There She Blows

By Fiona Sims

There She Blows

We’re not going anywhere fast. Hot Stuff, my 40ft home on the water for the weekend, is doing just four knots and the mainsail is beginning to flap. “How would you fill this out?” asks our skipper Sophie O’Neill.

 “Let the mainsheet out a bit more?” I suggest, staring up at the sail, which is now thrashing violently. “Yes, that would work,” replies O’Neill “but there are other more effective ways to add shape to the sail.”

 I like that - adding shape to the sail. I’m hoping to learn lots of other nautical tricks and terms, too, on this weekend sailing course with girlsforsail.com.

 

I’ve been sailing for years, but mostly as second mate to my father, El Capitan, who rarely relinquishes control enough to learn much more than taking the helm and tying on a few fenders. The sails are usually his domain, while the galley is mine.

Yet this weekend we have been promised a bit of spinnaker action, that bulging three cornered sail set forward of the mainsail that jet propels even the most slovenly of yachts.

Set up in 1999 by Annie O’Sullivan, Girls for Sail is all-female sailing outfit based in Cowes that teaches women how to sail, with the aim of introducing as many women as possible to the world of sailing.

“Sailing is often seen as a male-orientated sport, a rich man’s sport, too, but I was convinced that I could develop a range of competitively priced holidays and weekend breaks that would appeal to women of all ages and abilities. Sailing does not have to be an endurance test – it can be exciting and affordable,” she declares.

Marvellous. No shouty males on board dominating the action (you hear that, Dad?), some female bonding, and, hopefully, some new skills to take home. My fellow female sailors are similarly aged (i.e. middle) and of mixed abilities, with a couple of beginners, another two who want to up their game, which includes me, and one seasoned sailor who just wants to brush up her already extensive skills.

In addition to skipper O’Neill, we get another instructor, Alice Highton, who only learned to sail two years ago after an injury meant her days as a professional dancer were over. “I wanted to do something physical and I love the outdoors and being on the water, so sailing made sense. Now I wouldn’t do anything else,” she grins.

O’Neill, on the other hand, has been sailing since childhood, competing at 16 years old and teaching from 18 years old. ““We don’t shout here, nor do we hurry people. It’s about calm, clear instruction,” says O’Neill, gently, quashing any fleeting moments of panic.

After running us through the rainbow of ropes that run up the main mast (or ‘halyards’ in yacht speak), we learn a new skill – and phrase: ‘sweating the halyard’, which means pulling hard on a particular rope and in this case using two female sailor’s body weight to help hoist the mainsail.

“Women might not be always as physically strong as men, but they have great potential to sail brilliantly using technique, tactics and teamwork,” declares O’Neill. No arguments there.

 

The knot session also proves popular – particularly the bowline, so we can hoist the foresail, and the clove hitch, which keeps the fenders firmly tied, and the yacht’s trim intact.

Another favourite new nautical term we learn over the weekend is how to ‘flake the sail’, basically pack it away into neat folds. “Yes, just like a Cadbury’s Flake – or, as I prefer, a Viennetta,” giggles Highton, which prompts chocolate talk - this is an all-female crew after all.

By Sunday afternoon we are winching the mainsheet like pros and doing clove hitches in our sleep. And did the spinnaker come out? It certainly did. Cue a beautifully billowing sail and some respectable knots.

Day courses start from £69, a beginner’s weekend course starts from £169, contact girlsforsail.com for more info.