Actually I'm bricking my pants," Captain Pierre said as we stepped off the plane at Ajaccio, on the west coast of Corsica. My Anglo-French friend had passed his yachtmaster exams the year before but had never helmed outside British waters. He had got six of us together for a week's summer holiday on board a boat, chosen the Mediterranean because of its lack of tides and Corsica because much of its beautiful coastline is inaccessible by land.
He could have chosen a better crew – most of us only had a few weekends on the Solent under our belts. Still, we loaded up our nine-berth Bavaria 34-footer and toasted the morrow. Next morning we ran through our briefing. Pumping the toilet, talking through a mayday, the importance of clearing the boom when anyone calls: "Gybe oh". We planned to go north, but didn't set any specific targets, as we were not very sure of our abilities. Which is exactly why we were all here; the greenhorn crew of the Medusa were setting sail for new waters in every sense. The navigation of Ajaccio marina was the first challenge. Our progress was fine until we noticed our dinghy floating back near the marina entrance, having slipped its knot. The craft recovered and the skipper's dented pride repaired, we pointed north, waiting until we were out of sight of spectators before pulling up the sails.
We pitched up in the Golfe De Lava for the night. And then, near disaster. Pierre lowered the dinghy, but when he untied the outboard it dropped into the sea. "Merde!" Luckily, it still fired when recovered. The following morning, there was more bad news. Cleaning up breakfast debris and sluicing down the deck, we realised we had neglected to fill the water tanks properly, so there was hardly any fresh water. We had got bottled drinking water, but showers were out and washing up had to be done in seawater.
Soldiering on, we motored into Girolata Bay (like many in Corsica, inaccessible by land) for the night. Looking for somewhere to drop anchor, we were scrutinising the depth gauge for the magic four-metre reading when it suddenly plummeted from six metres to four. Our boat hung 1.8m below the surface, and as Pierre threw the engines into reverse we were all wincing in anticipation of a scrape. One of the crew unwisely chose this moment to remind Pierre that she had suggested another spot. He lost his cool and told her exactly what she could do with her advice.
A couple of beers ashore, a skinny-dip in the full moon, and harmony was regained.An executive decision was taken to send out an advance snorkler to check for boulders the next time we were due to weigh anchor in a bay.
The next morning, the Medusa crawled along, thanks to the low wind. We considered a night sail – and then remembered that somewhere, somehow, we had lost our night navigation lights. It was not the only mishap of the day; later, the boom swung across and cracked Johann on the skull. He only stopped himself from flying overboard by literally clinging to the lifelines.
In the afternoon, the old citadel of Calvi appeared, clinging to the rock. Smart French crews watched as we, with washing flapping from the rigging, rode smoothly down a narrow channel. Pierre reversed into a tight spot between two boats at the first attempt, and we nonchalantly threw a bowline around the landing posts and jumped ashore to make her fast. It was all we could do to stop ourselves from clapping.
After all-night revelries, our departure was not as smooth as our arrival – a very close encounter with the concrete marina wall as we refuelled was followed by a pierced gas canister. To add to our troubles, the wind had just about died. We needed to make a decision. Should we forget the sailing and use the motor to see the northern coast? Or should we turn around, sail leisurely and spend time enjoying the sandy beaches and deserted bays? We took the second option, and didn't regret it for a minute.
Better still, we were all getting to grips with the yacht. The mainsail and genoa was hauled up by the halyards, the boom attached to the gooseneck, the mainsheet fixed to the boom and every-thing cleated and coiled away in moves so choreographed it was as though we were starring in a musical. Miraculously, there were dolphins riding alongside us. Finally, we had arrived in paradise.
What to take
Luggage: Rucksack that folds away neatly into a hold is the best bet.
Clothing: Always take waterproofs and a fleece for the evenings. In England it's best to have waterproof hat and gloves handy too, whatever the season, but summer in Corsica is shorts weather; the only hat you'll need is a sunhat.
Footwear: Sandals which strap to your feet, with rubber soles for a sure grip.
Other essentials: Plenty of high-factor suncream , sunglasses. There is very little shade on deck, and the reflective nature of the sea means that burning and sunstroke are real dangers.
Useful: Pocket torch and penknife, and, if you're a complete beginner, notepad and pen will also come in handy. There's a lot to learn.
Nine-berth Bavaria 34 in Corsica £875- £1,420 a week (excluding skipper hire if required). For boat hire in Corsica, check allerencorse.com.boathire.htm.
Neilson (0870 909 9099) have nine centres in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, offering different packages:
Beginners Villa/flotilla. Two-week holiday, first week shore-based, second aboard yacht. From £750 pp half-board, including flights, tuition.
Intermediates Flotilla. Join crew for a week on a fleet of boats. From £660 pp half-board, including flights, tuition.
Advanced Bare boat charter. At least two of group must have passed Coastal Skipper exams unless you hire a skipper. From £500 pp per week (excluding skipper hire).
Nautilus (01732 867 445) also offer a variety of packages depending on experience in Europe and the Caribbean:
Beginners Learn to sail in Greece or Croatia. One week aboard yacht from £465 pp half-board, including flights, tuition).
Intermediates Flotilla in Greece or Croatia. Join crew on a fleet of boats. From £385 pp half-board, including flights, tuition.
Advanced Bare boat charter in Mediterranean or Caribbean. At least one of group must be able to demonstrate experience to Day Skipper level unless you hire a skipper. From £400 pp a week depending on location (excluding skipper hire).