“There is nothing – absolutely nothing- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing.” Kenneth Grahame in The Wind in the Willows.
Messing around in boats is one of life’s great joys, so I’m told. Sailing is the latest passion in my family – we’ve even bought a small boat.
I’ve never tried sailing before so imagine my shock to find myself clambering aboard our new boat this weekend at Ullswater in the Lake District.
Tripos had arrived from Wales after a five-hour road trip.
I’ve never been too sure about boats but my partner Tony has become obsessed with sailing over the last year. But will I catch the bug too and prove to be a competent crew member?
Tripos is a 17 feet long yawl, a type of dinghy, built in a traditional style that reminds me of a Dutch yacht without a cabin.
It looks really pretty with its deep blue body, wooden masts and billowing, cream sails.
The excitement was huge as Tripos was unveiled on Ullswater’s lakeside.
The Glenridding Sailing Centre is a great place to sail a new boat. It runs classes for beginners and everyone is friendly and full of practical suggestions and advice.
Early on, they’d twigged that I was a sailing virgin. Perhaps it was my lack of aptitude with the knots or my borrowed life jacket that gave the game away? And the look of pure fear in my eyes!
Tony had spent weeks reading up about the boat and getting up to speed on sailing techniques, having passed his dinghy and crew courses only a few months earlier.
We had all the books and theory but not much actual experience of sailing a boat this size.
We’d also watched all the classic disaster sailing movies – All Is Lost, Dead Calm and The Perfect Storm. Essential for Hollywood’s top tips on what to do when things go wrong on deck.
The idea was to start ‘sailing trials’ on what we hoped would be an easy stretch of water – Ullswater in the English Lakes.
But would it be a case of plain sailing or being all at sea?
As a land lover, I’ve always been uneasy on water, perhaps because of my fear of the sea. Worse still, I can’t swim which makes me feel very exposed.
Constantly, I have to remind myself that the only thing that lies between the waves and death by drowning is my buoyancy aid!
So Tony was sent out on his own on the boat’s maiden voyage. “I know all the theory, it’s just the practice I need,” he proclaimed rather ominously as he launched the boat.
I blame Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books which Tony read as a child. These days he’s more likely to be spotted reading Sailing and Watercraft Monthly.
All was going well with the launch but soon Tony got stuck in shallow waters by the jetty. Fortunately for him, the sailing club’s rescue boat was on hand to set him on a straight course.
I confined myself to taking photos from the shore and talking to the master mariners on the lakeside who were keen to observe our new boat – a Swallow Boats Bayraider 17.
Putting the sails up looked slightly clumsy but soon Tony was sailing into the wind around the small island in the centre of the lake.
There was no stopping him – well, until he drifted slightly off course. His return to the jetty wasn’t too disastrous but lacked a little finesse.
I hadn’t intended to get into the boat till he’d become more accustomed to her pace and the technical stuff.
But Tony was adamant that it would be plain sailing now that he’d grasped the basics of the boat.
So it was with some surprise that I found myself taking to the water. But midway through the trip, it became clear that I wouldn’t be a passenger. I was expected to do some of the hard work on board.
The weather couldn’t have been better – a sunny, clear day with only a little breeze to push us along at a gentle pace. The lake was – to my great relief – as flat as a pancake.
After a bit of a scare putting up the main sail when I nearly got decapitated by a falling boom, we were off up the lake to explore its islands and bays.
So far so good. It was really great sailing along at a relaxing pace. I felt at one with nature and the scenery. A cormorant whizzed by and a buzzard hovered above on the thermals.
I was learning the sailing lingo too – there’s the jib, main and mizzen sails plus something called ‘the halyard’ which sounds like a character from Harry Potter.
I even had a go on the tiller and didn’t manage to crash into any other boats. This was fun despite a few glitches with the rudder and sails. Everything kept on get twisted – it was clear we needed better on board housekeeping.
Back on the quayside, after a third trip without any incidents, we congratulated ourselves on our improved sailing technique.
This sailing malarkey was better than I’d thought.
Next day, the weather looked ominously dark and cloudy over the lake with only a few gusts of wind.
We figured that it mightn’t be ideal sailing weather but decided to head off anyway.
After a smooth launch, we headed up to Norfolk Island in the centre of Lake Ullswater but it soon became clear that not all was well.
The centreboard had become stuck. A loose string has become wedged in, looking it up and reducing the boat’s ability to sail and keep in line.
Despite repeated attempts to dislodge it, it wouldn’t budge. We were stranded in the middle of the lake with the Ullswater Paddle Steamer heading straight towards us.
