There are rewards for graduating from dinghies to yachts. Just ask the dolphins. By Richard Thomson
Crawling blearily from a warm sleeping bag into the chill cockpit of a yacht an hour before dawn , I am rarely at my best. As I took the watch after a fitful sleep this particular morning, we were somewhere in the Irish Sea. I felt cold, tired and hungry. Why, I kept wondering, was I there?

But as the sun came up in a clear, pale sky we were joined by dolphins, at least 10 of them, and my question was answered. For nearly an hour they leapt and shimmied around the boat in a dazzling display of synchronised swimming. When I leaned down from the bow, I could almost touch the nearest of them skimming just below the surface and only inches from the hull.

Then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, our escort vanished leaving my morale completely restored. Once we had reached Ireland, sunk a few pints of Guinness, had a wash and a sleep, sailing again seemed an entirely satisfying way of spending my time.

Although I had messed about on dinghies when I was younger, a stretch of free time allowed me the opportunity to fulfil a long-held ambition to learn yacht sailing. There is a structured course designed by the Royal Yachting Association and taught by most of the sailing schools that crowd around Britain's coast. If he or she want, a complete beginner can follow it through various levels of competence all the way up to Yachtmaster, which qualifies you to skipper commercial charter boats.

But although this is internationally recognised as some of the best yacht training in the world, there is no obligation to follow it. Britain is one of the last western European countries that still does not require anyone out on the water to hold a formal sailing qualification. Thanks to the EU, however, that exemption is unlikely to last for very much longer, so gaining some qualification makes sense. In any case, boat charterers in countries such as Spain increasingly insist on seeing some formal proof that the customer knows what he's doing.

David Meacock, founder of Go Sail, a small school in East Cowes, had the unenviable task of teaching me the rudiments of navigation during an intensive five-day onshore theory course. A month later I was out on his yacht for another five days to put my new skills into practice. To my amazement, I found I could work out courses to steer, allowing for tides and obstacles, without running us aground or getting lost.

There was also tuition in the tricky art of handling several tons of expensive plastic without impaling it on pontoons, buoys or other immovable objects. By the end of the week, I was a Day Skipper qualified to sail inshore during daylight hours. Unfortunately, I never picked up David's knack of cooking a gourmet goulash with the boat leaning at 45 degrees.

Pottering about the Solent is fun, but sooner or later you need to widen your horizons on the open sea. Later in the year I signed up with John Franks, one of the most experienced instructors on the south coast, who specialises in longer cruises. We set off in blazing sunshine along the West Country, stopping at Dartmouth and Fowey along the way.

Rounding Land's End one evening, Cornwall vanished in the dusk astern and we set off into the night across the Irish Sea with a following wind and me as navigator. John's style is to leave you to it, to make your own mistakes while he vanishes below to do a crossword. This is mildly unnerving until you discover that if anything looks like going seriously wrong, the skipper materialises - as if from nowhere - with a gentle suggestion that will sort things out. Once you get used to it, this technique is actually a boost to your confidence, and after an uneventful night I was proud to find we had reached Ireland very nearly where I had planned.

Then the wind dropped leaving us with no option but to sample copious amounts of Guinness in tiny fishing harbours, such as Dunmore East, tucked into folds of the rocky coastline. It was a boat full of hangovers that started home again two days later.

By then, however, I was growing so confident of my navigational skills that rounding the rocks and lighthouses of Land's End in the dark seemed almost routine. By the time we cruised past the Needles and into the Solent two weeks after setting out, I had completed another stage in the RYA course. After a little more onshore tuition and a brief exam I qualified as a Coastal Skipper, able to sail up to 20 miles offshore in day or night.

The next project? To charter a boat and sail a group of friends across the Channel without an instructor an board. Even if my navigation goes slightly awry, it would be difficult to miss France completely.

Where Richard Thomson learnt

Go Sail is at 1 Bucklands Court, Castle Street, East Cowes, Isle of Wight PO32 6RB (01983 280220). It offers training to the RYA's standards for Competent Crew, Day Skipper, Coastal Skipper and Yachtmaster levels, plus ocean passages and courses on celestial navigation. A basic, five-day course costs pounds 250 including accommodation on board; this can also be taken as a series of three weekends, price pounds 100 each.

Where else to learn

Other RYA-recognised yacht training schools around the coast of Britain include:

East Anglian Sea School, Studio 1, Fox's Marina, The Strand, Ipswich, Suffolk IP2 8NJ (01473 684884).

Island Cruising Club, 10 Island Street, Salcombe, Devon TQ8 8DR (01548 843481).

Solent School of Yachting, The Quay, Warsash, Southampton SO31 9FR (01489 583066).

Who to ask

The Royal Yachting Association is the governing body for sail-training in the UK. A full list of recognised teaching centres is available from RYA House, Romsey Road, Eastleigh, Hants SO50 9YA (01703 629962).

Sailing by...

Cowes Week takes place 29 July-5 August; details from Cowes Combined Clubs, 01983 295744.

The 605-mile Fastnet race begins in Cowes on 5 August and ends in Plymouth several days later (depending on weather). More information from the organising body, the Royal Ocean Racing Club (0171-493 2248).