“Right, let’s try that again — we can do better than that. Standby to gybe,” says Sarah Ayrton kindly, taking the tiller from my hands and maneuvering the 26ft racing boat with minimal disruption to our speed and balance, showing me how to fill the sails and maintain our course.
Double Olympic gold medallist Sarah, 34, is brushing up my skills just off the Isle of Wight on a J/80 owned by the UKSA, the official charity for this year’s Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week, which starts today.
Though I pottered about in dinghies as a child, I didn’t start sailing properly until five or six years ago. Loving the sea, fresh air and challenge of learning a new skill, I progressed quickly from cruising with friends to taking a couple of courses in boat skills with the Royal Yachting Association (RYA), moving to the south coast and starting to race.
I am now completely hooked, and have several Channel races and even a transatlantic under my belt — with next year’s Rolex Fastnet race firmly in my sights.
And I’m not alone. Thanks to the London Olympics, Sir Ben Ainslie and his launch of a British challenge for the America’s Cup, interest and participation in sailing is growing.
In June, Cowes played host to the start and finish of the JP Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race, one of the largest yacht races in the world and, perhaps surprisingly, the fourth largest participation sporting event in the UK after the London Marathon and the Great North and South Runs.
The RYA, the governing body for sailing in the UK, has recorded an increase from 1.1 million people sailing in 2012 to 1.3 million last year! Nearly 15.0% growth in one year!
“The profile of the sport is growing – it’s never going to be tennis or football, but Ben Ainslie is now a personality being talked about in a more mainstream way,” says RYA spokesman Louise Nicholls.
The UKSA, where my sailing day with Ayrton is based, teaches the whole gamut of sailing courses, from beginner dinghy to the RYA Yacht-master Ocean, and has seen the number of people through its doors each year increase from 7,500 in 2010 to 9,000 in 2013.
And the number of women competing is growing, too. The organisers of Cowes Week, which runs for a week, report an increase of more than 150 per cent in female participation in the past 15 years – something that Ayrton is keen to see rise even further.
The blonde mother of two, who won Olympic Gold for Great Britain in the Yngling class at the Athens Games, and as one of “three blondes in a boat” at the Beijing Games, has this year returned to racing with The Wave, Muscat, on the Oman Sail team in the Extreme 40 racing series – the closest and fastest yacht racing in the world. Slight of build and only 5ft 6in tall, Ayrton is the only female sailor in her five-strong team crewing a 40ft catamaran. “I do the bits the guys can’t,” she says, grinning.
In June, Ayrton was the only female in the 12-strong fleet of 60 elite-level sailors in St Petersburg, where she picked up the “Above and Beyond Award” presented by Land Rover, for her work with the grassroots sailing community. “I want to dispel this perception that sailing is elitist,” she says as we practice tacking and gybing and talk through the basics of sail trim – setting the sails to get the optimum out of the wind conditions on a beautifully sunny morning.
“I’m passionate about creating opportunities for children and families to enjoy the sport together. Sailing is great for everyone, any age or ability — there’s always something you can bring to the team,” she explains, eyes constantly on the boat, the surroundings and the sails.
Sarah began sailing at the age of eight when a family friend suggested that she and her older brother, Daniel, try the sport at the Queen Mary Sailing Club on a reservoir in Middlesex. “Dad was a courier driver, we were a typical working-class family and money was tight, but it didn’t stop us,” says Sarah. “I ended up crewing for local members and spent every spare moment at the reservoir.”
The turning point in her life came when Olympic sailor Paul Brotherton visited the club, spotted her potential and suggested she try out for the RYA Youth Squad. He later became her coach, and Sarah left school at 16 to take up sailing full-time. “Sailing teaches you so much – your shared experience unites you, there’s a special bond with every team,” she says.
That bond is one of the reasons I love sailing. Being part of JIBE, the J/109 I help crew from Lymington, has changed my life. We are like a little family, racing regularly throughout the year, working together hard on the water and putting a reasonable show of effort in the bar afterwards, too.
The 35ft yacht is owned by Robin Taunt, captain of racing at the Royal Lymington Yacht Club, who kindly answered the note I put on the club’s website when I moved to the area.
Like most owners, Dr Taunt asks for very little financial contribution other than costs of entry and food – often only £10 per day.
“Boats are usually short of crew so if you have an aptitude and some experience, don’t hesitate to try,” says Dr Taunt, who introduced a crew-matching event at the RLymYC several years ago. “Every April we advertise in the local press and people come along and meet the skippers – it’s rather like speed-dating.”
And he advises: “If you want to get into racing, it’s best to do a sailing course first – dinghy sailing or RYA Competent Crew. You have to show good commitment, too – it’s no good turning up three times a year or canceling if the weather is bad.”
No matter the weather, sea air is good for our well-being. Research has shown that the sound of waves alters the patterns in our brain, lulling us into a deeply relaxed state.
So how to start??
“The key is to find a sailing club,” Ayrton says. “Google your nearest RYA sailing school and do an introductory course. There’s a bit of an initial outlay, but the course is a similar price to other sports – if you do tennis or golf, it all adds up to the same. After you’ve done your first week, you can take a boat out at your local sailing club or become part of a crew.
“Just do some research, be bold and put your name on a noticeboard and say you are keen to learn. The sailing community is very friendly and you will definitely get a response.”
Learn to sail yourself
- Find your nearest Royal Yachting Association club: http://www.rya.org.uk
- The Volvo Sailing Academy operates free sessions at 12 venues around the UK for adults and children from eight upwards: http://www.volvocarssailing.co.uk
- UKSA (uksa.org) in Cowes offers the largest range of youth development opportunities and yachting courses for adults in the world.
- Racing: Royal Ocean Racing Club (rorc.org) and Junior Offshore Group (jog.org.uk) have sections on their websites devoted to matchmaking crews with skippers. Be brave and sign up – but be honest about your sailing experience. Thanks for contribution from Abigail Butcher at the Daily Telegraph