Sailing in Israel: Choosing a different tack

Who wants to be a skipper? I took a course at a sailboat school and it was life-changing.

 LINE OF BOATS at the Tel Aviv Marina. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
LINE OF BOATS at the Tel Aviv Marina.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

The first time I remember sailing was with my dad. It was in the early 1990s and we went for a trip to the Virgin Islands, a series of small islands that pepper the Caribbean several dozen kilometers east of Puerto Rico. 

The islands are divided into the US Virgin Islands and “BVI” or the British Virgin Islands. They are small and you can walk across most of them. They are also beautiful, with exquisite sand beaches, large gray rock formations and idyllic palm trees drifting in the breeze. In those days I remember snorkeling and watching endless schools of fish swaying in and out of the coral. 

These days I’m sure some of what I recall has changed. But at the time it was utopian. My dad had chartered a sailboat with several friends. We sailed from the US islands to the British ones, which were smaller and more picturesque. I remember the freedom we felt at sea, going from harbor to harbor, anchoring at night, plotting our course, and watching for rain clouds in the distance. I slept on the deck of the boat. 

At the time, the sailboat seemed quite large, but I’m sure that it wasn’t longer than a dozen meters. We caught some fish and grilled them. The adults – my dad’s friends – probably drank and had fun. For me, it was a new world. But it didn’t last long. I returned to Maine eventually and the life of elementary school and other troubles. 

Now, some 30 years later I received a license to operate a sailboat in Israel. Israel has a number of types of licenses for people who want to use boats. There are commercial licenses for coastal voyages, tug boat licenses, a special license for people who want to go on an international maritime journey from an Israeli port and licenses for jet skis, motor boats and other watercraft. All of these categories have complex definitions. When I entered into the process to get the license, which is often called a “skipper’s license,” I had no idea what it entailed.

 THE WRITER sets sail. (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN) THE WRITER sets sail. (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

What I did know was there was a pandemic. It was probably sometime during the pandemic’s transition from the first year to the second year. I realized that with the rolling lockdowns and endlessly changing guidelines, that the chances of ever taking a vacation again might be circumscribed. This is doubly true for people with families. It was just too burdensome to plan to travel and see it canceled at the last moment because of new arbitrary policies. So why not take a vacation closer to home? 

If you can’t fly off to the Caribbean or the Greek islands, at least learn how to sail, so that you can pretend you’re on vacation. 

ISRAEL’S COASTLINE isn’t that interesting from a sailing perspective. It only has several marinas and there is no major sailing culture on the coast. You can’t really sail up and down the coast anchoring off exotic locales, going ashore in a skiff for lunch, and then relaxing off the coast to the sound of music. That exists in Greece, but not here. 

Nevertheless, we still have the same pretty skies and pleasant breezes of the rest of the Mediterranean. You can take a boat out for a day and enjoy the sea and wind. It’s not Monaco, but it’s something. In that something is the chance to experience Israel’s coast and meet people who enjoy the water; and learn the skills necessary to own or operate a boat here and abroad. That’s a privilege, to be able to set to sea and feel confident. It goes along with all the other sports you can learn on the coast, such as surfing or stand-up paddleboarding, or kitesurfing. And kids can do it too, learning to sail small boats from around age six. 

When I decided I wanted to go sailing I went to the one place you can be guaranteed an answer about such things: Facebook. A few queries in groups like “Secret Tel Aviv” and I was being offered advice. “Come sailing in Herzliya.” “Come sailing in Ashkelon.” “Come sailing in Tel Aviv.” So I went. And it wasn’t long before I was walking into the Yam Sailing School and Yacht Club, which is located on the small street that leads to the Tel Aviv Marina. 

For one of the major cities here, the Tel Aviv Marina feels small, with a restaurant, a store that sells accessories for sailing and surfing and a coffee shop that has a surfer theme. If you start to go every day, as I began to do in order to learn to sail, you very soon feel like you know most of the faces there. 

Gal Cohen, the son of the founders and owners of the Yam Sailing School, is one of the enthusiastic faces of his family’s business. He’s 26 and has been sailing since he was a kid. I met him during the program learning to be a skipper and spoke to him about his background. 

 THERE ARE numerous watersports to choose from, including surfing (Illustrative). (credit: Ralph Kayden/Unsplash) THERE ARE numerous watersports to choose from, including surfing (Illustrative). (credit: Ralph Kayden/Unsplash)

“My father started the business 26 years ago after doing a lot of things like working in other fields that were not related to sailing. The ocean was always in the background. He had a small boat he had bought with my mother and was sailing a lot and he was surfing.” Roni and Lea Cohen, the father and mother, are always in the office of the sailing school. Roni teaches some of the classes and has written a book on the qualifications needed to be a skipper.

“I started sailing when I was five years old,” says Gal. “After winning many championships on different boats, I began competing on a 470 [dinghy], which is a two-person Olympic boat. There, together with my crewmate, I won the European championship U21,” he recalls. The 470 class is a relatively small boat whose name is derived from being 470 cm. long. 

