The life for a budding Mr Christian

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The Independent Online
Mucking about in boats appeals to even the most convinced of couch potatoes. Sailing can be fun, available to all and enjoyed in myriad different ways. The spirit of Arthur Ransome and his Swallows and Amazons adventures lives on. Wherever there is a bit of water there will be a way of sailing on it, from small boats in creeks to bigger yachts offshore, for budding racers or gentle cruisers. But whatever the location, the images of billowing sails and healthy hair streaming in bracing wind remain the same and the swoosh of a hull through water just as exciting.

Then there is the social side. Yacht clubs have an indelible image of snobbery, gin and money. The price of the equipment would, at times, make Kenneth Clarke's eyes water. But from five-year-olds bobbing about in pram dinghies to grandmothers having a go at windsurfing, all conditions of mankind are attracted to the game.

There is a difference between wanting to go sailing and wanting to join a yacht club, particularly the right yacht club. Many yacht owners do not belong to a club, many club members do not go sailing, or even motor boating, and perhaps the majority of people who go sailing do not own a boat. But there are many who hanker after belonging to the right club.

These tend to be the "royals" - the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes, the Royal Thames in London and royal clubs in every big yachting centre in Britain - where what matters is who you know. You cannot apply to join but must be proposed and seconded by existing members. Even so, they are not that expensive, with a top subscription of pounds 500 a year, and often less than pounds 250. They vary in the quality of their facilities. The London ones - such as the Royal Ocean Racing Club - are also small hotels, often with reciprocal facilities, allowing you to use other clubs. Most sailing and yacht clubs welcome new members. They often also own boat parks where you can keep a dinghy, or have moorings for keelboats.

In this most equipment-dominated of equipment sports, you need not splash out on a boat. But you do need to decide what type of sailing you are after and then to attack the vast library of information that exists on how to enjoy it.

There are three stages to be passed. First, learn the basics of the game; second, settle on the level you aim to play on; and third, find a group with which to play it. There are choices between inland or coastal sailing, dinghy or keelboat, and whether you wish to sail as crew or part of a crew. Your decision may be governed by where you live, how far you want to travel, what is available and what you want to spend. You will need to budget for the specialist clothes for when it is cold, wet and miserable. Some schools, especially for windsurfing, provide wetsuits or other gear, but you will need your own, particularly footwear.

The great engine of advice is the Royal Yachting Association, the sport's national governing body. They have booklets on every aspect of taking to the water, they structure the courses and examinations, and supervise the approval of schools.

If you are apprehensive about learning in north European weather conditions, there are also RYA- approved schools in the Mediterranean and the West Indies. All aspects of being a Captain Queeg on the helm or a Mr Christian in the crew can be packed into two weeks with a pink slip at the end.

There is no substitute for learning properly all the basics. Ideally this would be in a dinghy. And talk of certificates of competence is important because, although the RYA fights hard for its principle of education rather than regulation, other European countries already require a licence. At the moment in Britain, anyone can take to the water in any boat, at any age, without licence or insurance, but it is only a matter of time before the legislators mine such a rich vein.

Once you have learnt to put sails up and down, adjust them in and out, sail upwind and down, leave a mooring and regain it, there are dozens of types of dinghy to choose from, too many in truth. Pick one, talk to the class association and find a convenient club.

Those looking for crewing jobs might also put cards on club notice boards. But you would do better to turn up, ask for the local yachtie pub, or ask your school instructor if he knows of anyone looking for crew.

But with dinghies starting at pounds 300 secondhand, you could always buy a boat for yourself.

Those vital dos and don'ts

You enter a minefield of jargon, etiquette, expertise and technology when you first take up sailing. But:

1 Do not become depressed at the number of times you hear "No, not like that, we don't do it like that." The basic don't is do not try to give the impression you know more than you do.

2 Be honest about your search for information and experience but no more than quietly enthusiastic about volunteering to do every job in sight.

