Happy Berth Days
Avoid the agonies of the airport with a sailing trip on the high seas or languid lakes of Britain. Ed Cumming picks the best places to float your boat
By Ed Cumming
February 15 2023
When travel abroad involves testing, quarantine, exorbitant prices and the added stress of such about-turns as this summer’s Portugal farrago, that leaves our own backyard. Or it would do, except there’s not nearly enough room to accommodate the nation’s pent-up dreams of sandcastles and ice-cream. When it comes to crowds, Devon is like Dhaka. So if we don’t want to spend thousands on underwhelming accommodation from hoteliers and rental-property owners desperate to make up money for lost time, what’s the answer? The sea! With so much pressure on land, an increasing number of Brits are turning to the UK’s 8,000 miles of coastline for holidays.
Whether we’re hiring gleaming gin palaces to get sozzled on the Solent or sailing ourselves around the Hebrides to look for ospreys, the pandemic has led us to rediscover that we are a nation of mariners. At sea there’s no shortage of ventilation; social distancing is taken as read; and there are no traffic jams.
“There’s been a two- or three-fold increase in people looking to sail in the UK,” says Simon Boulding of Sunsail UK, which operates sailing holidays from its base on the Solent. “It’s a considerable uplift. Some might normally sail in the UK and they’re adding an extra trip, but we’re also getting people who normally sail overseas but are looking at sailing in the UK for summer staycations. We’ve obviously lost out on a lot of corporate bookings, so it’s great for the British tourism industry, and great for sailing companies.”
The timing was fortuitous for Sunsail, which recently bought a new fleet of spacious Jeanneau 401 yachts – single-hulled vessels designed to compete with catamarans for comfort. “It’s almost like sleeping in a hotel room,” Boulding says. It’s something to bear in mind when the weather in Britain is less reliable for a week on the water than it might be on the Cõte d’Azur.
It’s not only our sunny south coast that is experiencing a boost, however. In Martham, Alison Highton of Oliver’s Sailing Holidays reveals that the calm waterways of the Norfolk Broads are drawing less adventurous mariners in greater numbers than ever before. “Lots of this year’s customers would normally have gone abroad,” she says. “A couple arrived today who usually go to Croatia. They’ve been blown away by the traditional Norfolk Broads sailing yacht. We’re hoping more people will choose to explore these waters rather than face the hassle of airports.”
Scotland’s wild, rugged western coastline has long attracted sailors, but Stevie Christie of Wilderness Scotland says its sailing holidays were “particularly popular” this year. “From the Firth of Clyde, up past the Argyll Islands and out into the Minch and Outer Hebrides beyond, there is challenging sailing, interesting skerries and secluded private anchorages.”
The company’s guided sailing tours are hosted on a 70-year-old Gaff Cutter, a characterful vantage point from which to scout for whales and dolphins. A walking guide will accompany trips to make the most of the remote walks accessible by sea. The water can be a new way to see land, too.
The big question is whether these new sailors will permanently boost sailing numbers. Boulding says the third area in which he’s seen a big uptick is people seeking Royal Yachting Association qualifications.
“We’ve had a huge increase in demand there,” he says. “And demand for private family courses has gone through the roof. People are booking a whole boat with the family and one instructor and using it as an activity style staycation but gaining a sailing qualification at the same time. People are thinking, ‘If I can’t go overseas, I want to do something a bit different in the UK and gain a qualification off the back of it.’ But in the evenings they’re in a nice marina.” There’s nothing quite like messing about in boats, except perhaps messing about in boats, safe in the knowledge that there is dinner – and a stiff drink – on dry land afterwards.
For more details, visit wildernessscotland.com;
sunsail.co.uk; and broadssailingholidays.co.uk.
Ten Great Places to Sail Around Britain
ISLE OF SKYE
The west coast of Scotland has some of the UK’s wildest and most ancient scenery, with steep rugged hills that fall sharply into the sea. Around Skye and the other Hebrides there are enough inlets, bays and hidden beaches to keep even Ellen MacArthur busy for months. Stop off at Raasay, where you can sip whisky and watch the weather roll in.
Pronounced “puh-theh-lee”, Pwhllheli is one of Wales’ best sailing spots, in easy reach of Anglesey and Cardigan Bay. For those who want to be based on land, the local yacht club organises sessions and events for all ages and abilities.
Poole is one of the largest natural harbours on earth and a base for every sort of boating imaginable. Whether you want to potter up the Jurassic Coast or admire the millionaires’ beach houses down the Solent at Sandbanks, there’s something for every level of interest and ability at sea and on shore.
Head to the channels and inlets of the Norfolk Broads for a more stately sail than you might on the open sea. While the fields slip past over the gunwale, you can admire the wildlife – especially the abundance of a wide variety of birds.
With its sheer cliffs, hidden coves and secret beaches, all within reach of an elegant harbour on the south coast – it’s easy to see why Salcombe remains one of England’s leading sailing destinations.
If the sea’s not your thing, how about pottering around on England's biggest natural lake? Sailing is the perfect way to absorb the Lake District views that seduced Wordsworth and Coleridge, while avoiding the crowds that can build up at peak times.
ISLE OF WIGHT
Cowes Week, held every year in late August, is the oldest and biggest regatta on Earth, and the reason Cowes is the number-one destination for British sailors. If you’d rather dodge all the Pimm’s and upturned collars, however, visit at a quieter time to make the most of the infrastructure and ideal sailing conditions.
The coast of Northern Ireland is growing in popularity with sailors. For calm coastal waters, there are Carlingford and Strangford Loughs, while further north the Causeway Coast has spectacular scenery and more challenging conditions.
Falmouth has a deserved and burgeoning reputation for being one of the most charming towns on the south coast. If you can squeeze into Cornwall amid all the UK-vacationing masses, it is the perfect base for a day or two’s sailing around the southwest shoreline.
As you would expect from little islands, Guernsey and Jersey have well-established sailing communities, with sailors heading out to France or floating around the smaller Channel Islands. Now’s the time to visit, before the French kick up a fuss over them, too.
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