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‘So you want to learn to sail?’

Roger Rudman describes his early experiences of sailing in Christchurch Harbour

‘So you want to learn to sail?’ came the words of a friend of the family. I was about eleven at the time, and in those days we did not have such things as ‘health and safety’, thank goodness, otherwise I don’t suppose I would ever have started sailing.
It was towards the end of the 1940s, when on holiday i

n Christchurch, that I first encountered sailing boats, not of course the hi-tech stuff you get today, boats were mainly heavy wooden clinker-built jobs and, unlike modern day boats, they were slow but very stable. Clinker-built was a form of construction where planks of wood were placed over a wooden frame. The planks would overlap each other and were then nailed to ribs inside the hull.

Sailing in the 1940s in a clinker-built dinghy

Sailing in the 1940s in a clinker-built dinghy

I had gone on holiday with my mother to Christchurch, which in those days was in Hampshire, or more accurately back to Christchurch. In the mid-1930s my parents ran the Riverside Café and Guest House, which was next to the bandstand close to the river. It’s no longer a Guest House, but a restaurant called The Boathouse.
Just prior to World War 2 the Ministry of Defence commandeered the café along with many other buildings in the area. I never did find out what they used them for, as we left the area and returned to Wolverhampton. And after the war we visited on many occasion for holidays.

The entrance to Christchurch harbour showing Mudeford to the top and the spit from Hengistbury Head to the right

The entrance to Christchurch harbour showing Mudeford to the top and the spit from Hengistbury Head to the right

The river at Christchurch was full of old motor torpedo boats which had been converted and were being used as house boats, which covered large parts of the river.
Christchurch Harbour and the rivers running into it are very shallow so that does not leave a lot of room to sail.
The sailing boat I was to use was a small, single-sailed clinker-built job. When I arrived the sail was already hoisted and ready to go. The only instruction I was given was ‘Always sit on the windward side of the boat’ and that was it. No life jacket – they did not use them in those days.

Yachts and sailing are still very much a part of life at Christchurch quay

Yachts and sailing are still very much a part of life at Christchurch quay

So I was pushed out into the river to get on with it. Fortunately, there was little wind so wherever I went, I went slowly. I think I bounced off most of the Motor Torpedo Boats in the river but eventually I began to understand how a sailing boat worked.
It gradually dawned on me that if I wanted to go with the wind all I had to do was to let the sail out as far as it would go and let the wind push the boat along.
I sailed quite happily past Christchurch Sailing Club and down the river towards Mudeford. I had read in a book that Christchurch was well known for smuggling back in the 1700s, and with my vivid imagination I could visualize from all the little nooks and crannies along the river, how easy it would be for the smugglers to bring in their haul, without being seen, presumably sailing through the race at Mudeford and into the comparatively calm waters of
the harbour.

 The author as an eleven-year-old, with his mother

The author as an eleven-year-old, with his mother

As I approached the wider section of the river at Mudeford I decided it was time to turn back and head back towards the quay. When I first tried to turn round and sail back against the wind I stopped, but as I turned the boat away from the wind it started to move forwards and suddenly I was moving through the water quite quickly, by then I was running out of river so I turned the boat into the wind and back across the river. I kept doing that all the way back up the river to Christchurch, and after about two hours I found I was getting the hang of this, and it dawned on me that I had not hit another boat for about an hour,
which was, no doubt, a great relief to the boat owners who’d been watching at various points along the river.
I also discovered that as I turned the boat into the wind and let the sail out a little, the boat would slow down, like putting the brakes on.
After about three hours my first encounter with a sailing boat came to an end after reaching the jetty from where I started. The owner of the boat congratulated me saying that I had coped very well. And if he’d realized it was my first sail would have come out with me. A bit late in the day, I thought.
When we returned from holiday I managed to find a local sea scout group who had their own boats on a lake close to Wolverhampton. I thought I would get much more instruction in sailing by joining but I was wrong.
The scout leaders didn’t seem to know how to sail, so we all experimented in much the same way as I had done at Christchurch except that being on a lake we did not have tides to worry about and we could not go too far before hitting a bank.
One of the boats we had was an old Norwegian whaler, clinker built and pointed both ends. With a scaffolding pole for a mast, we managed to sail around the lake but going about into the wind meant doing a three point turn because we could never get the boat to go fast enough to turn around in one go. We did eventually obtain a book showing the correct way to sail, but I think my previous encounters certainly stood me in good stead and I was able to improve my sailing abilities and sail more efficiently and eventually started racing in scout Regattas.

Once the Riverside Café and Guest House, now the Boathouse restaurant, this was home to the author's family from the mid-1930s

Once the Riverside Café and Guest House, now the Boathouse restaurant, this was home to the author's family from the mid-1930s

I have been back to Christchurch many times since those early days, using local boats and eventually sailing my own boat. Whether you are sailing, or pottering about in a small motor boat, the River Stour up to Tuckton Bridge has lots of interesting features to look at. The wildlife of course is fascinating to watch and the history of the old Wick Ferry is absorbing – it still runs today. And although the River Avon that runs around the back of the Priory is well worth a trip, it does get quite narrow by the old Bowling Green and Convent walk.
So if you want to learn to sail, you do not have to spend lots of money going to expensive sailing schools: just join a local sailing club and let them teach you. Sailing is a great sport for both young and old, and you can go as far as you want, even to Olympic standards if you are that way inclined. But we do wear life jackets these days – just for health and safety reasons of course.
By the way Christchurch Harbour, I think, is the only place you can still sail free of charge.

Credit:

Pic 2 – Angnieszka Milanska

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