I've since bought a house not 20 minutes from the coast, and my girlfriend and I have spent the past two summer holidays on the island of Menorca. This Ballearic jewel is almost the perfect environment for sailing - the sun shines, the wind blows (but not too hard) and the sea is blue, clear and warm. And many of its best beaches are accessible only by boat.
This year, we are returning and thought it might be nice to sail - however tentatively - around the coast. Or, if that was too ambitious, to at least tack and gybe (as I now know these motions are called) around the harbour of the capital, Mahon. To sailing school, then...
My girlfriend, and the friend who had expressed interest in sailing lessons in the pub one night, had since made their excuses and dropped out, and so I found myself alone one Saturday morning at a place called Hove Lagoon. This turned out to be a concrete boating lake, carved out of former mosquito swamp in the 1920s by Brighton and Hove council.
I'd paid my pounds 120 to an outfit naturally enough called Hove Lagoon Watersports, to spend the weekend taking my Level 1 Royal Yachting Association certificate, the lowliest of all the RYA's six levels of competence. The literature had promised that by the end of the course I'd be "raving about sailing and wanting to come back for more". How prescient of them.
Hove Lagoon Watersports turned out to be a friendly, youthful, loose- limbed kind of outfit, full of fit-bodied, long-haired windsurfers. The ambience was Bondi Beach in East Sussex, and very welcoming to the novice.
Our instructor, James, finally located myself and the only other pupil on this particular course that weekend (another chap, I was glad to note, of my age). Six is the maximum number for each instructor, but it was a relief and an obvious advantage to be in a class of only two.
Before we donned our wet suits (the hire of which is included in the price) and launched ourselves into the elements, we had a spot of land- based theory; how to tell your port from your starboard, your leeward from your windward and your beam reach from your broad reach. We also talked tides, knots and of the no-go area (that profound and unalterable truth that you can't sail directly into the wind). And then it was into the wet suits, perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the whole weekend. Wet suits, as their name suggests, are invariably never dry when you put them on but clammy and smelling of the disinfectant that they are dunked in at the end of the day.
Thus encased we learnt how to rig the boats - single-sail Laser Picos, which seemed simple enough to put together - before taking to the water. Here we learnt the most important point, consistently drummed in by James throughout the morning: never let go of the rudder. He needn't have bothered. If you let go of the rudder, especially when turning the boat (or gybing or tacking as we sailors say), there's a tendency to go around in circles before capsizing. Always keen to learn from adversity, I became a dab hand at righting the dinghy by pushing down on the centre-board.
Another difficulty I'd find myself in was to be going nowhere fast - the sail flapping furiously. According to James, I was "in irons", having committed the cardinal error of trying to sail into the wind (well, you can't take everything on trust). Nevertheless, by lunchtime I was scooting up and down the lagoon, executing neat tacks, and even occassionally reaching speeds that started pulling the boat out of the water - myself leaning out as counter-ballast. Now, this was really sailing.
By the end of the day, we were even racing (albeit haphazardly) around a triangular cast (upwind, downwind and across wind, you see). By Sunday evening my knees were bruised and red, my hair crusty; but, as the literature predicted, I was raving about sailing and definitely wanted to come back for more.
Hove Lagoon Watersports: 01273 424842. For your nearest sailing school, contact The Royal Yachting Association (01703 627416)Reuse content