3 Do, if necessary, combine learning to sail with either learning to swim or taking a couple of dips to convince yourself you can still do it.

4Make sure that you have a blazer/ reefer jacket (tweeds are taboo until you are an established eccentric) but that it looks well worn, with no brass buttons, and that the new deck shoes have been through the washing machine.

5 Do not pole up wearing America's Cup or Whitbread Race crew clothes bought at Beaulieu Boat Jumble.

6 Do make sure that if you throw up, you do so to leeward (best start with the jargon now), that is downwind. Under no circumstances watch if the skipper or his wife are doing the same.

7 Try and look under 30 if applying to one of the senior clubs, as they have now realised the average age of their members is climbing alarmingly.

8Create an opportunity to interview any prospective skipper and inspect his yacht. If he is that desperate for a beginner, there has to be a reason.


Bewl Valley Sailing Club, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Founded: 1966

Members: 1,000

Waiting list: None

Annual subs: Full pounds 77; senior/ student pounds 39; junior/social pounds 21

Joining fee: No, but there are fees for non-Royal Yachting Association members

Mooring fees: First boat pounds 87 pa; additional pounds 39 each; small dinghy pounds 21; windsurfer pounds 46

General: Restaurant and bar. The club operates every day of the year except Christmas Day, has a full training and race programme and welcomes junior members Telephone: 01892 890930

Worthing Yacht Club

Founded: 1946

Members: 156

Waiting list: None

Annual subs: Family pounds 149; single pounds 112

Joining fee: No

Mooring fees: Catamaran pounds 80; dinghy pounds 60

General: An all-dinghy club specialising in Dart catamarans. Almost exclusively a racing club. Launch off the beach on which it and its car park are situated. Restaurant and bar at weekends. No accommodation. Full social programme

Telephone: 01903 249956

Royal Western Yacht Club, Plymouth

Founded: 1827

Members: 1,700

Waiting list: Need to be proposed and seconded, then elected by ballot. A number of objections would see the application fail

Annual subs: Joint pounds 193; single pounds 158; reductions for those outside area and for younger members

Joining fee: Joint pounds 193; single pounds 158

Mooring fee: Visitors, pounds 7.50 a night

General: No accommodation. Restaurant and bar. Keel boat racing and cruising, plus a cadet section. Full social programme

Telephone: 01752 660077

Rutland Sailing Club

Founded: 1975

Members: 800

Waiting list: None

Annual subs: Family pounds 150; single pounds 120; under-25 pounds 90; crewing (non-voting) pounds 105; social (non-voting) pounds 60

Joining fees: Cabin boats pounds 60 for five years; others pounds 40 for five years

Mooring fees: Dinghies pounds 21-pounds 90 a year; larger boats, pounds 10 per ft a year

General: Bar and restaurant. Accommodation. On largest man-made reservoir in Europe. Training centre and hosts championship regattas

Telephone: 01780 720292

West Kirby Sailing Club, Wirral Peninsular

Founded: 1901

Members: 1,252

Waiting list: None

Annual subs: Family pounds 132; single pounds 82.50; reductions for under-26; cadets pounds 24.75

Joining fee: pounds 30

Mooring fees: Summer keelboat pounds 50; winter storage pounds 40-pounds 120; dinghy pounds 20 for summer

General: No accommodation. Bars. Mainly dinghy club, with some keelboat classes. Hosts major championships, including last year's first world team sailing event, full RYA training programme and social events Telephone: 0151-625 5579

Helensburgh Sailing Club

Founded: 1951

Members: 400

Waiting list: None

Annual subs: Family pounds 85; single pounds 75; reductions for intermediate/cadet

Joining fee: No

Mooring fees: Keelboats pounds 40 a year, dinghies pounds 40 a year

General: No accommodation. Bar open Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.Grundig Regatta in August

Telephone: 01436 672778

Royal Yachting Association: 01703 629962