GBR: From today’s Daily Telegraph “A sailing lesson with Dame Ellen MacArthur”

GBR: From today’s Daily Telegraph “A sailing lesson with Dame Ellen MacArthur”

First-time sailor Paul Kendall takes a lesson in riding the waves from Dame Ellen MacArthur .

A sailing lesson with Dame Ellen MacArthur

I can safely say I’ve never, in my entire life, had any desire to go sailing. Paying to sit on deck, sipping a cold beer while other people climb the rigging and man the tiller has always suited me just fine. It’s true that I did once don a sailor’s uniform, complete with a doughboy hat and stick-on handlebar moustache, but that was forced upon me by my so-called best man during my stag weekend. And the attention it attracted in the pub we went to for drinks later in the evening was enough to put me off the nautical life forever.

Which is why I was as surprised as anyone, 10 months on, to find myself on my way to the Isle of Wight to have a sailing lesson.

Three things had changed my mind: first, I’d finally forgiven my best man. Second, Cowes Week in the Isle of Wight was coming up, and I’d always thought that anything that had been part of the sporting calendar for as long as Cowes had – the regatta was first held in 1826 – and managed to attract more than 10,000 spectators every year, must have something going for it. And last, but by no means least, my teacher was not going to be some salt-encrusted mariner smelling of fish; it was to be Britain’s most famous yachtswoman, the inspirational Dame Ellen MacArthur.

Few people alive today embody the great British tradition of extreme fortitude better than Dame Ellen. In her extraordinary career, the 35 year-old has won two classic transatlantic races and set a new world record for sailing non-stop around the globe. Her lonely battles with monstrous waves and horrific weather, which she famously recorded in a series of emotional video diaries, endeared the 5ft 3in champion to millions and propelled her to the status of national treasure.

In person, however, Dame Ellen wears her achievements lightly. I know nothing about sailing, but as we approach our boat for the day, a Laser SB3 keelboat, she’s considerate enough to stop and show me how to get on to the boat from the quay.

“Step over this,” she says, pointing at a wire. “Turn around backwards, holding on to the rail, and lower your foot down on to the side of the boat.” I feel a bit foolish struggling to complete such a basic procedure when my companion has just told me about the time she had to climb up a 100ft mast in a force-eight gale to fix a sail, but she is so unstarry she puts me at my ease.

As soon as we’ve made our way out of Cowes Harbour, she starts the lesson. “One of the most important things you have to be able to do is tell where the wind is coming from,” she says. “That’s pretty fundamental.”

If you can work out the direction of the wind, then you can work out where to position the sails to take advantage of its power. There are two principal manoeuvres she demonstrates: tacking (turning the boat so the wind exerts pressure on the opposite side of the sail) and gybing (the same thing, but reserved for when the boat has the wind behind it).

After a few attempts, I start to get into some sort of rhythm, pulling on the appropriate rope to move the mainsail or the jib and scurrying under the boom when we change direction.

To give it extra authenticity, Dame Ellen insists on calling, “Ready about!” (“Is everybody ready?”) before we turn and “Lee-ho” as we swap sides.

She then shows me how to put up the spinnaker, an extra-large sail for sailing downwind, and gives me a tutorial on using the tiller.

It’s not easy to sail in a straight line; the wind and the waves are constantly moving the boat one way or the other. It’s important to keep an eye on your telltales, the small pieces of ribbon attached to either side of the sails. If the inside telltale is loose and fluttering, then the sail is too loose, she says, and you need to pull in the rope a couple of feet. If the outside is loose, let the sheet out.

You can’t relax for a second. (How Dame Ellen kept on top of everything on her own, on a boat three times the size of this one, in some of the world’s most hostile seas, God only knows.)

But, towards the end of my lesson, as the breeze picks up and we speed towards The Needles, I feel for the first time like I have some sort of control over the boat. It’s an exhilarating feeling and I’m starting to see why she, and millions of others, love sailing so much.

But I’m a bit late to the party. Dame Ellen gave up competitive sailing three years ago to concentrate on her two charities: the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, which organises sailing trips for young cancer sufferers, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a group that campaigns for sustainable development.

But it’s obvious, even on our mini trip out of Cowes, that her passion for sailing remains. Can she definitely say, hand on heart, she will never race again?

“Yes,” she replies. “Because I’ve realised there’s a much greater challenge out there. Our world has finite resources and we’re using them at a very fast rate. I’ll never ever lose that passion [for sailing] because it’s me, but I’ve never come across a challenge that matters more than this.”

She sounds every bit as determined as she was in her attempts to circumnavigate the globe. And, from a selfish point of view, if I take up sailing seriously, there’ll at least be one less tough competitor to worry about.


Choose calm, uncrowded waters

Begin on a boat rigged with one sail

Research tide, wind and weather conditions before you set off

Become familiar with sail control. In general, sails should be relatively flat when the wind is either very light or very strong and full when there is a moderate wind

Capsize on purpose. Better to practise in a controlled environment

Respect the boom. To avoid a bump to the head, or even worse, being knocked overboard, always be aware when the boom is about to swing

Learn the sailing lingo

1 The West coast of Scotland – stunning scenery and crystal-clear water

2 The Essex coast and Thames Estuary. Full of beautiful old barges

3 Any lake, especially lakes with islands. Swallows and Amazons territory – it reminds me of being a kid

4 Inland waterways

5 The Solent – a lovely protected piece of water with stunning rivers

TelegraphPlayer-8677882 By Paul Kendall
7:00AM BST 05 Aug 2011

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