'When the teaching had finished for the day, we'd borrow a whole load of boats and go off racing and playing silly games,' says Ricky. 'There were about four or five of us who knew each other, and who also knew some of the instructors, so there were always a group of about a dozen who waited to sail.'
'It's a nice way to meet people,' says Cheryl Beare, who met her husband Nick through the Upper Thames Sailing Club, based at Bourne End in Hertfordshire. 'It's healthy and outdoor, and you've got something in common.' Actually sailing in the same boat as your partner can be somewhat fraught, she admits, and she tends to sail with a girfriend rather than with Nick: 'When you are close and you know someone very well you expect so much of them, and you don't like it when they make mistakes.'
Ricky and Susan agree. 'It's a bit tricky when you have different styles of helming (steering the boat), so you want to do different things,' says Ricky. 'We get on quite well until the going gets very tough, and then the occasional 'snap' will come out.'
'In a race out on the sea, when it's cold and wet, you really know whether you want to go out with that person,' says Susan. They now sail regularly at Rickmansworth Yacht Club, also in Hertfordshire, where the Commodore (head of the club) is James Vaughan. Now in his late twenties, he was brought to the club as a child by his parents, but didn't begin taking a serious interest in sailing until he was 21. 'When I rejoined the club, I began to encourage my friends to join as well. I think it's quite difficult for a newcomer to come into a club where they don't know anyone - unless you're quite gregarious.'
Bob Wannell was conscious of this difficulty, particularly for people on their own again after the break-up of a relationship, when he set up Shipmates, an organisation which offers 'gentle' cruising trips for single people around the coasts of Devon and Cornwall.
'It is not a dating or introduction agency,' he stresses. 'I'd hate people to get the idea we were matchmaking.' A qualified instructor, he welcomes novices as well as people who have sailed before. Most of the cruises last for a weekend, with the crew getting to know each other in the marina in
Fowey over a meal on the Friday, before setting sail the next morning.
'It's a great levelling thing, being on a boat. Somehow the barriers drop. Every trip is different - it develops its own personality.' So far, most of the people who go on Shipmates cruises have been in their forties or fifties, with a range of lifestyles and professions including bank managers, teachers and nurses. 'We try and keep a balance between the sexes, but otherwise it's pot luck, like any party you might go to.' Some of the women who have joined the cruises have liked the feeling of safety in numbers, being with people without feeling that they could get stuck with any particular person, and with none of the pressures of a date.
'My daughter saw the advert in one of the women's magazines, and she knew it was my ambition to sail, so she drew my attention to it,' says Frances Forrester, a headteacher, who went with Shipmates on a long weekend in May. 'I really enjoyed it. I'm divorced - my ex-husband is a boat builder, and I'd always wanted to sail on a proper boat, but because I live alone it's very difficult to find an opportunity to sail on my own.' This Christmas, Shipmates is running a Caribbean cruise
with room for about 20 people on three yachts, and Bob has ambitions to get a flotilla together in Greece.
Another way of learning the ropes and meeting people at the same time is to go on a sailing course: the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) offers a range of courses to suit everyone from the novice to the most experienced.
It is possible to join a club before knowing how to sail, and the RYA is happy to advise anyone looking for a club to join - with more than 1,350 clubs around the country, the choice is wide.
Nor do you have to be wealthy. 'There is this great thing about sailing being an elitist thing - it's a myth,' says Dick Johnson, a former editor of Yachting World magazine. His club, the Royal Essex Yacht Club, is based at Leigh-on-Sea on the Thames Estuary. 'If you want to sail a 60ft yacht and spend a quarter of a million, you can, but you don't have to. But on the other hand, someone who's got a quarter-of- a-million-pound boat will need 15 or 16 people to sail it - so if you know how to sail you can go along for free.'
And once on a boat in the middle of nowhere with 15 other sailors - well, anything could happen.
Royal Yachting Association (RYA), for names of sailing clubs and details of sailing courses, telephone: 0703 629962.
Shipmates, telephone/fax: 0726 833713.
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