Sailing close to the wind

Colin Brown learns to stand on his own two feet at the Greek Mecca of windsurfing - with the help of a 'Baywatch'-style babe
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The Independent Travel
The Greek taverna was perched on a hillside, in the village of Ponti, overlooking the bay of Vassiliki. It was already getting dark, but two sails, like insect wings, were still out there getting the last blast of the day. They had to be Germans out there.

Taking a full-on, no-holds-barred course in windsurfing had seemed pretty daunting. From the moment I got on the bus which took us from the tiny air force base at Preveza, on the northern mainland of Greece, it was obvious that I was among the British version of Baywatch.

The rest of the team - holidaymakers hardly seemed an appropriate term - seemed fit, young, and very committed. A Morrissey look-alike from Brighton said he could not wait to get out on a "2.60", the sort of short board only the experts use. He had a sweatshirt with the surfing slogan: "Life's a beach ... then you jibe."

Vassiliki is the windsurfing Mecca, regarded as one of the top three centres in Europe, and high in the world league for windsurfing. Established in an extraordinary bay on the Greek island of Lefkas, it is renowned for its high winds. The bay is squeezed between the arms of two long hill ranges running parallel out to sea. The protection they afford makes it safer for improving windsurfers to go out in stronger winds.

In the morning, gentle breezes blow, which are ideal for beginners. But in the afternoon "Eric" arrives. The high wind comes roaring off the mountainside, where the goats nibble the ground, and rushes across the bay from right to left, scattering the towels on the beach, and making the afternoons a haven for expert sailors.

Maybe I was getting out of my depth, I thought, as the bus - a beaten up old motor coach with glass down the sides of the seat where the window had smashed in some earlier accident - lumbered down the hillside toVassiliki. The old port is the usual picturesque Greek taverna-ringed haven; all bobbing fishing boats, lights through the trees like strings of pearls, fish biting for titbits, and the distant thump of discos.

I had feared that the hotel we would be staying at would be a jumping, all-night, open-air discotheque, but I need not have worried. The simple rooms facing the beach were a two-mile walk along the pebbly beach from the town, and as quiet as the lapping Mediterranean at night. The loudest sound came from the screeching family of swallows which had nested over our bedroom door.

Vassiliki town, a hard tramp over stoney beach - I broke the sole of a Timberland deckshoe on one outing - was the place to eat at night. After a hard day on the water, it was all we could do to walk back after the evening meal and collapse into bed.

In the morning, the wind would riffle through the white curtains of our room, like a challenge to get up and get on the water. The tour operators, specialists in sailing, windsurfing and mountain biking - you can combine them on this holiday - run RYA courses in the morning and afternoon. I had a choice of rig tuning - getting the sail just right for the board and the conditions; fixing holes in the board; stance on the board, including getting into the back footstraps; and using the harness lines properly.

I needed help to graduate from pottering around on a long board to full- on racing style windsurfing, hooked in and leaning out,from the back of short board in high winds. Lucy provided it. She was the Baywatch-type babe that "Morrissey" from Brighton drooled over. Clad in a wetsuit, she took me out for private tuition on the mysteries of the water start. This is a technique which involves lying in the water, and waiting until the wind kicks up to lift you back on to the board. No pathetic uphauling on this course.

I laid back in the water waiting for the big lift. Nothing. Eric had deserted me, but not Lucy. She waited patiently as, time and again, I flopped back into the water. The light wind was pushing me across the bay, into the fast lanes which the Germans used like autobahns on Fanatic 2.60s. Lucy decided to lift me into the rubber dinghy and take me back to the beach.

Morrissey was green with envy when he saw me being manhandled into the boat by his beach babe. It was one of the compensations for being hopeless at the water start in low winds. But before the end of the week, Eric blew hard, and I tried again. Blasting out two miles in a force five wind was better even than being manhandled by a Pamela Anderson lookalike.

The board reared up, and took off like a thoroughbred, with me hanging on for the ride of my life. And when I crashed, I managed to water start.

I never quite made it into the footstraps. But then that is my excuse for going back again to "Vass".

Colin Brown paid pounds 564 for seven days' self-catering with Sunworld Sailing (01273 626284). The price includes flights, transfers, tuition, and a wide choice of windsurf boards. Boards available were 60 Mistral, Fanatic, Tiga, Bic Funboards (320-365); 60 shortboards, Mistral, F2, Bic, Tiga and Fanatic. There are six Elite boards - Mistral Edge (268) and Energiser (278) for exclusive use for an extra pounds 40 per week. Royal Yachting Association: 01703 627400.

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