Weymouth: Shore thing for the Olympics

London's venues are still under construction, but in Weymouth – the site of the sailing events in 2012 – the waters already look ship-shape. Matt Barr takes to the waves in Dorset
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The Independent Online

On a breezy Sunday morning in Dorset, one of Britain's key Olympic venues is bustling with activity. But in this case, it's not thronged with ant-like construction workers desperately trying to meet the looming 2012 deadline. Instead, the waters of the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy, selected to host the London Olympiad's sailing events, are full of flapping sails and colourful craft of every description.

I'm in one of these boats myself – a small Laser-class vessel, ably piloted by Matt, a fearsomely capable 18-year-old instructor for local company Sail Laser. Matt's been "on the water" since he was six. "It's pretty simple once you get the hang of it," he says as he watches my ham-fisted attempts to tack the craft back and forth. It feels like learning to operate a clutch for the first time, but after allowing an alarming amount of water to slop over the side of the boat, I start to get to grips with things.

I'm also beginning to understand what all the fuss is about. After all, my sailing career is a scant half-hour old and I'm already piloting my own boat on the very same waters that will see 2012 Olympians fight it out for a place on the rostrum. Imagine deciding to go for a quick jog on the same East London track Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay will soon be racing on – and the unique opportunity Weymouth gives you to immerse yourself in the spirit of 2012 becomes apparent.

As Matt takes the helm, I settle back to enjoy the speed with which we're skimming across the water. With so many people out on the waves – from Olympic hopefuls to first-timers – the community spirit is almost palpable. "There's a really close-knit sailing community here," says Matt as he cheerily greets a passing windsurfer. "That was Bryony Shaw. She won bronze in Beijing and is one of the big hopes for gold during the Games."

Spend any amount of time here and you'll find yourself talking about "the Games". In Weymouth, 2012 Olympic fever is underway already. While the town's history as a Georgian pleasure spot is still visible in the architecture that graces the town's impressive esplanade, in recent years Weymouth's fortunes have ebbed and flowed. So the decision to make Weymouth and Portland the location for the 2012 sailing events has given a boost to the area's fortunes.

Weymouth and Portland (the latter a six-mile-long island connected to Weymouth by a road bridge) now finds itself in truly heady company. Last year it was rated the fourth best up-and-coming travel destination in the world by the travel website TripAdvisor. The Olympic venue was in eclectic company: the Gold, Silver and Bronze medal positions went to Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany; Dangriga in Belize; and Rosario in Argentina. Nevertheless, a presence on any "global emerging destinations" list represents quite a coup.

It's easy to see what's bringing the crowds in. Today's Weymouth is a savvy mixture of the historical and the modern, epitomised by my home for the weekend, B+B Weymouth. This smart offering is a Grade II-listed Georgian seafront building with modern, airy rooms. I ask Jean, the manager, where I should head for my first night in town. He dispatches me to the 17th-century Old Harbour, the historical focal point of the town, where I find a clutch of convivial drinking options. I settle down for a couple of pints at the packed Kings Arms, where the cheerful mood is a compelling argument for the regenerative benefits of a successful Olympic bid.

Still, the water is the main draw for most people, whether it's the town's charming bucket-and-spade beach, or the watersports facilities based at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy (WPNSA).

The WPNSA is set to be the focal point in 2012 and is one of the main reasons why Weymouth was chosen: the centre opened in 2000, providing world-class sailing facilities for Weymouth before the Olympic bid was even launched.

The existence of those facilities would mean nothing if it wasn't for Weymouth's other trump card: the strange set of natural circumstances that have made this the perfect place to be a sailor. "Well, you've got a huge harbour, for a start," says Matt, as we head for a post-sail coffee. "And then the natural aspect of the harbour – it almost sits out in the Channel, protected by nearby Chesil Beach. The huge breakwaters that guard the entrance to the harbour mean it gets winds from every direction."

In sailing terms, I learn, this is A Good Thing. It means conditions are almost always suitable for racing boats – no small matter when you're about to hold the world's most watched sailing contest.

Coffee drained, it's time once again to head out onto the water. This time I am in the company of Roy Griffiths, managing director of Weymouth Charters. Roy's firm, an online booking agency for 25 local charter boats operating out of Weymouth and Portland, has been running only since March. Yet it is already a local success story, firing the enthusiasm of the waterborne community.

"We've got everything from ribs [rigid inflatable boats] to tall ships," says Roy. "It's worked really well – I've had everything from stag dos to client hospitality days recently." For Roy, the Olympics has been the sole catalyst behind this exciting local buzz.

"As a local businessman I've been increasingly inspired by 2012," he says. "Plus, I've been a keen sailor for years, so I know how good our local waters and coastline are."

Eager to prove his point, Roy takes me out on Elstar of Weymouth, an Aquastar 45 Motor Cruiser. It's owned by Weymouth resident Tim Bareham. He was an enthusiastic early adopter of Roy's masterplan, and has the healthily ruddy complexion of somebody who spends more time on sea than land.

"This is the best way of understanding the coastline," says Tim, as we motor out into the harbour. To the east we can just about discern Durdle Door, spectacular focal point of the Dorset countryside, while to the south the strange protuberance of Portland sticks far out into the Channel.

There isn't much to do, other than tuck into the groaning plate of sandwiches proffered by Tim, and enjoy the view. I'm beginning to think that this infinitely more civilised pace is my kind of sailing trip. "It's easy to be cynical," says Roy, "but imagine when the Games are actually on? It's going to be the biggest thing in Weymouth's history."

I have a feeling he's right.

Travel essentials

Getting there

National Rail Enquiries (08457 48 49 50; www.nationalrail.co.uk) has details of rail links from London Waterloo and Bristol, with many more connections available at Southampton.

Staying there

B+B Weymouth, 68 The Esplanade, Weymouth, Dorset, DT4 7AA (01305 761190; www.bb-weymouth.com). Doubles start at £70, including breakfast.

Sailing there

Sail at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy (01305 866000; www.wpnsa.org.uk) Osprey Quay, Portland, Dorset, DT5 1SA with Sail Laser ( www.sail-laser.com). Prices start at £70 per day. Trips on 'Elstar of Weymouth' are offered by Weymouth Charters (01305 832512; www.weymouth-charters.co.uk). The boat carries 12 passengers and costs £1,200 per day.

More information

Visit Weymouth & Portland: www.visitweymouth.co.uk

Visit Dorset: www.visit-dorset.com