The people's hobby

Sailing is no longer just for the rich, writes Vanessa Thorpe
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The Independent Online
BRITAIN is reclaiming its maritime history - in a family-led, suburban kind of a way.

This summer a record number of middle-class, amateur sailors will take to the sea, or to inland waterways, in the biggest boom the sport has ever seen.

Sailing has dropped its snobbish trappings and is being taken up by a wider cross-section of the population. In four years membership of the leisure-oriented Cruising Association has gone up by 10 per cent, while the Royal Yachting Association estimates it has more than three million British members. One typical family sailing club in Lowestoft, Suffolk, has doubled its membership to 160 in the last five years, as people attempt to recreate the glamorous yachting lifestyle on view in Mediterranean resorts.

"People have taken more experimental flotilla holidays in Turkey and Greece in the last few years and that is when the sailing bug first bites," said club member Geoff Doggett.

This surge of interest has been mirrored all over the country and the BBC has been quick to pick up on the trend. Flushed from its recent success in spotting burgeoning national obsessions with cooking and DIY, the corporation has commissioned a television documentary and a radio show to run this summer. The programme, Maiden Voyage, will follow yachtswoman Tracy Edwards and her all-female crew as they attempt to sail around the world; while the six radio shows, as yet unnamed, will cover everything nautical, even stooping to take in windsurfing, water-skiing and surfing.

"Sailing really could be called the new rock'n'roll," said the radio programme's producer, David Prest. "And a weekend's sailing is now within the reach of far more people."

Mr Doggett, who is also a member of the Cruising Association based in Limehouse Basin, London, thinks increasing numbers of people retiring early is also behind the trend.

"We now have a lot of members in their early 50s who have used the money they have made to buy a sailing boat," he said.

Even for those still working, sailing has a bracing, therapeutic appeal. City analyst and writer Tim Penn plans to sail this summer with his young family.

"When you are on a boat you can't think about anything except what is going on on the boat. It is a total escape," he said.

"It is not a terribly expensive sport anymore. If you have been doing well in the last few years, then you would be able to afford it. It is one of those consumer activities that booms whenever the economy is doing well."

But Britain's lifeboat crews are not so enthusiastic about the increased interest in the sport.

Figures released this spring by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution show that in 1997, 256 more rescue boats were sent to the aid of pleasure craft than in the previous year.

"The highest percentage of incidents involved individuals and families wanting nothing more than a quiet day by or on the sea," said Peter Bradley, the RNLI's Sea Safety Liaison Officer. "Our working group is attempting to reduce the overall number of incidents through education - prevention being better than cure."