FOR the last 26 years, I have remembered Harry Roome, an old school friend, for two things: his ping-pong, which was rather good, and his sailing, which I thought was rather bad. When I was about 11, Harry took me sailing in a dinghy off Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, and when he finally got me back to land on that miserable, bitterly cold day, I swore I would never set foot in a boat again.

Having telephoned Harry's mother to warn her about this article, I now realise that I have been doing him an injustice. Since I lost touch with him, he went on to sail internationally, so perhaps it was his ping-pong that was bad, rather than the sailing.

Either way, I would like Harry to know that all is forgiven. In the space of five days, the Dart Sailing School has converted me from a die-hard aquaphobe to a man who walks around London dreaming of the ocean's mysterious appeal.

This is how the transformation took place. Over the years, I have swum out to yachts moored in foreign bays; they served as points of respite where I hung on to the chain and anchor before returning to the beach. I often thought how nice it would be to stay on the yacht a little longer. But images of Master Roome eventually resurfaced and the thought went.

Then a friend asked whether I would like to join him and a few others on a yachting adventure. He painted such an enticing picture that I decided to give sailing another chance, enrolling on a 'competent crew' course run by the Dart Sailing School in Dartmouth, Devon.

The Royal Yachting Association, the body that governs the course, says it does not expect the competent crew candidate to have any prior knowledge. Beware. If you take this at face value, you will arrive on board with an insurmountable handicap. If, like me, you are part of a crew where one man is taking his yachtmaster exam at the end of the week, you will need to know at the very least your port from your starboard, and your bow from your stern. In such company, even in the first hour when you're finding your sea legs, it's a keel-hauling offence to talk about left and right, front and back.

My salvation was an RYA teach- yourself booklet called Competent Crew - Practical Course Notes, part of which I read before setting off for Dartmouth. It told me that 'The captain LEFT his red PORT wine behind' is how I would remember my left from right. Thanks to the booklet, a ball of string, and the back of a chair that I pretended was a boat, I also knew how to tie a few knots - or thought I did until the course began.

In theory, therefore, I should already have been at least a half-competent crew member when I boarded the yacht D'artagnan of Dart, a Gib'Sea 352 cruiser, one Monday in April. As we cruised out of Dartmouth harbour with the salt on my face and the spray in my hair, it was as if Yarmouth had never happened. I was in an element I had been deprived of for years.

Then I spilt the milk. When the skipper, Martin Williams, emerged from the galley to identify the culprit who had failed to secure everything after making the tea, that glowing feeling began to fade. Oulton the sea dog was now Jim Hawkins, cabin boy - I had a lot to learn if I wanted to be a competent crew.

I had been warned before coming aboard about keeping the yacht shipshape. I wasn't told not to drink tea out of the skipper's mug - which I did once, and never again - but I did get the message that life at sea would be highly regulated, particularly as we were sleeping aboard. Always stow your sleeping bag away. Never forget to coil a rope. Tie the right knot because you may want to release it in a hurry. Keep everything at hand because it may save your life.

In the event, my life was never at risk because we did most of our sailing within hailing distance of Dartmouth. Some competent crew courses sail as far as the Channel Islands, but our yachtmaster candidate, Terry Huckerby, was taking his exam in Dartmouth on the Friday, and this tied us to the area.

We made do with two nights in Torbay and Brixham harbours. It was there that I started to learn how to moor up a yacht. It's pathetic the pleasure you feel when you finally get the hang of securing a rope on a 'cleat'. I also sat in on a navigation lesson, given for the benefit of Terry and my two other colleagues, Bruce Vaughan and Donna Waring, who were doing their day skipper courses.

In theory, I now know how to plot a course from Dartmouth to Cherbourg. However, I also know, in

theory, how to play a top-spin backhand lob on a tennis court, and I've never yet done that and probably never will. Many tears will be shed over my navigational skills as the years go by.

Normally I wouldn't have learnt any navigation, because this is not part of the competent crew course. Although this probably meant I didn't learn as much about knots and general crewing as I should have done, I learnt enough about what lies ahead if I progress in my new sport to want to continue.

For that, I must thank Martin, the instructor who founded the school in 1986, and has turned it into one of the most popular and reasonably priced schools in England. Not only did he forgive me for drinking from his mug, he also let me sleep in his skipper's berth on the two nights he chose to stay at home with his wife. My thanks also to my new-found friends who overlooked my practical deficiencies and were always prepared to show me how to do that figure-of-eight knot again.

For the record, Terry Huckerby passed his yachtmaster exam and has asked me to crew for him from time to time. And I am now the proud owner of a certificate that says I have demonstrated practical ability in all aspects of the course. I'll never be as good as Harry Roome, but at least I'm on my way.

Dart Sailing School, 17 Newcomen Road, Dartmouth, Devon TQ6 9BN. (0803 834896). The Competent Crew five-day course costs pounds 249.

(Photographs omitted)

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