“I am a sailor,” I assured my colleagues over a Friday night beer. “I’ve been doing it since I was eight.” They exchanged looks, a curious mix of anxiety and amusement. I’d just informed them that I’d be getting the 6pm train from London Waterloo down to Southampton and then a ferry across the Solent to the Isle of Wight — the sailing capital of the UK — where that weekend I’d signed myself up for a two-hour-long private dinghy sailing lesson. As a city-dweller with a history of athletic ineptitude, my colleagues had ample grounds for concern.
I’d be meeting my fate at Tackt-Isle Adventures in St Helens, a small town on the eastern side of the Isle of Wight and home to the best crab sarnies in the northern hemisphere (at the Best Dressed Crab Seafood Café). But it’s also a hotbed for watersports, from the increasingly popular paddleboarding to that age-old, wholesome, fun-for-all-the-family pastime, sailing. As I wriggled into my full-body wetsuit, I cast my mind back over my lifetime’s experience of sailing, the one that I’d assured my colleagues so heartily of.
Like many people with an iota of sailing experience, my first had been involuntary, years ago, and distressing. I’d been lured into a boat — a little wooden optimist – on the promise that I’d receive a jam doughnut for my endeavours. Cue three hours of shivering in what I can only describe as a splinter-emitting bath tub, sighing disinterestedly as my main sail flapped in the wind.
But hours turned into weeks and before I knew it I was zipping around on a little pico, cheeks ruddy, hair blasting in the 30-knot wind. It was empowering, being propelled forward in a boat that was totally at your control, nothing but the wind and your wits keeping you going. This, I quickly learn, isn’t something that’s confined to childhood.
After a brief recap with Milo — an Isle of Wight native and geography undergraduate who spends his summer holidays here as a sailing instructor — I am towed out of the harbour and into the Solent. “Do you remember the five key principles of sailing?” asks Milo, smiling wryly. “Err,” I waver, “can we have a recap?”
I am walked through the five guidelines of sailing. Boat balance — this one’s pretty self-explanatory; just shift your weight to ensure the boat stays level. Not only does this safeguard against some pretty comical boat tipping, but, Milo advises, “the flattest boats are the fastest”. I’ll keep this in mind for when I tackle The Fastnet Race.
Next comes trimming; this is boat balance but lengthwise — to make sure that the bow (aka front) of the boat isn’t aloft, while the stern (aka back) is submerged, or the inverse — that the boat is nosediving. Then comes the eminently sensible “course made good”, where savvy sailors ensure that they’re taking the most efficient course to reach their destination of choice. The fourth key facet of sailing has to do with the dagger board, which sounds pleasingly like pirate-speak to me, although in reality refers to the one-metre length of wood/fibreglass that slots neatly into the middle of your dinghy (in larger boats this will be in-built). Whether this little device remains firmly slotted in or elevated depends on whether the wind is hitting your sail side-on (in which case it’s the former), or from behind (then you lift the dagger board up). This might sound pernickety, but it translates as pure intuition when you’re on the water.
Finally, comes setting sail. Again, with the misleading pirate-speak; this does not mean draining a tumbler of rum as you embark on a quest for treasure. Setting your sail entails toying with the mainsail and main sheet (the length of rope that controls it), until the wind fills your sail and your speed picks up.
Milo — far less loquacious and far more to-the-point than I — is able to relay this to me from the safe confines of his rib (which stands for rigid inflatable boat, for anyone not in the know). I gulp, nod and tug the main sheet towards me. A gust of wind whips into the sail and I dart forward. Tiller clasped in my hand, I let the wind swoosh me towards a distant pier, which Milo is gesturing at enthusiastically.
This is what I really love about sailing, this is when the joy of childhood adventures comes rushing back to me. When the sail is taut and you’re powering yourself along, inches from the water, salty spray dousing you with every tack or jibe, the pastime of sailing becomes an unpretentious joy, an uncomplicated pleasure — just you, the elements and a healthy dose of adrenaline.
I’m not alone in my new-found (or rediscovered) fervour for sailing. There has been a huge increase in younger people becoming boating enthusiasts. The Royal Yachting Association (RYA), a national hub for all things sailing, welcomed no less than 17,357 members in 2017 alone. As of the end of last year, its total membership had exceeded 110,000. And while the top areas of interest were the slightly more luxe pursuits of yacht cruising and motor boating, dinghy sailing came in a commendable third place.
Along with its stellar dingy racing record, the RYA also sponsors programmes such as OnBoard (OB), a scheme designed to get more young people into sailing. Because really, who has time to dabble in drugs or premature parenthood if the high seas are beckoning. By the end of 2017, there were 229 OB centres in the UK, contributing substantially to the statistic that now over 100,000 youngsters sail (or windsurf) on a regular basis.
And now you can add this particular young person to that statistic.