"Real freedom is born at sea!" J Lanford
Sailing – you either love it or don’t see the point. If you fall in love with it, it can become like a drug – you’re always doing that little bit more than you can afford. A couple of quotes to put it into perspective: “I used to be rich and then I bought a boat” (Martin) “I have never been so terrified going so slow” (unknown) and these are from people who actually like sailing. But there’s just something about it…
Personally I get a real thrill from slicing through water using just the power of the wind. Every time I sail I learn a little more about how to sail faster, sleeker, smarter. Sailing also takes focus and reactivity, and it’s physical, so it really blows the cobwebs away. I always feel like I’ve made the most of my day when I’ve been out on the water.
Crucially, sailing has a reputation as being a sport for the rich, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Play it right and you can get paid to do it.
Dinghy sailing is recognised as the best place to start, or even little catamarans to sail by the beach on holiday. When it gets under your skin there’s yacht sailing, which opens up the whole new world of adventure. Yachts are where sailing can get expensive, but there are ways to minimise the cost and still have all the fun.
Dinghies are little open top boats usually sailed on lakes or by the shore. They are easy to sail, lots of fun and not too expensive. This is roundly acknowledged as the best way to learn to sail. They are very responsive and highly susceptible to the wind so you learn how to harness it, how to capsize (intentionally or not) and experience the adrenalin hit of speed with water rushing just inches past you, powered by the force of nature. All very exhilarating, especially when you figure out what you’re doing.
There are dinghy sailing clubs everywhere, in the UK any RYA (Royal Yachting Association) accredited school is a safe bet. (RYA qualifications are recognised worldwide).
Quite a few resorts now have some kind of boat for beginners, usually catamarans. In warm, clear waters and light winds these are a delightful way to try sailing. If you’re fortunate you’ll get some reasonable instruction beforehand. A lot of all-inclusive resorts have sailing boats available for use free of charge.
Resorts with an accredited watersports facility are a big step up as these will offer more structured training. Neilson are a good example, I’ve sailed and windsurfed with them in Egypt and Turkey where they offered beginner, intermediate and advanced levels of instruction, the cost was included in the holiday package.
If you get the sailing bug, the day will come when you want to go bigger and faster for longer, with shelter and tea making facilities. This is when you venture on to lakes, seas and oceans in yachts, and you can do it without buying one. Experienced dinghy sailors are considered good crew, especially with a few qualifications behind you (all easily achievable through a dinghy sailing club). It’s fairly easy to build up a network of contacts who know people who have yachts. Meetup and Facebook also now have endless groups matching yacht owners with crew. Some groups and skippers charge but quite a few skippers are just looking for crew free of charge, with just a contribution towards food.
Take the opportunities available and you’ll start to learn what type of yacht sailing you like; cruising, racing, long passages, delivery. You’ll also learn a hell of a lot more about boats – yachts are far more complicated than dinghies but also have more potential for adventure.
Having started sailing dinghies at the age of 14, I picked sailing back up in my twenties and have since migrated to yachts. After completing my RYA Day Skipper course I was invited to race during Cowes Week in the UK, a major racing event.
On the water taxi to the boat I was asked by a fellow passenger what I was sailing on. The answer was an X332, a 33 foot sailing yacht, but I didn’t know that at the time, it hadn’t occurred to me to ask. I figured “I’m sailing on a boat” wouldn’t cut the mustard so what I said was “I’m not sure yet.” This was met with a look of incredulity. I didn’t mind though, we’ve all got to start somewhere.
I wasn’t really into the idea of racing, I just wanted to be involved in Cowes Week somehow, but in the end I loved racing, you learn a lot, quickly. As a result of my participation in Cowes Week I was invited to crew in the Fastnet race. When you’re presented with an opportunity, take it. You’ll learn what you do and don’t like and that will steer your course towards your sailing happy place.
Ironically, on land I do everything I can to dodge the cold, rain and wind, but weather is unpredictable and if you’re out on the water without the right gear you could find yourself being helicoptered off the boat with hypothermia. And that’s in addition to the typical hard knocks to your body and clothes from crashing and sliding around the boat.
After my first day’s racing I was covered in bruises and aching all over. I immediately went out and bought the £250 Dubarry boots I’d previously balked at, Musto performance sailing trousers, wicking t-shirt, gloves and knee pads. And that was just for fair weather sailing, and in addition to the kit I already had.
Consequently my en-suite shower is now converted to a wet room and the most expensive items of clothing I own are performance sailing kit. These days I can move and slide around boats in 40 knots of wind being pounded by icy water confidently and comfortably, my hideously expensive sailing wardrobe is worth every penny not just for the practicality but for the fun it allows me to have. Besides, I spent less in the last year on sailing gear than some women spend on a handbag…
Of course at any moment I could decide it’s just not worth the money, but it absolutely is – I’ve loved every bit of my journey from little dinghies on a lake as a teenager to performance yachts, and who knows where next. At the end of a bad day I feel like I can conquer the world, at the end of a good day I want to sell everything and sail the world on a boat for the rest of my days.
Along the way I’ve met fantastically adventurous souls who have shared their experiences and knowledge. Sailing is a community and you won’t be judged by how much money you have but by how much effort you put in and how much enjoyment you get out.
As I write I’m living in Hamble, a sailing community on the south coast of the UK. I’m continuing my sailing education with the RYA, crewing on racing yachts when it appeals and on cruising yachts owned and run by my old dinghy sailing club, for which I get paid. And each year, my sailing family grows every bigger!
In writing this article I asked the Facebook Sailing community for their insights, I’ll leave you with some of the top quotes they shared with me:
“All plans are written in the sand at low tide” (Kirstie Henry Weiss)
“Sailing is 99% bliss and 1% terror” (Melinda Taylor)
“A calm sea never made a skilled sailor” (George Galdin)
“There are two types of sailors; those who have run aground…and those who are going to run aground” (Kristian Vagsbygd)
“A boat is a hole in the water that you throw money into” (John Doyle)
“Sailing: The fine art of getting wet and becoming ill while slowly going nowhere at speed” (Hans van der Zeijden)