Sailing in a storm

Growing up with reasonably good access to Poole Harbour (the second biggest natural harbour in the world, you know, albeit with an average depth of just 48cm), it took until I was at university to realise what a waste it was never to have used it, and then the best part of another decade to do anything about it.

Two years ago I did my Royal Yachting Association Level 1 dinghy sailing course; eighteen months ago I did my Level 2. And what I learnt from that is that I don’t like the sea and I’m not a natural sailor.


I still had idyllic visions of hiring a boat – a small one that I could control by myself – and going sailing on beautiful summer days so I booked a taster session to learn how to transfer my so-called sailing skills to a single-hander dinghy. This was in the safety of Poole Park Lake – self-contained, non-tidal, rarely too deep to stand up in, no random sandbanks and shallow places where the dinghy can unexpectedly run aground, relatively sheltered and no need to dodge the speedboats.

That session was on the windiest, greyest, wettest day of the entire year so far – so much so that while clinging to the mast, with no control of our little boat, we commented that this must be the tail end of Irma. I know that’s not in good taste but it was far too windy for two inexperienced sailors.

For there were two of us. My partner-in-sail, Andy, was an older gentleman in actual leather boat shoes and our instructor was the twenty-year-old Lorde-alike Dom who did my level 1 course.

Andy had never sailed at all before so he opted for the larger of the two boats on offer and the centre manager divined that I wasn’t going to be all that happy in a tiny boat on my own behind them and suggested I go in the big boat with Andy and Dom. She was absolutely right. I’d spent the last week wishing I’d never even thought of booking this and I definitely didn’t want to be on my own in a boat I couldn’t handle that I’d already been warned was almost definitely going to capsize.

First job after changing into a wetsuit and buoyancy aid was to rig the boat. This was a 15 foot Vision, which felt a quarter of the size of the 17 foot Wayfarer I sailed last time. I could remember the name of the painter, the masthead float, the toestraps and the transom but muddled up all the ropes, wires and important bits. How to rig it all? Not a clue. Luckily it was a taster session so Dom did most of it, talking us through it as she went, re-introducing me to mainsheets and halyards and kickers. Given the high winds, we furled the jib and reefed the mainsail – or in plain English, we went out to see with minimum flapping cloth to drive us and as it was, we nearly capsized a few times. Actually, we nearly capsized onto the small boats moored on a pontoon at one point. That’s partly the wind, partly Andy’s first ever tack in less than a foot of water right by the edge of the lake. We got rescued by the safety cover, who promptly got our painter wrapped around – no, tied around – the propeller of his little plastic motorboat, rescued ourselves instead and limped away into more open water.

We also nearly capsized out in the more open water away from the edge. A gust caught us as we were turning – most likely an unscheduled gybe forced by the weather – and the boat tipped. Dom unhooked her feet from the toestraps ready to fall backwards into the water, I squealed and flung myself at the opposite gunwale, right on top of Dom, and with Andy also sitting on that side steering, the combined weight of the three of us managed to resettle the boat.

Tacking under Andy’s control was difficult. The boat started to turn and then we all hung on, leaned to whichever side we needed to level the boat and asked it to please please turn, just come round, please turn, turn, turn…

We did get a bit stuck head to wind at one point out in the less sheltered part of the lake when the boat decided not to turn. Despite the gale battering it and the fact that we managed to slowly rotate in every direction – until I’d lost track of which way we were hoping to end up pointing – the boat refused to move. Even Don’s expertise were mostly prayer-assisted. However, although the boat rocked and wobbled, it didn’t feel in too much danger of actually capsizing and although I was spread-eagled across the front, clinging to the mast, leaning port and starboard depending on which way the boat rocked and wobbled, I’d stopped being too badly alarmed, at least for the moment. Of course, if we really were stuck out in the lake, unable to get back to shore within the next half an hour, I’d be scared but I was fairly sure we’d get the boat turned and moving eventually.

With Don’s hands back on both tiller and mainsheet, we eventually got moving again and our tacking became quick and clean and efficient. When handled by an expert, that little boat can turn on a sixpence. No need to sail round in a half circle like when Andy tacked, we could literally just turn round on the spot when Dom did it.

Given what had happened under Andy’s control, the ever-rising wind and my own lack of sailing confidence, I declined a go at steering. I was quite happy to be sailed across the lake for the remaining ten minutes of the session before we had to get back, moor and derig. Ballast. That’s my job on a dinghy. Sit on the edge and lean out to stop us capsizing.

I think next time I want to go sailing on a sunny day the prudent thing would be to hire a boat and a skipper to sail it for me. But I know that what I’ll actually finish up doing is booking another Pico lesson in the hope of learning to sail a tiny boat on my own and realise yet again that I’m an earth person, not a water person.