DURBAN, South Africa, 2001. Rough seas and towering waves are threatening to overcome even the most accomplished of sailors. But Andy Weatherspoon is somehow managing to steer a clear course. Sitting up front in his Flying Fifteen two-man keelboat, his sights are firmly set on the finishing line.
The World Championships are a week-long test of endurance, skill and focus with mind and body pushed to the limits but Andy and fellow sailor Charles Apthorp succeed against all the odds. They win gold for Britain. They’re world champions!
“There’s a fine line sometimes between sailing and surviving,” said Andy. “And there were times I thought we wouldn’t finish the course. But to finish, and be crowned champions, was just the best feeling. I will never forget it.”
It’s an incredible feat and even more so when you consider his training ground for this epic challenge has been a small reservoir in a beautiful North Pennine valley on the border between Northumberland and Durham.
The 3.5 mile long Derwent Reservoir has been the breeding ground of a number of champions over the years and now a new generation is taking over at the helm. Among them is Andy’s son Simon.
Simon is 14, but he is already proving to be a skilful sailor with an accomplished technique that belies his young age. The Prudhoe High School pupil triumphed at a recent national competition, coming fourth out of a fleet of 70, in his distinctive sailing dinghy – a bright red Topper with its eye catching red, white and blue sail.
Simon was just six years old when he started sailing with his dad in a double-handed mirror – one of the most popular sailing dinghies. “I started off crewing, controlling the jib, the smaller sail, and the spinnaker – an extra sail which boosts your speed when the wind is coming behind you,” he explained. “It takes a lot of practice and you have to learn from your mistakes. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve capsized, fallen into the water or ended up going the wrong way, but Dad has been very patient. And it meant a lot that he had faith in me. He trusted me, he gave me responsibility and that spurred me on.”
Simon tackled his first solo sail at 10 and now thinks nothing of going it alone, his confidence soaring alongside a blossoming self belief and growing skills. Now every weekend is spent on the water, either at competitions or in training at Derwent in the summer and Sunderland in the winter months.
For the uninitiated, sailing, at first glimpse, looks like a relatively simple sport. Indeed watching Simon glide effortlessly across the water enhances the feeling that this, surely, is a relaxing way to spend the day. It’s all very Swallows and Amazons and if Titty, John, Susan and Roger can do it, even in the dead of night, it can’t be that challenging. Can it?
Don’t be fooled. Sailing is complex and it can take years to perfect essential techniques and, crucially, learn the language. So the rope attached to the sail isn’t just any old rope, it’s the mainsheet and you use this to pull in the sail. This makes the boat go faster. Let it out and you go slower. Pretty straightforward really.
The piece of board that stops the boat slipping sideways is the daggerboard and a boat pointing directly into the wind is in irons or, effectively, at a standstill. But before you even set sail you have to master rigging which means getting the boat ready and involves all sorts of equipment from boom jaw and mast to burgee and battens. Got it?
“It takes a lot of practice and you have to learn from your mistakes. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve capsized, fallen into the water or ended up going the wrong way, but Dad has been very patient.”
Don’t worry if it all seems a bit mind boggling at first. Support and encouragement is provided by the bucketful at Derwent Reservoir Sailing Club for young and old. And when you are finally out on the water you can have great fun reaching (sailing across the wind), beating (sailing a zig-zag course towards the wind), tacking (turning around, towards the wind), running (when you’re blown along like a feather on a pond) and gybing (turning around, away from the wind).
Back on land, in a spare moment, any budding sailor will need to be perfecting his knots whether it’s a bowline, single sheet bend, clove hitch, rolling hitch, reef knot, whipping, figure of eight or round turn and two half hitches.
It’s all this complexity that really appeals to Simon. “Sailing really tests you physically and mentally and you have to be utterly focused in a race. It’s not just a case of keeping an eye on the other sailors to make sure they don’t block your course, you have to keep a close eye on the wind and work with it to steer a clear course. You have to know your boat and what it’s capable of.
“You also have to be fit. I go to the gym three times a week to work on my core stability. Hiking out, in particular, can really take it out of you. That is when you’re sitting, shoulders out, bottom over the edge of the boat, feet braced under toe straps, arms stretched, body leaning over the edge as you try to keep the boat level. You just couldn’t do this if you weren’t fit.”
Plenty of supplies of high energy food and drinks are loaded up on each boat before a race ensuring the sailor doesn’t get dangerously dehydrated or too exhausted. “Races last around an hour, but you can take part in three a day, with only a few minutes break in between each one,” said Simon. “So you have to eat and drink when you can.”
That’s all very well, but what about sea sickness? Do experienced sailors become immune eventually or is that just a myth? “I’ve had it plenty of times and there’s no cure,” said Andy. “You just have to do your best to keep your eyes on the horizon and keep focused.”
Andy was around Simon’s age when he started sailing at Derwent on a friend’s boat. And while he has been incredibly successful in the sport, it’s not just the racing that has been his motivation over the past 30 years.
“The camaraderie has been just as important,” he said. “When you sail it’s like you join one, big family. Every one supports each other; everyone does their best to help and encourage each other. And I have learned so much from other sailors over the years.”
Youngsters embarking on training now can be ensured that the coaching is second-to-none with plenty of investment ploughed into the sport in recent times and a supportive structure enabling them to grow and develop at their own pace.
The Royal Yachting Association (RYA) runs a whole raft of world renowned training schemes for all ages and abilities with the ethos that the best safeguard against the threat of legislation is to improve the skills of those on the water.
In the UK one of boating’s biggest attractions is its freedom from rules and regulations and the RYA is determined to keep it that way. Promoting the sport as not just competitive but a fun, family activity in the fresh air, away from the TV and Playstation, is important at Derwent Reservoir Sailing Club where all sailors, particularly youngsters, are given a warm welcome.
“Sailing teaches youngsters so many vital skills not just for the water, but for life,” said Barbara Darling, the club’s junior co-ordinator. “They have to learn to listen, to interact with adults and other children, to take responsibility and learn. Sailing, to put it simply, helps young people grow up.”
Children as young as two can be regularly found on the water at Derwent Reservoir, sailing with their families. And by the time they reach their teenage years, many are ready to sail solo.
“We had 15 juniors out on Saturday and 13 of those were on their own,” said Barbara. There are around 120 young members aged from six to 14 at the club which boasts a lively social scene and close-knit community spirit.
“Sailing brings people together from all walks of life and all generations,” said Barbara. “There is no age limit. I started sailing in my 30s. I met my husband, David, through sailing and my daughters, Fiona and Naomi, both sail at a high level with their husbands. Now my little grandson, George, is finding his sea legs. He’s only three but he loves being out on the water.”