Originally published in The Sunday Times 17 August 1997
Tim Dawson dons his wet suit, takes to a dinghy and gets a lesson in how to stay afloat.
I have got a mouth full of salt water. My wet suit restricts my arms and legs to jerky movements and I have a rope tangled around each limb. Halfway across the stretch of sea that separates Largs and Great Cumbrae, I am flat on my back in the hull of a tiny single-handed dinghy. As the sails flap and catch in the wind, I am destined for another dip in the drink. But as I pull on the ropes – mainly to give myself something to hang onto when I capsize – the boat turns a little further.
The sail fills and as I struggle to sit up and work out where I am going, I can see Cumbrae coming towards me, just as I had intended when I started to turn the boat. And there, up to his waist in water, is my instructor, Chris Nichol. He is a tiny speck on the beach. I can’t hear a word he says, but his gesticulations are expressive. As I went into the turn his arms flailed frantically trying to show me where I was going wrong. But I can see now that he is punching the air with a cheer. Because I have done it – I have learnt to turn the boat – or tack and gybe as I have almost got used to calling it. For the next half hour I sail to and fro, managing the turn with a little less panic each time.
It has taken me eight hours to get this far and it feels like a real achievement. I caught the nine o’clock ferry from Largs and before ten I was in the main teaching room of the national sports centre learning about the theory of sailing. It is, assures Nichol, easier than learning to drive.
“The thing that you must always remember when sailing is that the wind is everything,” he says. “Every time you go out, it will be coming from a different direction or at a different speed,” he says. “It takes a bit of getting used to the idea that each manoeuvre will have to be adapted to the prevailing conditions – it is no good just doing what you did yesterday, if the wind has changed.” With a model boat and a blackboard Nichol demonstrates the theory. Wind this way, sail that way, jib in, daggerboard down. His chalk lines and arrows begin to make sense, but the sea is there in the corner of my eye. I can’t help but worry that my mind will empty as I hit the first wave.
Before each turn on the water, we have to prepare the boat and learn how it should operate to work. Hard though I try, this becomes a confusion of knots, ropes and nautical terms. I am keen to learn and have no doubt that with a few more repetitions I would remember how to tie a figure of eight and recognise the difference between reaching and rigging. For anyone who was after thrills alone, the on-land learning could seem a drag. My first foray onto the water is in a wayfarer – the 40-year-old design of dinghy that has long been a sailing-school staple. Its size and weight give it a lazy predictability in the water and within a few minutes, the rudder and the rope that controls the mainsail are in my hands.
I am far from in control, but feel pleased to be able to carry out the instructions that Nichol – who is sitting beside me – issues. His constant praise for my efforts is encouraging, although I can’t help but worry that it is a teacher’s trick to boost my confidence. My fears are borne out as soon as I set sail in the single-handed Pico. It seems to be little more than a polythene plank with a sail – which is apparently ideal for the young or petite. It feels hopelessly small as I try to shift my 13 stones from one side of the boat to the other as the sail swings above me. In a lively wind it handles like a toboggan at speed – every twitch of the controls sends me swinging and skidding about the water.
However, it is the experience of handling the boat alone from which I get most satisfaction. By my fourth or fifth solo “ready about”, it is as though I have mastered a new sleight of hand. I’m not quite ready to show off my skills, but I can feel them coming along. I climb out filled with enthusiasm to learn how to do this properly when I have time.
I have also developed sufficient appetite for the water to accept a sail in one of the centre’s catamarans. This is in a different league of speed and power. As soon as its sails fill, it cuts through the water as though fired from a catapult. So effectively does it harness the wind that it is necessary to hang from its side on a trapeze wire to counteract the force. As it powers through the surf, cheap 1mg xanax online, half the boat often lifts from the sea.
I am not sure that my turns at the controls amounts to more than overseeing its autopilot mode, but for a few seconds at least, I felt as if I was captaining a cruise missile.
Happy to report that The National Centre at Cumbrae is still offering an excellent package of RYA course – as of June 2013.