Self-confessed landlubber Helen Ochyra sets herself a challenge – learn how to sail a dinghy, singlehanded, in just a week.
Greece is the ideal place to learn how to sail. It's not just the clichés, myths and shipping heritage. Gently lapping Ionian waves, sheltered bays and sloping beaches abound, whether you're on the mainland's rugged coast or on the islands. And Sivota, on the west, more or less opposite Corfu, provides the perfect calm waters – and calmish winds – in which to learn the ropes.
Lessons began on a pebbly beach at the base of a dramatically rising cliff, where a makeshift classroom of wooden benches and a surprisingly small-looking boat had been set up in the shade of pine trees. Wearing a particularly fetching lifejacket, which some of the instructors referred to as an 'impact vest'!
Sailors love jargon and our instructor, Tom, was comfortably throwing around such words as tiller extension, sheet (actually a rope) and boom, while we stared wide-eyed in nervous silence. Fortunately, this was a practical lesson and one by one we took turns to clamber into the beached boat to be shown how to operate it.
It was, mercifully, simpler than it sounded. Sitting on one side of the boat (whichever side the sail is not currently on), you held the sheet in one hand and the tiller extension in the other. To turn, you push the tiller extension across the boat, followed it with your body weight by crouching in the boat's centre, and waited for the boom to swing across – then you could sit up on the other side. Having practised a few times, we were all feeling confident as we waded into the water to collect our boats; one-man dinghies. And this was where I began to come unstuck.
In safe water and safer hands
I have what I consider to be a very healthy fear of the sea, and the thought of being alone on the waves in a boat after all of ten minutes of lessons, was, frankly, terrifying. I needn't have worried. Thanks to the sloping tree-clad rocky cliffs which hemmed us in on all sides, it was a virtually wind-free day in our beginner-friendly bay, giving us all plenty of time to get acquainted with our boat's controls. And just in case the wind did change, funnelling down between the rocky escarpments and into our sheltered bay, Tom was ever-present in a bright orange powerboat, which was capable of hauling us back to the beach if trouble arose.
After an hour or so sailing, we returned to land and, feeling confident, retreated to the bar to discuss how easy this sailing lark was, while the sun set over our new playground, the Ionian sea. After a half-litre of harsh Greek red wine and a couple of (ill-advised) ouzos, I had visions of challenging Ellen MacArthur to a race around the Ionian islands and headed to bed looking forward to the next day.
I dreamt of skimming across the turquoise waters, in total command of my boat, the salty sea breeze in my hair. At what seemed an eye-blearingly early 9am, Tom was waiting with a blackboard which appeared to have been used for a GCSE maths class earlier that morning. In fact, it was our lesson for the day. Subject: pneuma, or wind. I've always been a landlubber and, to me, wind is something that is either there or not.
Tack, jibe, beam...what do they all mean?
It turned out to be a little more complicated than that. Tom advised us that if we didn't want to end up somewhere on the north coast of Africa we needed to get to grips with it, and started talking about how to tack and jibe to stay on a beam. It all sounded rather tricky to me. With the help of what looked like the tube map drawn in pink chalk lines, things started to make a little bit more sense. Basically, you can't sail into the wind as the sail will flap straight out behind the boat and you'll remain motionless. Instead, you have to sail a line across the wind in a manoeovre called a beam reach. To sail downwind you zigzag across the wind on diagonal lines called training runs and to move upwind you criss-crossed across it on lines called close hauled. With Tom's diagram lodged firm in my head, I felt quietly confident that I would master my boat.
It started well. My classmates and I sailed across the beam reach, tacking (turning into the wind) and jibing (turning away from the wind) in very narrow figures of eight, everyone whizzing back and forth at speed.
Ready for a challenge
From his powerboat, Tom shouted that it was time to leave the shelter of our now-familiar bay and head out to sea. Everything went according to plan until suddenly the wind picked up and I was whipped along – fast. I began to realise that much of what had happened so far had been more luck than judgement and I didn't really have control of my vessel. I decided to turn my boat back towards the others, but the wind was much stronger than the previous day and before I had time to crouch down in the centre of my boat the boom swung over at speed and hit me on the head.
I decided the best course of action was to return to the sheltered bay, but sadly my boat (or possibly the wind) didn't agree, instead taking me out even further towards Corfu. Fortunately, my predicament had not escaped Tom's watchful eye and, while I continued to struggle with getting my sail under control, he sped to my rescue. Although not quite a white stallion, the orange powerboat – and the freckled, tanned face – were a very welcome sight and I gratefully gave up my pride for a tow back to shore.
Fortunately I was not the only one to lose control and, apart from 13 year old Jake who seemed to have grasped the rudiments of how to sail instantly, we were all looking a little green around the gills as Tom debriefed us.
Bruises and bedtime stories
Stories of capsizing and confusion were popular in the bar that night, as were comparisons of bruises. I was so busy worrying about the loss of a few brain cells earlier that I hadn't noticed the fiery shade of red my knees had become thanks to all that speedy crouching and kneeling.
I resolved not to be beaten and, rather than returning to bed licking my wounds, I asked Tom to draw me the points of sail diagrams again, determined to commit them to memory by morning. Our final day with the dinghies dawned bright and breezy, and with the points of sail now firmly etched on my mind, I felt ready to get back on to the open sea. Knowing this was our last chance we were all early to the beach that morning, impact vests and confident smiles at the ready. Tom went through the routine one last time before we unleashed the boats and pushed off into the bay. I didn't know if it was the repetition, my new understanding of wind, or my regained sea legs, but I resisted the urge to panic after leaving the bay and sailed out at speed, operating my boat almost without thinking. I was even able to admire the stunning scenery.
I'd got it! Sailing isn't about confusing jargon, fancy yachting equipment or daring tales of at-sea adventures, it is about getting from A to B. As long as people have travelled, they have used boats, and now I had grasped the basics, that vision of me exploring the Ionian islands on the water had moved a little bit closer. Maybe I'll be giving Ellen MacArthur a run for her windcheater yet.
Helen Ochyra travelled with Neilson (0845 070 3460/www.neilson.co.uk) which offers a seven-night Beachplus Club holiday to Sivota from £420 off-peak, including dinghy sailing tuition, flights from Gatwick to Greece with Thomas Cook Airlines, accommodation and most meals.
Eat & drink
Escape the package vibe and head into the small fishing village of Sivota for dinner, where several low-key tavernas along the harbourfront vie for custom. It's a short 20-minute walk, but is a strenuous climb on the way back.
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