semi – professional environment for nearly 20 years. In the last two years I have become a Yachting Australia Dinghy Instructor and for the last year, been teaching sailing professionally on the water 3-4 times a week. In my last job I was the Yachting Australia Training and Participation manager for nearly 4 years and instigated a project to overhaul the YA Dinghy Instructor course from a 2 day theory only course + hours experience to what became a three day practical course. The three day course was a compromise from the five I pushed for, due to the large distances people had to travel in Australia

Flying Fish Watersport Instructor Training

The first difference that I noted, was who was running the course. To my mind the best instructor trainers are those that teach sailing at a recognised centre on a regular basis. This is quite different to instructor trainers that teach instructors on a regular basis – attendees on an instructor course can sail (one hopes)! Ok, so this might be a Chicken and Egg problem, in that to my mind there are very few “professional dinghy instructors” in Australia that are also running “Dinghy Instructor Courses” apart from South Australia and the Boatshed in Victoria. From what I have observed most instructor trainers have been running the instructor courses for years, have a racing background and may or may not have a certificate IV in Work Place Training and Education.

The Trainer makes the difference

The Flying Fish Instructor Course was run by Russell Bonner, an RYA Dinghy Coach Assessor, who has worked for many years as a professional sailing instructor. He understands what the customer wants and importantly what the sailing school customer wants. Instructors are the first face of the sport that many people see and so a good first experience is vital for ongoing participation. For a commercial centre this is the absolute essence of the business, without rave reviews and repeat business, a sailing school will quickly go bust. By his own admission Russell is not an amazing racer (though I reckon he would run rings round all of us in a laser Pico freestyle race!) and so the drills we learnt were not racing focused but fun and focused on the customer and his or her personal goal.

Russell Bonner Dinghy coach

I also noted that we were taught what sailing schools want which is; low boat maintenance, low fuel bills and raving customers. I was taught techniques for running sessions that I had never thought of. For example, previously if I was asked to run a race I would always use a timer and blow a whistle whereas Flying Fish would start a race from “hove to” or “pursuit race” starts. They would set courses that focused on skills learnt that session.

The boats

The second difference I noted was the sort of boats that we taught in. In Australia there seems to be a tremendous lack of purpose built sailing school boats that are indestructible and do not require bailing out after every mistake.  I understand that boats need to be used for multiple activities, but feel that in Australia the emphasis is all on racing, where my view is it should be on fun, racing will come later. The Flying Fish boats were excellent, Laser Picos and the Laser Bahia are purpose built for teaching and fun, considerably better for teaching than the Pacers and 420s that I have become used to in Australia.

The third difference is a bit more subtle and it is what makes a good instructor. I spoke to the owner of Flying Fish in Sydney, Andy Fairclough after the course and he gave me a wonderful insight. His view is that anyone who has paid to do the powerboat course, first aid course and then an instructor course has already invested a considerable amount of time and money in a career path, and is therefore motivated to be a sailing instructor. It is therefore the instructor trainers role to facilitate and teach techniques for effective instructing. He says ‘in reality, only if a candidate is unsafe, doesn’t meet the sailing pre-entry level assessment (rudderless sailing and seamanship skills) or is unable to communicate effectively will they be given an action plan.

The teaching style

During the Flying fish Dinghy Instructors course we saw zero Powerpoint presentations and very little whiteboard activity. What we did see, were really innovative ways of teaching. We were challenged to teach rigging a spinnaker or tacking without using our voice, highlighting the key elements, or using only single words or phrases: “Look, back foot, superman, sit, straighten, thumb to bum, swap, smile”. I really had to think what are the key points that I had to get across and not waffle on!

This is quite different to the consistency approach seemingly desired by Yachting Australia which seems to revolve around Powerpoint presentations and session planning forms. Don’t get me wrong we need these tools and I write lesson plans, however the purpose of the session plan is not to write a session plan but to ensure that you are clear in what you want to achieve in your session.  Maybe I missed the point, but on my YA instructor course I felt I was being assessed on a set of criteria which the assessor had to justify a decision, which is easier if you can hide behind forms, rather than being taught some cool skills.

Flying Fish Dinghy Instructors course

The final and probably most important difference is that Flying Fish are a commercial organisation that exists because they are good at what they do, which is training people to work in the industry and get sailing instructor jobs all over the world. If the standard of instructors was low, then sailing schools wouldn’t employ their instructors and would report Flying Fish to the RYA. They survive on their reputation and the RYA brand and continue to teach Australian Sailors to work overseas! Conversely in NSW instructor training is only run by Yachting NSW. They will not allow commercial operators the opportunity to develop the future ambassadors of the sport choosing instead to deliver a ‘consistent course’ tightly controlled in what is effectively a monopoly, where they are the accreditation authority and delivery agent. I’m not sure I understand why or have any evidence that companies like Flying Fish are doing a job that does not meet the needs of YNSW!?

Dinghy Instructors course

Having paid for and attended both courses I sincerely hope that Yachting Australia and the MYAs reconsider their approach to direct recognition of the RYA dinghy instructor qualification. (In the UK most beaches are patrolled by Surf Life Saving Australia Life guards – with little if any additional training) Let’s not put more barriers into making sailing accessible and recognise the considerable investment that RYA instructors have already made to making sailing more fun and accessible.

Impartial training and careers advice.