Ready, steady, launch ... Advertiser reporter discovers that sailing is accessible, relatively cheap and a lot of fun in a try-out at Ulley Sailing Club

THE weather was calm, a gentle wind rippled over the open water and a rookie sailor had turned up for his first voyage.

“Do you want to sail the boat or just come along for a sail?” asked Mark Burkitt, senior instructor at Ulley Sailing Club.

After a little hesitation I said “sail” and within minutes I'm strapping on a buoyancy aid and heading down to the jetty at Ulley Reservoir to take instructions.

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This, the 50th anniversary of Ulley Sailing Club, seemed a perfect time to try out a sport that some believe is still the preserve of posh people.

It isn't.

You can pick up a wetsuit for as little as a tenner at some supermarkets and a buoyancy aid for not a lot more.

Ulley's memberships, for families or individuals, don't break the bank and offer boat hire and excellent learner courses from fully qualified people like Mark.

He's amenable, likeable and patient, which he needs to be with someone like me whose last experience of cold water was on a pedalo in Greece.

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I'm heading out on a taster session, a two or three-hour suck-it-and-see trip offered to beginners who can then decide whether or not they want to take sailing further.

Mark says I'll be steering our two-man boat between two buoys and going round them to form a figure of 8.

From a man who turned up with the intention of merely staying afloat, it seems a big ask.

“You have to sail at roughly 45 degrees to the wind,” he says. “If you sail straight into the wind, the boat just stops. If it’s behind then you can sail where you like because it's pushing you.

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“The complicated bit is learning how to steer and getting your hands and your legs in the right place. It's a bit like a dance across the boat.

“In half an hour to 45 minutes you'll learn how to do a “tack” (turning into the wind) and a “gybe” (turning away from the wind).”

I nod, not quite convinced.

After an acclimatising trip across the lake, first in charge of the sails, moving them this way and that to 'catch' the wind, I swap places with Mark and step into the box seat, in charge of doing the turns.

Mark has a lovely way of simplifying things.

“A flappy sail is an unhappy sail. A flat boat is a happy boat,” he says.

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“If the boat is nice and flat it will sail in a straight line. If it tips one way or the other it will drift over because of the curve on the boat.”

To provide that balance, we have to swap to opposite sides of the boat at each turn.

Steering with one hand, operating a sail in the other, it takes a few attempts to master the tack and the gybe.

I'm all fingers and thumbs, hands and feet in the wrong place, and then gradually I get the hang of it and those elusive 'figures of 8' start to form.

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We stop for a break in the middle of the lake, a heron swoops over the water and I'm starting to relax a bit more and see the appeal.

“I get a thrill out of teaching people to sail,” says Mark, a man who started sailing in his teens, gave it up and rediscovered the love of it all over again more than 20 years ago.

“When you come out on the water all the daily stresses and strains just disappear and what better location than to do it on a piece of water?

“Even when it's raining and snowing, you are thinking about sailing and if you're racing, trying to beat the next person and thinking 'why is my boat not going as fast as their boat?' You get a lot to think about that is away from everyday life.”

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He looks out into the distance and at the expanse of the picturesque, tree-lined water.

“If you are in a stressful job, there is nothing better than doing something, a hobby, that is out of the ordinary and in a lovely setting,” he says. “It's all encompassing.”

After two hours on the open water, we head back to the jetty and I sup on a drink, invigorated.

The legs and knees ache a bit, but the session wasn't that taxing.

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You don't have to be super fit.  Ulley has members who have had hip transplants and knee transplants.

“Our youngest member is four and our oldest is 82,” says the club's commodore, Nicola Panter.

“You can be happy just to come down and potter about casually or have a race here or elsewhere. We're a friendly club.

“Some of our young members go to RYA youth championships. It depends how much you want to get into it.”

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Mark adds: “We have people all over the country who started sailing here. That's what we're proud of. People know the name, Ulley Sailing Club.”

Less than 15 minutes later, after bidding my farewells, I'm back home after my little voyage of discovery happy, enlightened and, to the wife's surprise, dry!

Many thanks to Nicola Panter, Mark Burkitt and all at Ulley Sailing Club for my taster sailing session and their help in compiling this article.


INDIVIDUAL and family memberships are available at Ulley.

It is open for sailing on Saturdays (April to the end of October), on Sundays (April until late December) and Wednesday evenings when daylight hours allow.

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There are taster sessions to see if you like it and the cost is refunded against any membership taken out.

Sailors can sail casually and follow RYA (Royal Yachting Association) courses to improve skills.

More details at


ULLEY Sailing Club has a novel way to improve kids' sailing skills — rubber ducks.

Commodore Nicola Panter said: “We have 200 rubber ducks. We throw rubber ducks into the water and allow them to roam free for half an hour while they go and get them.

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“While they're doing that, the kids are learning how to steer the boat and what to do with it to get them to a point.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the club has a specially adapted boat for the disabled or people with mobility issues, operated by just a joystick and a rope and a heavy metal keel to prevent it capsizing.

A safety boat operates all the time people are out sailing.


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