The sailing school put resources into racing and the school acquired two racer-cruiser yachts. These are some of the four boats that are decorated with Yam Sailing’s logo that are in the marina in Tel Aviv. 

“Our specialty of the school is that we teach high-performance sailing, instructing people to sail by sailing in the most accurate way. We really like what we are doing and we like the fact we can spend a lot of time together as a family. Actually, now as I speak to you I am looking at the ocean and it makes me feel blessed. We are working with the Transportation Ministry to support people in their path of getting their skipper’s license.” 

The process of getting a skipper’s license in Israel is far more complex than I’d imagined. It involved four theory tests and a practical exam at the end. In a sense this is modeled on how one learns to drive a car. But it’s more difficult. The theory tests are organized by theme: a test on basic “seamanship,” a test focused on coastal navigation, a test on issues relating to radios and technology and a test focused on fixing or understanding boat engines. 

The seamanship test, for instance, examines not only your knowledge of parts of a boat but also how to deal with basic problems, such as what to do in a storm and how to identify different clouds. It also focuses on navigational lights at night, a plethora of different combinations of lights that ships may use to indicate what they are. These all have their own idioms to remember them by. For instance, a ship that is engaged in fishing will place a red light over a white light: “Red over white, fishing at night,” so the saying goes. Red over red indicates the “captain is dead” or the ship is not under command. 

COHEN EMPHASIZES that while the sailing school offers skipper courses, “our real mission is not just to help people get the license but to make them real sailors; to get into the sailing culture is the most important thing for us, which is a lot more than just pulling the ropes and handling and steering the boats. It’s a lifestyle. This is what we are trying to create, a community of sailors in the center of Tel Aviv.”  

The community of sailors in Israel is relatively small but it is growing by the day as many people are looking to earn their licenses. “We can say it is becoming more mainstream to do a skipper course in the last few years. There are a lot of plans to build more marinas. It will take time. So now there is a limitation of the amount of yachts that can enter Israel and stay in Israel. We hope to see this community growing a lot in the future.” 

He notes that the school offers courses in English, and many of the courses take place on Sunday for English speakers. “I think the fact that all our instructors have decent English, this allows us to give the best service that we can in English. I recommend people to study the course in English since most of the sailing terms are in English,” he says. 

If you can get through that exam you’ll spend a month learning how to use charts to plot courses. This “coastal navigation” exercise imagines a world in which most modern instruments don’t work and you’ve got to use a map of the coast of Israel and compass to get from point A to B, while avoiding various navigational hazards such as reefs or rocks. All of this would appeal to people who liked orienteering if they did something like the Boy Scouts or hiking, except the skills are applied to the sea.

The tests are all taken at one of the Transportation Ministry’s testing centers, in Haifa or Ramle. This in itself is a bit of a challenge because one has to register weeks in advance, pay a fee and then hope that the correct test is actually there when you arrive. These tests can be taken in English, and ostensibly you can study from a pool of questions and answers prior to taking them. But recent students reported that the tests changed, meaning the question pool didn’t reflect the final questions. 

Regardless of some of the government testing chaos, if one can get through the four tests, with assistance of the classroom time at Yam Sailing or a similar school, there is a practical exam to do. This was a challenging, exciting and difficult experience. On the one hand, it was difficult because I was in an entirely Hebrew-speaking environment with three other members of a crew who were all training together. 

With varying personalities and skill levels, training with a small group every day for some eight hours a day can get to be a bit tough. This was especially true because March weather in Tel Aviv included a dismal amount of rain and high winds. We found ourselves dressed in windbreakers and pants to keep out the rain, while trying to learn to maneuver a ship in a confined marina, with crew members tasked at throwing ropes to secure the boat to a pier.

All of this hardship gives one a great deal of respect for what mariners had to go through in times of old. It wasn’t so long ago in the age of exploration that the crew of ships like Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, which became stuck in the Antarctic ice and her crew had to endure a horrid journey across ice and sea to be rescued. In the end, her captain, Frank Worsley, made an impossible journey with four men over hundreds of miles over the freezing ocean to find help. 

Learning about all the safety equipment on board a modern sailboat, such as an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio) beacon and other systems, makes one think back to the era of the Titanic, where the wireless operators begged for help as the ship sank (110 years ago, on April 15, 1912). Hundreds were saved, due in large part to the actions of Captain Arthur Henry Rostron on the RMS Carpathia, who arrived hours after the Titanic’s sinking to pick up freezing survivors. SS Californian, a ship much closer to the doomed liner, could have rendered, aid but did not hear the calls for help. 

Cohen says that one of the biggest challenges in Israel for people who get a skipper’s license is staying in touch with the sailing community. Some people get a license with the intention of using it abroad. But there are dedicated sailors here. “We are trying to encourage people to join the club so they can use one of the yachts they already know and they have a lot more activities that allow them to stay in the area.