You learn quickly when you’re a beginner. You’ve got to keep calm and think straight. So down came the sails to stop the boat being pushed into the path of the steamer. Collision averted!
But then we were stuck, bobbing around, stranded 600 metres from the jetty.
I was starting to realise that this sailing adventure had turned from an adventure into a near-emergency.
With no outboard motor, we had only one choice – to row to the shore. Tony took out the borrowed oars and manfully rowed us towards the jetty.
But the wind had started to blow a hooley and it was getting harder and harder to row against its force.
Feelings of elation had changed into frustration and fears that we were going to have to wave to the rescue boat.
Lesson number two – buy yourself an onboard motor for £550 in case of this type of emergency.
Finally, we made it back on shore feeling exhausted.
But how to fix the boat? Experts were on hand to suggest how to get the centreboard unstuck. We tried everything from a long pole to a sledgehammer and power drill.
Eventually, Tony and his new sailing chum managed to unscrew the unit and get the centreboard untangled.
Lesson number three – always check that the boat’s centreboard isn’t stuck before you leave the safe waters of the yacht club!
Stuck in the middle
Undeterred, we decided to head back out onto the lake. A helpful sailing man advised us to stick with the jib and mizzen sails but leave the main sail down till we got into the centre of the lake.
At first, this seemed like good advice as the boat sailed along quite gently but when we attempted to put up the main sail, we were hit by a sudden, large gust of wind.
The yard (the big stick at the top of the boat) came tumbling down, I caught it before it went overboard and the boat tilted wildly over to one side.
Still, we didn’t end up in the water but my heart was beating faster and faster. The gentle experience of sailing had turned stressful.
Although we weren’t in any physical danger, it felt scary and out of control.
We limped back to the shore with unpredictable, ever-changing winds buffeting us around.
Trying to manoeuvre in any direction was really hard as the wind kept dropping and shifting. Tony was looking uneasy which didn’t help my frayed nerves.
It took what seemed like an age to get near the jetty – and eventually Tony had to resort to using the oars to get us back in successfully.
Phew – was I glad to be back on dry land!
So much for supping champagne on board during the maiden launch. That pleasure will have to wait till we know what we’re doing on board.
But I have discovered sailing in weird weather conditions, the different types of boats and the basics of what’s what on our dinghy. It has been a steep learning curve.
As we moored the boat, an old sailor regaled me with his Ullswater ‘disaster’ stories. There was the crew who – earlier this week – took their mast off in the trees trying to moor their yacht by a quiet bay.
Then there was the capsized boat which pulled its expert sailor underneath and tangled him up in its loose ropes. He only escaped because he had a penknife.
Lesson four – always carry a Swiss army knife close to your person.
He also suggested doing the intermediate crew course which covers falling overboard, emergencies and sailing in tricky conditions.
By now, I was feeling a bit like a nervous wreck. But at least there are no sharks in Ullswater – it is, however, renowned for its tricky wind conditions.
“Experts say if you can sail on Ullswater, you can sail anywhere”, a seasoned sailor told me as I took off my life jacket.
Mucking around in boats is great fun but you need to have your wits about you. And where is Sir Ben Ainslie when you need an expert pair of helping hands?
Whilst this sailing thing is exciting, next time I go out on the water, I’ll be taking a few more precautions – a pen knife, a remote radio and an outboard motor!
Rather like this dog wearing a special canine buoyancy aid, a man’s best friend is his – or her – life jacket.
Tammy’s travel and sailing tips – Ullswater
Ullswater is located in the northern Lake District in the north-west of England.
The Glenridding Sailing Centre is located in Glenridding village. The club runs classes and courses for all abilities and age groups. You can also hire a canoe, kayak or small dinghy. It’s a very friendly club with lots of great experts who can help.
Always wear a life jacket or buoyancy aid. Dogs on board also need one.
Listen to the experts (not me) and tap into their wealth of experience. Learn the art of sailing – don’t plunge straight in.
Do your homework when going out on the water. Read the weather conditions carefully, take a compass and try to judge the wind direction accurately.
Don’t go beyond your limits. Ask for help before you leave or call for the rescue crew if you get into trouble on the water.
For those who don’t want the challenges of sailing their own boat, try a trip on the leisurely Ullswater steamer from Howtown to Glenridding.
There are plenty of places to stay overnight in Glenridding from large hotels like the Best Western and the Inn on the Lake to smaller B & Bs or camp sites.