Travel: Scything through the seaside

Windsurfing is not as tricky as you might think. Eric Kendall catches the coastal breeze
Next time you are grilling gently on the beach, turning a delicate shade of lobster and hoping forlornly that only a moderate amount of sand has worked its way into your underwear, Walkman and egg sandwiches, spare a moment to study the windsurfers gliding gently across the shallow waters just beyond the shoreline.

Few are nut-brown Adonises, with toned muscles rippling and blond manes flowing. This is not California. Most are - well, just like the rest of us. Windsurfing, like many of the people who now do it, has come of age.

The biggest difference between participants and beach-bound observers is that the participants are having fun. They have found a way to enjoy the British seaside, simultaneously keeping and looking cool while whizzing across the waves, powered only by the wind and sometimes at speeds that would cost a motorist three penalty points.

Anyone can do it, from age eight to 80, and it's never too late to start. OK, that is a cliche, but advances in sailing techniques and hardware have made windsurfing easier, quicker to learn, less physically demanding and less likely to result in frozen extremities, even in British waters.

For a raw recruit or lapsed champion-in-the-making from a few years back, the paraphernalia involved has improved beyond recognition. Today, when someone tries to tell you that getting started is not so hard, that you don't fall in all the time and that the sails really aren't heavy to pull out of the water, they're almost telling the truth. As for getting cold, wetsuits have improved so much that they should take prizes for rapidity of development.

There is a technological answer to everything. Balance problems? No longer are you sent away to have a go on the pedalos or told to take up birdwatching. With the latest wide board, more of a pontoon, really, you can stay upright and experience decent performance - two things that used to be mutually exclusive.

Weight is the other key aspect, from the board itself to all the other bits, such as sail, mast and boom. Today's rig (you might as well slip into the argot, too) is easier to launch, sail and sling on to the roof rack, thanks mainly to its having shed a few pounds.

Teaching methods have evolved, too. To begin with, no sail or even mast is involved. The first steps are literally that: "Climb on to your board, stand up and walk to one end," said Toby the instructor. After glancing ashore to check that this wasn't an amusing windsurfer joke at my expense, I scrabbled aboard and stood up.

The desperate wobbliness means that you adopt a knees-bent, feet apart stance as though about to take part in the Hakka, but without the noise or the actions and definitely without any stamping.

I stagger-shuffled towards one end, until it sank and I fell in. I got on again and skipped nimbly (getting the hang of it now) to the other end, which also sank, and I fell in again. It's as easy as falling off a log, the last bit.

Next comes the pirouette around the hole where the mast fits (it has a name, but do you really care?). With your newly acquired sense of balance this would be easy if you didn't have to put one arm in the air and look at the tips of your fingers throughout the manoeuvre.

Do this in both directions. Just because, OK?

Now comes the sail. At last, a chance to show my stuff. Learning the up-haul (pulling the sail from horizontal to vertical) has echoes of real sailing - of heaving away on ropes, humming a sea shanty and feeling nautical. But perhaps not while learning on the simulator on dry land - which saves no end of faffing around and means that Toby doesn't have to get wet when he's demonstrating.

The ludicrously named "secure position" seems easy enough to achieve until you get back on the water but, with luck, you stay upright and move rapidly on to swinging the sail round the back of the board while pirouetting around the mast. Mysteriously, the board turns slowly below you, to point roughly where it needs to be for you to start sailing.

And, finally, assuming that there is a breeze and that you can co-ordinate some crucial footwork and transfer your hands to the boom, all in the correct order, you are away. This is at once thrilling and disturbing, because Toby's instructions are getting fainter as you head offshore, and you haven't covered turning around in sufficient detail to be fully confident of being able to get back to base.

What the hell, the wind in your sail feels almost too good for you to worry about the details, though of course it always helps to have something to aim for.

For the moment, it's the shore from which I started; in the much longer term, it's some high winds and even higher waves.