Park Life: Why I hate golf but caught the sailing bug

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEKEND, much to my amazement, I found myself at the tiller of a small sailing boat, scudding in a force-6 gale across St Mawes harbour in furthest Cornwall, the water deserted by holiday-makers and passed over by locals who can always wait for nicer weather. I would have been terrified as the boat reared up on its side - and I suppose I would have been in some danger - except that our skipper, James, was clearly in complete control, merely pretending to place the boat under my command.

Despite our speed, we made little discernible progress, and our long, diagonal tacks always seemed to bring us back to more or less the same spot. But I was prepared for this: sailing had always seemed a rather futile method of transport. What I wasn't expecting was the sheer elemental joy of it, the feeling of giving yourself up to the wind and the sea, running effortlessly with them. Here was a new sport that I could throw myself into - and, both unusually and appropriately, as it was her birthday we were celebrating in Cornwall, my wife Ginny seemed as enthusiastic as I was.

I have always been catholic, even promiscuous, in my sporting tastes - or perhaps it's just that I've never been good enough at any one sport to make a real commitment to it, I still play about half a dozen sports on a regular basis and have, at one time or other, tried everything from fencing to karate to discus-throwing (all of 30 minutes) and rugby league (I'll admit it was only touch rugby league, but that didn't save me from a deliberate kneeing in the temple from a ruthless opponent that left me seeing stars). There are some sports that I've always admired but which are forever beyond me because they require a basic skill that I have never acquired and am unlikely to now, such as ice-hockey, pole-vaulting or polo; others are prohibited by their expense - motor racing and polo (again).

But I had always unthinkingly classified sailing as a sport in which I had no conceivable interest, rather like golf. My prejudice against the latter was confirmed a couple of summers ago, when we found ourselves, strangely, having lunch at a Japanese country club in Sussex. My mother- in-law, once a keen player herself suggested that I take a few swings in the driving range afterwards. Easy, I thought, and I'll impress the boys while I'm at it. So I handed over pounds 5 for a bucket of 20 balls, thinking what an outrageous rip-off this was because I would be through them in a couple of minutes.

I lined up my swing, holding the club in approximately the right way, flexed my wrists and adjusted my stance until I was set. Then I unwound for a stroke that would surely send the small ball into the far distance ... If I made contact. I did not. Nor did I threaten the ball on five or six further swings, each one more restrained, more respectful, more tentative than the previous one. Finally I managed to clip the top of the ball and see it trickle along the ground for, ooh, a good six feet.

I still had 19 balls to dispatch. My mother-in-law, wife and two young sons were by now helpless with laughter, tears cascading down their cheeks, and I didn't think they could take much more of it. Perhaps, I suggested, one of them could roll the ball towards me - clearly I had a particular problem with a sport in which the ball stood still.

However misleading first impressions can be, they are hard to ignore if they chime so perfectly with your expectations. I have no intention of picking up a golf club again, I can't imagine the circumstances that would make me change my mind. In the same way - and in less expert hands than Skipper James - I could have finished up in the cold water of St Mawes harbour last weekend, or worse still, been becalmed and bored for a few hours. That's sailing for you, I would have concluded; not really my thing - never thought it would be.

But it didn't turn out that way, and I've been bitten by the bug. How far I'll take it I have no idea, but I know I want to be able to take a small boat out solo, and I'll be combing through the brochures looking for family sailing courses next year. There's a long way to go and some hard slog along the way - night school courses in navigation are particularly unappealing - but the thought of selling up, investing everything in an ocean-going boat and setting sail is beginning to have its attractions.