Sailing: It was the constant jibes that did it

Gentle wind, a calm Mallorcan bay - perfect conditions for learning to sail. So why did Jason Nisse spend more time in the water than on it?
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The Independent Travel

It was when the mast landed on my head that I started to suspect that I was not a natural dinghy sailor. To be fair the clues had been all too apparent. The constant capsizing, my confusion between a "tack" and a "jibe" and the way I kept getting the helm caught under my armpit. But the "men who wouldn't let me quit" wouldn't – er – let me quit. And if you can't learn to sail in a perfect bay, under baking sunshine with ideal equipment, when are you going to learn?

It was when the mast landed on my head that I started to suspect that I was not a natural dinghy sailor. To be fair the clues had been all too apparent. The constant capsizing, my confusion between a "tack" and a "jibe" and the way I kept getting the helm caught under my armpit. But the "men who wouldn't let me quit" wouldn't – er – let me quit. And if you can't learn to sail in a perfect bay, under baking sunshine with ideal equipment, when are you going to learn?

This is sailing for softies. Not for me the Solent, fighting my way through Cowes racers plus hundreds of motor launches steered ineptly by middle managers who've saved all their life for this. Not for me a freezing reservoir on Ilkley Moor with some frostbitten ex-squaddie screaming: "Pull in your mainsheet, you stupid twit!"

No. I headed off to Puerto Pollenca in Mallorca, on an activity holiday organised by Neilson, the bit of JMC that tries to forget it's owned by a giant tour operator.

The first morning went well, as we didn't get on the water. We were told the basics – what a mainsheet is (it's the rope that controls the big sail), how to find the wind, what you should do with the mainsheet when you've found the wind and when you should tack (that's turn around to find the wind). We even tried tacking on dry land, which is a bit like being on an exercise bike.

In the afternoon we hit the water. We were sailing Picos, which are like yellow plastic washing-up bowls with a point at one end, a mast a third of the way down, a hole in the middle in which you insert a big plastic thing that looks like the blade of a butter knife (called a daggerboard) and a rudder at the back. To get in and out, across and around these things, you have to scramble like a madman, scraping the skin off your legs to acquire a condition called "Pico knees". Add to this the sunburn, the bumps and bruises and the rope welts on your hands, and you will realise why I never went on any of the optional evening bike rides.

Within a few minutes of going out, the pattern was set. While some struggled, and some strained and some sailed off into the sunset, I capsized. Not just once. Not just twice. But five times. I spent my first afternoon not so much sailing dinghies as righting them. And I'm pretty good at that. You just push down on the daggerboard with all your might, scramble on and try get all your ropes and things in order before a breeze pushes you over again.

By the evening I had already been dubbed "the capsize king". I ached in places I didn't previously know I had places. I'd drunk about a gallon of seawater. Things had to get better.

They did. Next day, with light winds and a bit of coaching, I managed to keep upright for the whole morning. Then disaster. Sean, the instructor, introduced two new concepts. One was a triangular course, which we would have to navigate, and the other was a technique we would need to do it – the jibe. This is like a tack, but different. You push the tiller the other way and you go in a different direction. However, the boom (that's the bit of wood at the bottom on the sail) still flies over your head, and you still have to change sides on the boat. And when you change sides you run the risk of capsizing. Which I did again. And again. And again. At one point I capsized in such a gigantic fashion that the boat righted itself and floated off without me, and looking a lot happier, too.

By that point I was ready to head for the shore and give up (I actually wanted to sink the damn dinghy, but as it's made of plastic, this is impossible). As I executed my one successful tack of the afternoon and headed for shore in a determined fashion, Sean pulled up beside me in the safety boat. He leaned over, grabbed the dinghy and reduced the size of my sail. I wasn't going to be allowed to quit.

Day three started badly. The wind was so light that the less talented sailors (me, a 19-year-old girl from Dublin who kept screaming "this is bleedin' deadly" and some trainee doctors (whose medical skills I noted with the expectation of a man who might soon need them) couldn't even persuade our boats to leave shore.

Once we managed to get out into the bay, the weather pulled one of those tricks that all salty sea dogs will recognise – a sudden gale. Cue a remake of the Battle of Jutland. More boats were upside down than right way up. The rescue boat was working overtime. Sensibly Sean took us – a bedraggled, despondent lot – to shore.

Thankfully the next morning brought a day off from sailing, during which we were encouraged to try our hand at windsurfing. Stuff that, mate. I'd had enough falling in the water. I hired a car and headed off round the island. And if you keep away from the tourists, what a very nice island Mallorca is.

The following morning brought a different challenge. We all split into crews, led by "a confident helmsman". Our confident helmsman was a German gentleman who, for legal reasons, I will call Hermann. He was a bit of a sailing nut, walking around all day in his waterproofs and his kneepads. He was also, shall we say, a little bossy. This suited me well, as I did all right when someone told me what to do. But after a few hours of this, you can understand Fletcher Christian's infamous strategy.

The final day and there's a regatta planned for the afternoon. Well, you can count me out of that, but there was still more sailing to be done by the barely competent. And, as if to prove that that is a kind description of me, I capsize twice within 20 yards of the shore. Now I've had enough. I tack again (funny how I can always do it when I'm heading home) and sail for shore. First, Sean pulls up and tries to persuade me to turn around. Then the senior instructor, Biff, comes over and offers to come back out with me. But the lure of the sun lounger is too great. The men who wouldn't let me quit give up and let me quit.

I take down the mast, put away the rudder and soothe my tired muscles. May I never set foot in a dinghy again.

Jason Nisse travelled to Puerto Pollenca courtesy of Neilson (0870 909 9099, or www.neilson.com). Sailing holidays start at £379 for a week (based on three sharing a one-bedroom apartment).

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