Sailing set me free on a voyage of discovery

21 Oct 20
Madeleine writes:

I’m ducking to avoid being bumped on the head by the boom of a dinghy (a Laser Pico named “Happy Soul”), crouching to move to the other side as I complete my first tack – the manoeuvre used to change direction by swinging the sail through oncoming wind.

My instructors, cheering me on from a Rib boat, assure me that I can now count myself a sailor: accompanied by the swooshing of water and the wind in my sail, I’m giddy with elation, having previously viewed sailing as an intimidating ­pursuit reserved only for those who mastered it in childhood.

Inevitably, I capsize soon after – but resurfacing to hoist my weight on to the daggerboard and pop back up is less of a feat than I feared.

When the pandemic saw me decamp to the West Sussex coast, joining the local Royal Yachting Association club, Felpham Sailing Club, was one reason I found myself reluctant to return to London.

Pulling a dinghy up and down a ramp, and using your core strength to lean out of the boat (hiking) to ensure side-to-side balance, is a fantastic way to get active.

And, in a time of uncertainty, focusing on steering the dinghy at hand in the fresh sea air is exhilarating and mind-freeing.

Sailing has left me feeling leaner, stronger and healthier. Not only that, but the community I discovered, with the common ground of a love of the sea – and, naturally, sundowners and the clubhouse’s social events, run by volunteers with social distancing measures in place – relieved the isolation of lockdown, and saw me forge new friendships.

“We’re like an extended family,” says Casey Grainger, the chairman of the Felpham Sailing Supporters Club (for non-sailors and social members).

“Some of our elders see this place as a lifeline, and wouldn’t have managed without the shopping trips we coordinated.”

For me, sailing has also helped me to process the grief of losing my grandmother Stella to the virus.
Her last words of advice had been not to keep talking about all the things I “should” do, and just do them – words I carried with me as I signed up.

I’m not the only one to have experienced sailing as a balm for angst.

Mental health charity Sea Sanctuary in Cornwall ( uses marine-based activities like sailing to lift spirits, paired with professional mental health support for children, families and adults.

“We spend too much time thinking, and not enough time feeling, enjoying life,” says Joe Sabien, the Sea Sanctuary CEO, who discovered sailing following a traumatic childhood in care.

“Therapy tends to be contrived, formal and clinical, but natural environments can be a catalyst for positive change for people who can’t articulate their emotions. Because they’re busy having fun, the tension drops away and conversation flows freely, without expectation.”

The healing power of water is a phenomenon now labelled “Blue Health”: one of the biggest scientific research projects into how blue spaces can benefit physical and emotional health is currently being led by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter.

“Sailing is experiential, beyond language,” suggests Sabien. “The sea is worlds apart from day-to-day life, and offers escapism. If you observe people looking out to sea, they’re full of wonder,” he says.

“People look out for each other, and build trust. Resilience is built the more people rely on themselves: sailing takes people out of their comfort zone and shows them they can do things they never believed they would do.”

From May 13, all forms of water-sports were once again permitted in England, and the RYA is promoting participation in sailing, windsurfing and powerboating at all levels, and offering guidance about the sometimes changing restrictions.

Felpham’s Women on Water sessions during the summer encourage women to get into the sport, and its annual youth regatta was still able to go ahead this year.

“It’s been very rewarding, seeing old friends and new members having fun,” Guy Mayger, the Commodore, tells me. “It’s been wonderful to get back to some sort of normality and restore our community spirit in a difficult year,” adds Paul Miller, the training principal at Felpham, one of 10 finalists in the 2020 RYA and Yachts & Yachting Club of the Year Awards; the winner was Christchurch Sailing Club, in Dorset.

A number of other members I’ve met have also taken it up this year for the first time – though it’s not just here that sailing has taken off post-lockdown, but across the country.

“While we’ve only been able to offer reduced activities, we’ve welcomed a number of new members,” says Fiona Brown, the president of Brightlingsea Sailing Club in Colchester. “Some are experienced sailors returning to the sport or who have moved location; others are novices who have joined to learn and enjoy the many benefits of being by and on the sea.”

There are now around 1,150 RYA clubs in Britain: joining is one of the most affordable, sociable ways to get afloat without owning your own boat – and most offer racing for sailors with a competitive streak (prices vary; at Felpham, I paid an annual fee of £159 to join as a single sailor, and then you can hire a boat for £20 or so depending on what sessions are available, and it’s £43 to join as a social member).

Government and RYA guideance on how Covid 19 restrictions affect watersports is updated at regular intervals.

While the season for sailing at ­Felpham is drawing to a close (it tends to run between March and October), other RYA clubs continue to offer sailing later into the year.

“At Chichester Harbour, you can wrap up warm and sail all year; clubs in lakes and harbours tend to be busier in the winter as people move away from coastal sailing,” explains Miller.

Social events continue throughout the autumn and winter, with members continuing to get together for fundraisers and seasonal celebrations; this year, of course, that will depend on Government guidance.

I’ll never be a Hannah Mills, who won gold at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, or a Ben Ainslie – one of the most successful sailors in Olympic ­history – but this year, I’ve been happy as a sandboy tacking and gybing in beginner boats.

I know my grandmother would be thrilled if she could see me weaving through the waves.

Visit to sign up for a beginner’s course or join a sailing club accredited by the Royal Yachting Association near you.

Felpham Sailing Club is a British Youth Sailing Recognised Club, an RYA Approved Training Centre, and an RYA OnBoard Centre.

This article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph. Photos credit Christopher Pledger.