Enjoy sparkling waters, idyllic islands and cultural hotspots from the comfort of your own boat. It's easier than you think, says Chris Leadbeater

The snap and crack of canvas pulled taut in the wind; the glorious sight of a mast jutting into a sky of flawless blue; the slap of shallow waves on a swiftly gliding hull: few things embody the delights of summer quite like a day or two on the water under full sail.

And as the warmest season hoves into view, the idea of a sailing holiday becomes ever more appealing – not least because Europe is arguably the finest corner of the planet for a week on a yacht, sloop or schooner. From the silvery Mediterranean, where the Balearic Islands dot the horizon, to the currents of the Ionian, Aegean and Adriatic Seas, where the outcrops of Greece, Turkey, Croatia and Italy show off their pretty harbours, this is a continent where you can explore with ship's wheel in hand.

Nor do you have to be a millionaire to enjoy what, at first glance, might seem a rich man's pursuit. Many travel firms offer water-based breaks where you move with sails unfurled – a different prospect to time on the floating hotel that is the modern cruise-liner. On a sail-ship, you can be closer to the nautical action, even helping to pilot the boat on its course.

Sailing holidays can be split into four categories: "bareboat" escapes where, if you have the experience, you control your own hired yacht; "skippered" voyages where a qualified captain is part of the deal; "flotilla" tours where you are one of a posse of around a dozen vessels following the same route; and under-sail cruises, where others do all the difficult work – but you still have the pleasure of a journey by ship in the traditional, romantic manner.

Alternatively, if you love the sight of a sail, but are not much of a sailor, you could watch from dry land in Cyprus as Limassol hosts the Youth Sailing World Championship this summer (13-20 July). For further information visit isafyouthworlds.com and visitcyprus.com.

With a little help from my friends

Chartering a boat with a captain is a best-of-both-worlds scenario – you have the freedom to sail where you wish, but you also have a professional on board to keep you out of peril.

One option may be Seafarer (020-8324 3118; seafarersailing.co.uk), which has skippered boats for rent in seven European countries. In Port de Bormes, France, on the Cote D'Azur, a 37ft, three-cabin yacht can be hired in June – with a skipper – for £2,638.

Sunvil Sailing (020-8758 4780; sunvilsailing.co.uk) offers charters in Greece – and also flotilla tours, where boats follow a leader through Ionian waters. A seven-night flotilla voyage in June, aboard a two-cabin yacht, costs from £1,118 per person, including flights.

Neilson, left (0844 879 8155; neilson.co.uk/sailing), meanwhile, is active in the Ionian and Aegean, and runs tours on Turkey's Lycian coast. A sample price is £799pp for a trip in June, including flights.

Bare necessities for serious sailors

Should you have the necessary training on your seadog CV (see "Learning the ropes" on the next page), a bareboat charter makes for unfettered adventures, with Europe's marinas providing near-endless start points. For example, sailing-stalwart Sunsail, above, (0844 273 1763; sunsail.co.uk) has just set up a new base at Palma de Mallorca, making for extra access to the Balearics. The basic hire of a 40ft yacht with three cabins costs £2,940 for a week; flights extra.

Bareboat Sailing Holidays (020-8438 1133; bareboatsailingholidays.com) offers just-the-yacht charters in Italy, and suggests a week-long route along the Amalfi Coast that ticks off the likes of Sorrento, Capri and Ischia.

The one-week rental of a 37ft, three-cabin Bavaria 37 Cruiser for a group of six costs from £631pp, including Stansted-Naples flights and transfers.

All aboard the party boat

Croatia has become a must-visit location for both sailors and partygoers – so it's no surprise that one company is offering to combine the two. Sail Croatia (0800 193 8289; sail-croatia.com) deals in leisurely voyages along the Dalmatian coast – but it also has an "Avast Party Week" set for departure from Split on 17 August. Prices start from £519pp, half board, excluding flights. This seven-day hurrah is for revellers aged 21 to 35 and its highlight will be the Pirate Festival, held in the port of Omis on 18 August in memory of a 13th-century battle between local buccaneers and Venetian traders. Expect explosions, bandanas, and a very late night.

For contoured coasts, look closer to home

Britain's island contours ensure that there is also plenty of scope for escapes under sail in home waters. Classic Sailing (01872 580 022; classic-sailing.co.uk) dispenses sail-power voyages in several UK locations, including a six-day foray on the Eda Frandsen – a 1938 four-cabin wooden cutter, left – that will set off from the small fishing village of Mallaig, in the Scottish Highlands, on 10 August. The boat will wind through the Western Isles. Guests are encouraged to be "hands-on" – learning to set sails, steer the ship and help with navigation. Prices start at £815pp, full board.

Elsewhere, the Annabel J (0800 7999 180; annabel-j.co.uk) is a three-cabin, 55ft pilot cutter, based in the Hampshire port of Hamble. It has six-day voyages to the Channel Islands (Guernsey and Alderney), Brittany and Normandy planned for 26 August and 9 September from £735pp, full board.

Learning the ropes

Although the requirements may vary slightly depending on the country and charter firm, experience is needed if you want to pilot a boat unaided, or in a flotilla. This will usually mean a "Day Skipper" qualification, which demonstrates that you have basic navigation and sailing skills. Britain's Royal Yachting Association (023-8060 4100; rya.org.uk) is the gold standard. Its Day Skipper courses take five days or three weekends and are offered by a range of providers.

Pembrokeshire Cruising, above (01646 602500; pembrokeshirecruising.co.uk) runs RYA courses in the south Wales setting of Neyland. Five-day courses begin each Sunday in June (2, 9, 16 and 23), from £510 including meals on board.

Sailing Holidays (020-8459 8787; sailingholidays.com) specialises in RYA-affiliated teaching around Corfu and Paxos with a week on a Dufour 36 yacht. The price of £820 includes half board, and "Com-petent Crew" qualification, but not flights.

Cruise control

Unsure if you want to tackle the technical side of sailing, but don't want to sacrifice the functionality of an ocean liner? Starclippers (0808 159 3800; starclippers.co.uk) operates a trio of majestic tall ships – and has two 11-night voyages beginning and ending in Stockholm this summer. Passengers travel on the

115m, four-mast Star Flyer, calling at Helsinki, Tallinn and St Petersburg. Prices from £2,250 per person full board; flights extra.

Exodus's (0845 287 2332; exodus.co.uk) summer schedule features three sailboat cruises (23 July, 30 July, 6 August) that chart Scoresbysund on the fragmented east coast of Greenland. This nine-night trip costs £3,899 a head, including flights to Reykjavik and two nights in the Icelandic capital.

For rather sunnier sailing, Exclusive Escapes (020-8605 3500; exclusiveescapes.co.uk) has mini-cruises on the 89ft, four-cabin Turkish gulet Aleyna. A four-night full-board voyage from Fethiye to Kalkan in June starts at £600 per person, excluding flights.