Winning weekends: Sailing in Poole

Is Olympics fever inspiring you to try a new sport? Or just do something active? Marie Claire goes for gold in the great British countryside

Is Olympics fever inspiring you to try a new sport? Or just do something active? Marie Claire goes for gold in the great British countryside.

‘If you decide to take up sailing, at some point you will fall overboard, so you’ll need to learn to capsize. Not today [relief], but maybe tomorrow [mild panic],’ says my sailing instructor Tom 15 minutes into my first lesson. At that moment, I am suddenly grateful for three things: one, my wetsuit; two, my lifejacket and three that I’ll be sailing in water I can stand up in, which makes Poole Harbour one of the safest places to learn the sport in the UK.

Tom talks a lot about capsizing during my two Start Sailing lessons at the Watersports Academy in swanky Sandbanks, but I’m not put off. Olympic fever has spurred me on to tick sailing off of my ‘to-do’ list and, although it’s unlikely I’ll reach Team GB standards when they sail for gold just 30 nautical miles from here, I have to start somewhere.

For me, it’s in a Pico, a snug little sailboat for two, next to the car park of The Sandbanks Hotel. I’m feeling distinctly unglamorous in a wetsuit, but I’m eager to learn. We begin on land so Tom can teach me a few rudimentaries – port, starboard, the rudder, sail, boom and, crucially, how to turn. It’s a pretty awkward manoeuvre that requires some level of co-ordination, but on the fifth attempt, I’m confident to try it on water.

After a quick lesson on how to rig the boat – I hope there isn’t a test – we set sail. Tom steers us deeper into the bay, then I take over. It’s a gloriously sunny day and feels invigorating to put what I’d learned on dry land into practice. Half an hour in, I’m sailing single-handedly under the watchful eye of Tom, who occasionally calls out, ‘Throw in a turn when you’re ready.’ As we zig-zag across the harbour with a gentle six knots tickling the sail, I’m feeling surprisingly relaxed. Before I know it, my two-hour lesson is up and despite a minor incident when the boat whizzes round like a spinning top, I bang my head and I nearly go overboard, I return to my hotel feeling pretty chuffed with myself.

My room at the appropriately named Harbour Heights has breathtaking views over Poole Harbour and beyond to Brownsea Island, famed for scouting, red squirrels and peacocks. It’s just a short hop by boat from Poole Harbour, yet a million miles from Sandbanks’ beachfront mansions and luxury yachts. I’d taken a trip there before my lesson began and it’s a lovely, tranquil little spot, where you can stay overnight in the campsite and play out all your Swallows & Amazons fantasies.

That evening, as I dine on warm goats cheese salad, monkfish wrapped in parma ham and chocolate brownie pudding in the hotel’s Harbar Bistro, I look out of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen and wonder if life gets any better.

Then, the next morning, I wake up to sea fog. Fortunately, by the time I’m introduced to the Omega, it’s lifted and so are my spirits. The lesson is pretty much a repeat of yesterday’s, only the Omega’s a bigger boat with a higher boom – so less chance of knocks to the head. Tom takes the sail while I steer. Apart from a couple of paddle boarders, we have the harbour to ourselves. I’ve learned so much in the last couple of days that when the time comes for Tom, the Omega and me to part company, I feel a little sad.

I hang up my wetsuit for the final time then take a stroll along Sandbanks’s glorious beach until I reach La Roche at the end. For a chic dining experience, it’s the perfect place to just sit, eat and admire the view across to the Isle of Purbeck. From here, drive onto the chain ferry and explore Studland, a wild expanse of sand backed by dunes, then motor along the Jurassic Coast to Swanage, a charming seaside town, complete with sandy beach, fish and chips and Punch and Judy or enjoy a stunning cliff-top walk above Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door. I arrive to catch the late afternoon sun and as I look down at the boats bobbing in the cove, it dawns on me that I didn’t learn to capsize. Oh well, maybe next time.

Top tip: Book a taster class to see if sailing is for you, and don’t get tied up in the jargon – it’s more important to just build up confidence on the water.

Learn more: rya.org.uk.

Book now: A two-hour Start Sailing lesson at The Watersports Academy, Poole (thewatersportsacademy.com) costs £55. In June double rooms at The Harbour Heights hotel (harbourheights.com) cost from £136 with breakfast.

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