My track record with learning to pilot vehicles both great and small is not what exactly you’d call exemplary. I’ve been catapulted from horses, thrown sideways by Segways, and the less said about the great Milton Keynes go-kart pile-up of 1995 the better. So you can understand my trepidation at the thought of helming a 10-metre yacht containing my four crewmates/potential man overboarders during a week’s learning-to-sail holiday off the coast of Murter, deep in the heart of the Croatian isles.
Yet a mere 48 hours into our adventure on the waves and everyone’s remarkably – mariner pun alert – buoyant. But then when your days consist of lazy lunches at secluded spots, a cloudless sunny sky, spontaneous swimming stops and worrying about nothing but the wind in your sails, it’s hard not to be.
I’m not going to lie – after clambering aboard our hefty beauty ‘Stella’ and getting acquainted with my ‘cosy’ cabin, the skipper sits us down for a nifty debrief. “By the time you leave here you’ll be able to tie the stern line under the pushpit, through the fairlead and around the cleat with your eyes closed,” he advises.
And there I was worrying about the language barrier being Croatian. Still, the group is mercifully varied – from complete nautical newbies to those who have crewed before on smaller vessels – and while there’s a cavalcade of boating and meteorological terminology to get my head around, this is no strict schooling.
Within five minutes of leaving the quay I’m plonked behind the wheel and encouraged to reverse the massive, very expensive and very dentable boat back into the harbour for ‘a bit of practice’.
The bewilderingly trusting teaching continues and within a couple of days the crew is working in sync to surprisingly satisfying effect. The moment we learn how to tack, gybe, winch, hoist and unhoist the mainsail without clattering each other around the head is a eureka one, and basically ensures we can steer the boat in all directions – powered by nothing but wind alone.
Admittedly, there’s the occasional hiccup as we, quite literally, learn the ropes. An attempt to up anchor confines my sunglasses to Davy Jones’s Locker – a flailing dive after them quickly hammers home quite how deep the watery abyss truly is; my knots definitely do not hold – au revoir dingy; and sea urchins are my new worst enemy – if a fish, hedgehog and wasp made sweet, sweet love, you’d only come close to the delightful seabed-strewn animal rude enough to stab me when I keep treading on it.
But with the parking, reversing, wonky sailing – it’s not uncommon for the boat to be at more than a 45 degree angle – and all-important sail switcharoo all more or less covered, there’s a fluidity to our daily set-up that’s unforgettably relaxing. With more than 1000 islands sprinkled off the gorgeous 200-mile Dalmatian coast, the region’s perpetually sun-kissed world is our oyster.
Our days consist of grabbing fresh food supplies from whatever remote island hideaway we’re moored at – unsurprisingly, the region’s fish is mouth-wateringly munchable – plotting a course, getting lost, spotting a dolphin, stopping for a cooling splash in picture-postcard turquoise waters, and sailing on to our day’s destination – all while taking turns to sunbathe on the boat, steer or cheer encouragingly when the boat goes around in circles.
My newly boozy-and-bearded appearance after a week on the open seas may have left me looking like the illegitimate love child of Jack Sparrow and Captain Birdseye, but I can’t help but feel a newly nautical convert.
Now if someone could just invent an aquatic Segway, I’m fairly sure I could give Ellen MacArthur a run for her money.
Matt Risley learnt to sail with Activity Yachting. Learn to sail holidays cost from £295 for a week on the boat, based on two people sharing. See activityyachting.com
Head to the TNT Travel Show on Saturday March 4th for great deals on Croatia sailing – register for free entry