All at sea: learning to sail with kids

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Sun glinting over the water, waves lapping at the hull, sail flicking gently in the breeze – there’s nothing quite like sailing in warm, clear seas. It offers a freedom and independence like no other; a unique view of the shore plus fun and excitement in spades. This is why Arthur Ransome struck gold with Swallows and Amazons, and why children have been emulating the book’s two families ever since.

Sailing has been getting more attention, and growing in popularity, thanks to Britain’s increasingly talented Olympic teams, America’s Cup sailors and round-the-world yachtsmen and women. So, now there’s a host of beachclub holidays and flotilla sailing adventures tailor-made for families, and even boat-stays in a marina, why not take to the water yourself next summer?

Boy sailing - how to sail

Boating is for everyone

If you’ve never stepped foot on a boat, sailing may seem daunting, costly and dangerous. But learning the ropes in a safe, relaxed atmosphere on a family sailing holiday – whether at home or abroad – is virtually unbeatable. ‘Children don’t have to be good swimmers to learn to sail’, says Jamie Barker, watersports recruitment manager for Mark Warner, opened a new centre in Turkey in 2018 that’s perfect for both budding and experienced sailors. ‘Every week, we take kids who have done very little or no swimming at all. Everyone who goes near the water will be given a personal flotation device, and our qualified instructors will build their confidence on the water by introducing games and activities.’ he assures.

Don’t worry about buying sailing kit, either – most, if not all, watersports holidays supply all you need at no extra cost. Mark Warner, for instance, provides all the safety equipment required so, along with the buoyancy aids, children are given helmets and safety cover; but Jamie advises parents to supply sun hats and rash vests.

‘In childcare clubs, children spend no longer than one hour in the water at a time,’ says Jamie. ‘Our RYA (Royal Yachting Association) courses do run for longer, but we do ensure children are well protected from the sun, and are kept hydrated, too.’

Sailing boat family - how to sail

Learning the ropes

I learnt to sail in Devon with the Island Cruising Club, based on the ex-Mersey ferry Egremont, moored in Salcombe harbour. It’s one of my fondest memories – there’s something unique about British seaside, with sandwiches and ice creams full of sand. But in the UK, if children are nervous, or capsize, they will end up cold.

However, learning to sail in warm weather is heavenly. Many Mediterranean and Ionian destinations benefit from light winds in the morning that pick up steadily in the afternoon, so kids can learn safely before lunch then the adults can go for a blast afterwards. In warmer water, there’s no need for wetsuits, little hands and feet won’t be getting cold and kids will stay enthusiastic for longer.

For parents keen to find out if their children will enjoy sailing before spending money on a dedicated holiday, the RYA has a list of UK sailing schools on lakes and inland waters, as well as coastal areas, that offer day-, weekend- and week-long courses. Rockley Watersports has two centres in the UK where kids can learn to sail.

Youngsters from the age of 10 can go on a youth residential sailing or multi-activity holiday at Rockley Point in Poole Harbour, Dorset, and Rockley also offers family sailing holidays in south-west France.

Everything under the sun

A huge range of companies offer family holidays with not just sailing but activities such as stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, snorkelling, windsurfing, wakeboarding, waterskiing and kitesurfing, so if your kids don’t take to sailing they can try something else. Family favourite Scott Dunn has programmes for children aged five to 13 at its Eagle Villas in Halkidiki, Greece.

Its sea-view villas with private pools and gently sloping beach are ideal for families with babies and toddlers. Kids enrolled in the Aqua Explorers kids’ club are taught by an RYA-qualified instructor.

girls on boat - how to sail

Club Med starts children sailing from six years old and runs an Amazing Sport Experience in some resorts, focusing on tennis, sailing and golf – with Olympic champions on hand for coaching. Its resort Cefalù in Sicily reopened in summer 2018 as a five-trident resort with a new watersports experience, including an SUP academy, sailing school and even an electric-powered surfboard (Cefalù has a minimum age of eight).

Neilson starts kids sailing at the age of two, with dinghy sailing available at nine of its beachclubs. Holidays at its Airone Beachclub in southern Italy include sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding, with free clubs for children aged four months to 17; and if your kids want to take an RYA course, enrol them in Neilson’s HotShots club for eight- to 13-year-olds. Find great value sailing holidays in France with Action Outdoors, the British outpost of France’s not-for-profit UCPA.

Action Outdoors has a multi- activity watersports week in Bombannes (in the Medoc area close to Bordeaux) as well as dedicated full-time sailing holidays.

Follow the leader

Taking your family sailing on a yacht is a special experience. If you have your own qualifications, you can charter a yacht and sail on your own, while the less experienced can join a flotilla and sail in a group. Anchor in small bays for lunch and to snorkel, and get close to empty beaches too – all the while carrying your ‘hotel’ around with you.

Nautilus Yachting offers an Ionian flotilla week that is ideal for families – with light winds and shorter passages the sailing is relaxed and fun, and the lead yacht’s flotilla crew are on hand. Skippers/instructors are also available for less-experienced sailors.

boy looking out to sea - how to sail

Water beds

If you want to experience a little of the nautical lifestyle without the worry of learning to sail, Beds on Board is the boating equivalent of Airbnb – families can stay on a boat that will never leave its mooring. Choosing a boat stay in a unique location offers you the chance to enjoy the water but other activities besides – for example, Beds on Board offers a 43ft luxury Sealine motor cruiser moored at Penton Hook Marina, Britain’s largest inland marina, close to Richmond Park and Thorpe Park.

Or stay on a 64ft luxury Dutch barge in Ferry Quay, Suffolk, with free use of bikes and fabulous walking within minutes, with the popular villages of Aldeburgh, Southwold and Walberswick within driving distance. This boat is also dog-friendly – up to three are welcome. Both boats sleep four people in two berths – one double, one twin.

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