Usually, it’s hard for skippers to recruit a sailing crew in their daily routine to come for two-three hours during the week. So we give them the ability to do that by networking with other sailors in our club,” says Cohen. 

He also points out that the Israeli license is recognized and popular abroad because of the high standard of the Israeli courses. “People know that here in Israel you have to make a long way through practical and theoretical exams so people appreciate it. If you go to Greece, Cyprus or Turkey you can charter a boat pretty easily. The charter companies we work with know that the Israeli skippers are good skippers.” 

There are other certifications skippers can get, such as the American Sailing Association certificate and the Royal Yachting Association. The Leopard Catamarans website notes that both these courses lead to differing certificates; the International Proficiency Certificate (IPC) and International Certificate of Competence (ICC). “With either your IPC or your ICC, you will be able to skipper/charter vessels worldwide. Not all countries require you to have this certification to charter but many do and it is preferred by many charter companies. These certifications do not mean that you have a commercial endorsement,” the site notes. 

There is overlap between these courses and what is offered in Israel. “There is confusion whether the Israeli license is not international but it is international like other licenses; the American and RYA licenses are good programs. Sometimes I teach some of the programs for the ASA, which is organized and clear and gives a lot of information. But, in order to get the Israeli license, you need to take the exams at the Transportation Ministry and that helps you make sure that the skipper gets to a certain level. And also the Israeli courses take longer, it takes something like eight months. That ensures people get enough sailing experience,” says Cohen. 

He notes that Yam Sailing does ASA courses. “We offer this certificate to tourists who want to have a nice and short sailing experience here in Tel Aviv. The advantage is they can continue with other certificates all over the world, similar to a diving organization certificate; so if you began the 101 here in Israel, you could continue with the 103 etc abroad.” 

One of the issues facing someone who wants to learn to sail is making sure they have enough time on a boat to feel confident. A lot can go wrong on a boat, not just failing to sail correctly or maneuver in a marina. Using anchors takes experience, as does using a radio correctly and being able to call for assistance or assist others. The training also takes time and resources. Cohen estimates that costs for a course in Israel range between NIS 7,000 and NIS 12,000. “The range depends on the amount of hours you do during the course and amount of sailing hours and length of the course; some offer two years or just seven months.”

BEING BACK on board a boat over the last year, sailing with the school and training for the practical exam, conjured up memories of childhood. I’d always wished to have done more sailing as a kid. Those times in the Virgin Islands with my father, and a trip in high school to the Bahamas where we spent a week on a sailboat, were all too brief. 

I’ve always liked the sea and wanted to be close to it. But for some reason I never followed the passion, with some exceptions. My dad and I did hike across a jungle in Costa Rica once, crossing the Osa Peninsula. I can still find those locales on the map; Luna Lodge, Playa Carate and Puerto Jimenez. We went fishing there and caught a tuna on one of those sport-fishing style boats, like the one used in Jaws but smaller. Tuna is a large fish, much larger than the tuna steaks one sees in stores would indicate. I think we caught one that weighed dozens of kilograms. We had it turned into sushi and then gave most of it away. 

What I wanted when I embarked on a return to the ocean, by way of Tel Aviv, was to have those options open again. It seems strange to have gone thousands of miles away from where I was born, in order to return to those things I loved as a kid. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, I wanted to be able to set to sea, to sail, to fish maybe, to plot a course and see where the future takes me. 

Always the experience of going back to sea; to hear those terms like “halyard” and “main sail,” reminded me of something from childhood. When I was a kid we would sometimes go to my grandmother’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts. She lived in what was called the “boathouse,” a very nice house in Harthaven. The house had a dock, because ostensibly there was a time when a boat might have been pulled up into the house back in the day. 

In those days, the dock was no longer used by sailboats and the harbor was probably so shallow that you couldn’t get in a major boat as in the past. But there was a small dinghy, and on the pillars of wood that held the dock there were crabs that used to sit and relax. We used to try to net the crabs, most of which were the horrid-looking spider crabs. It’s hard to describe how unappealing this crab is, with its spiny legs like a spider of the sea, from whence its name comes. 

Anyway, what I remember was days in the sun staring down into the muck at the bottom of the dock and hoping to catch something more interesting. I rarely succeeded, but at least I was in the breeze of the ocean all day.

Time has a way of going by, but standing still. If I go to the marina in Tel Aviv and hear the boats straining at their ropes, the sound of the ropes and lines banging against masts, it conjures up feelings and senses that stretch back decades. Jimmy Buffet captured this sense well in his 1973 song “He Went to Paris.” 

While the tears were a’ fallin’ He was recallin’ The answers he never found So he hopped on a freighter Skidded the ocean And left England without a sound Now he lives in the islands Fishes the pylons And drinks his green label each day He’s writing his memoirs And losing his hearing But he don’t care what most people say.  