Sailing can be divided into two basic categories - dinghies and yachts. Dinghies are small, fast, manageable and cheap. They are also as much fun on small stretches of water, such as reservoirs and gravel pits, as on a coastal bay. Yachts, by contrast, are unimaginably expensive to both buy and maintain. However, if you obtain a Yachtmaster's certificate from the Royal Yachting Association, you can charter (ie hire) ocean-going craft anywhere in the world, and have all kinds of non-bank-breaking adventures.
The Royal Yachting Association (RYA) is an umbrella organisation that controls the teaching and instruction of sailing, windsurfing and power boating. Its aim is to blow the elitist image of sailing and make the sport accessible to ordinary folk like you and me. It does this by accrediting sailing schools around the country, all of which offer both yachting and dinghy sailing course certificates on an ascending scale.
For dinghies - offering real bend-back-over-the-water excitement in front of a good wind - the RYA has five certificates to coax you from nervous beginner to a skipper of racing ability. The dinghies themselves reflect this progression - from the charmingly named Optimist, for total beginners (and children) up to the streamlined Laser and Mirror range. The RYA sailing schools provide craft with all training but, should you decide to get really serious, they are relatively cheap to buy and involve minimal maintenance costs. Each RYA dinghy course takes about three or four days to complete and can be done as a residential holiday or spread over afternoons or evenings.
If sailing round the Caribbean - or the Scottish coast for that matter - is more your fantasy, then go for the RYA's Yachtmaster course. The only snag is that in order to do this you need to first obtain a Competent Crew, then Day Skipper, then Coastal Skipper qualification, in which you must log 2,500 hours in tidal waters, live aboard a cruising yacht for a minimum of 50 days, make five passages of more than 60 miles, acting as Skipper for two of them, and with two other passages being overnight! It's hard work, but with a Yachtmaster, not only do you have the freedom of the world's oceans, but you'll sit on the right hand of God as far as the sailing community are concerned. People will buy you drinks and want to crew for you.
So what will it cost? Residential five day courses for any of the dinghy certificates average out at around pounds 250 to pounds 300, while non-residential courses generally come in around pounds 50 cheaper. A five-day course should get you through two RYA levels. The prices for yachts are a bit more: for example a five-day Competent Crew course will set you back about pounds 400, residential, while the six-day Coastal Skipper course comes in at pounds 50 or so more. Yachtmaster certificates are pounds 500 and up. These tariffs might seem steep, but you will spread them out over several years, and by the time you come to actually charter yachts, you will be splitting the costs with the rest of the crew (and they won't have a Yachtmaster certificate, so you can shout at them and tell them what to do).
If you do get hooked and decide to buy a boat, go for dinghies - they are cheap. New beginner boats come in between pounds 1,000 and pounds 2,000 but your sailing school should be able to sort you out with something second-hand for less. You will then have to buy a trailer, so you can pull it from your car - about pounds 200; and a sail for pounds 200 to pounds 600 depending on the size of boat you buy. Don't think about buying a yacht - hire them instead. Prices for the smaller craft are around pounds 1,000 for ten days, but you will split this cost, so it works out affordable.
Now, where to learn? There are scores of RYA accredited inland and coastal schools around the country. If you need a school near to London, try the Shadwell Basin Project, in Wapping, which offers cheap, non-residential dinghy courses up to advanced level. If you would rather make a holiday of it, the Falmouth School of Sailing has accommodation to suit any budget, from camping to luxury hotels, and some of the most intensive instruction in the country.
sailing fact file
Action Guide to Britain (Havill Press) by Rupert Isaacson, available from most bookshops.
Falmouth School of Sailing
The Board park, Falmouth, Cornwall TR11 4AU. Tel: 01326 373203.
Season: Open all year. Accommodation: Choice of all budgets. Children: Eight and up for dinghies, 16 and up for yachts. Disabled: Disabled clients can be accommodated, especially blind and physically disabled. Insurance: Required. Can be provided by centre. Safety: Staff are first-aid trained. Rescue boats on hand. Tariffs: Five day dinghy courses pounds 250 to pounds 350 including accommodation, equipment and tuition. Add pounds 100 to pounds 150 for yachting courses. Access: Off the A39 at Falmouth. Trains and buses both go to Falmouth, pick ups can be arranged from the centre.
Shadwell Basin Project
Glamis Road, London E1 9EE; Tel 0171 481 4210. Tariffs: Six day beginner and advanced non-residential dinghy courses pounds 110. Bookings: 25 per cent deposit on booking, 50 per cent of course fee due if you cancel less than four weeks in advance of course start date. Access: A short walk from Wapping on the Docklands Light Railway.