Travel: Gone with the wind

Once you've got over your first ducking it isn't long before you're hooked on sailing. Eric Kendall messes about in a dinghy

Once upon a time, boats were all about keeping out of the water, things you sat in, while the lake stayed on the other side of the planks. Nowadays you can forget that idea for a start, and planks are out of the question, too.

Maybe it is the windsurfing influence, or a general tendency to cut corners, but today's dinghy sailors are expected to make do with a wood-free boat which can have as much water in it as a reasonable-sized jacuzzi, even before it turns over.

The thing is, it doesn't matter: modern sailing dinghies have built-in buoyancy chambers that work, just like Titanic didn't, so sinking isn't an issue. As for getting wet, that's half the fun. If you don't capsize a couple of times, you're not trying.

It is a straightforward, confrontational approach: if turning turtle is the worst thing that can happen while sailing a boat (it's right up there with lightning strikes or being biffed on the head by the boom), then doing so at an early stage means you have nothing much left to fear, so the theory goes. It leaves you free to concentrate on techniques such as going about and steering in a straight line... Though these skills were always learnt in a hands-on way, it used to be done in a more controlled fashion, with someone who knew what they were doing at the helm. Crew members would only get a taste of how to steer after serving time trimming the jib. Now you are thrown in at the deep end, though wetsuits are provided.

Heading off alone in a dinghy may seem daunting to a beginner, but it is fine if you are naive enough not to realise what's involved - you will soon find out. The obvious shortcomings of sail power - that you can only go in certain directions, according to the wind - aren't even discussed before launching.

Though the whole business is relatively simple on paper, I could feel two left feet coming on the moment we started rehearsing the day's first manoeuvre: "going about" (changing direction). It is a simple procedure: push the tiller away from you, duck under the boom as the sail swings across from one side of the boat to the other, and sit on the opposite side of the boat. Fine if you are only three feet six tall, but challenging for anyone bigger.

Hanging about, even momentarily, on the same side of the boat as the sail creates an imbalance that can only end in a dunking, so you scurry from one side to the other while trying to disengage yourself from the main sheet (the rope that controls the sail and ties itself around your limbs) and attempting to steer at the same time.

In fact, by not thinking too hard about it and following to the letter whatever of the shouted instructions you can hear, it is not hard to go to and fro over a short stretch, across the wind. Nobody is judging your style, and even that comes once you get the knack of steering with the tiller behind your back, as you must from time to time.

The best of it, as you start to enjoy yourself between turns, is that you realise why sailors get so excited about their sport. The boat is incredibly responsive, small enough that you feel part of it, and the sensation of smooth, quiet speed is out of all proportion to how fast you are actually moving.

With the power being transmitted through the main sheet from the sail, and steering feedback coming directly through the tiller, you couldn't get more in touch with the wind and the waves all at once. If you are lucky, you might even have the sun on your face, to complete the elemental assault on your nerve-endings. All it takes at this point is a brief burst of heeling at an angle, leaning out over the water to counterbalance the force on the sail and Rod Stewart crooning away in your mind's ear, to be hooked.

From here onwards, it is about learning just how close to the wind you can sail - you obviously can't go straight into it - and what you have to do, other than steer, to make efficient headway against the wind (tacking). Then comes running with the wind behind you - simple but slightly precarious as the sail can flip from one side to the other astonishingly quickly, in which case you have gybed, which comes just before capsizing.

Finally, having righted the dinghy simply by pulling on the daggerboard, which protrudes through the bottom of the boat, you can head for home, remembering (if the wind is blowing towards the shore) that instead of applying brakes you have to turn back into the wind at the last minute. This is the most finely judged manoeuvre of all; too late and you will go halfway up the bank with much scraping, loss of face (and possibly loss of deposit); too soon, and you don't end up parking at all, but head offshore once more.

Thanks to Charles Wand-Tetley and Julian Pearson at Queen Mary Sailsports.

Learning to sail

The Royal Yachting Association (01703 627400) has details of approved schools all over the UK. Queen Mary Sailsports (01784 248881) uses the largest body of water within the M25 (Queen Mary Reservoir, near Staines) to run courses at all levels, including one-day tasters.

Beginners can learn in Laser Pico singlehanders; or if you don't want to get wet, they also use larger dinghies where the instructor is on board. The RYA level one course takes two days; level two takes a further three days, and gives a recognised certificate allowing you to hire boats. Make sure that wetsuits are available if learning on singlehanders, and take a windproof jacket, change of clothes, towel and old training shoes for wearing in/on the water.

Modern entry-level dinghies are built to be easy to rig and sail, but perform well; they also need little maintenance. Racing is a major part of the scene for many dinghy sailors, but it is not obligatory. At the most extreme end of the scale, the Laser 5000 gives the ultimate ride - getting out on the wings, dangling from a trapeze is as far from the conventional view of pootling about in boats as you could get.

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