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.

Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvAs the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian on why he'll never bow to critics who habitually circle his work
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey outside Mo Nabbach’s M&M Hair Academy in west London before the haircut
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Sport
Vito Mannone fails to keep out Samir Nasri's late strike
sportMan City 2 Sunderland 2: Keeper flaps at Nasri's late leveller, but Black Cat striker's two goals in 10 minutes had already done damage
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
News
peopleRyan Gosling says yes, science says no. Take the A-list facial hair challenge
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
Arts & Entertainment
Play It Forward: the DC Record Fair in Washington, US
musicIndependent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads on Record Store Day
Sport
video
News
Supermarkets are running out of Easter Eggs
Deals make eggs cheaper than normal chocolate
Life & Style
Wasp factory: 1.3 million examples of the Vespa scooter have been sold in the last decade
motoringIconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales
Voices
voicesThe Ukip leader on why he's done nothing illegal
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed in ...

NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

Teach music or performing arts abroad

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Schools in developing countries struggle with...

Nutrition volunteer placements

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: As part of our ongoing effort to support comm...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books