I learned to sail at school, although we didn’t have an ocean, just a very small lake with an island on it, next to Westbury station. It was probably where they dug out the gravel for the railway, but my school used to have two Enterprise and two Mirror dinghies there for compulsory double Games on Wednesday afternoons. I hated football and didn’t much like rugby. You try freezing fog and serge shorts with a big seam on the inside leg then tell me about it.
It was a very ordinary state school I thought at the time, but it seems most schools don’t have a sailing option. Along with that we had two utterly cool teachers to look after us, Mrs Shearn and Joe Collins. And yes, those are their real names, that I can safely use as they’re probably long dead and in any case, they were both brilliant. Mrs Shearn used to teach Physics. Mr Collins was the senior PE teacher. There was another PE teacher who had all the gear – the Adidas tracksuit, the white T-shirt, the Acme Thunderer whistle and shiny white trainers, along with the pyscho “I’m really dedicated/hard” attitude who now I feel a bit sorry for. However hard he thought he was, he could never be as utterly rock as Joe Collins. Something to do with being a paratrooper in the war, I suppose.
You didn’t mess Joe Collins around. And we never wanted to. That was the difference. He was gentle, I suppose in the way that people who’ve seen and done serious un-gentleness often are.
It wasn’t a very serious sailing club. We’d drive out on a Wednesday lunchtime in a Ford Transit with a change of clothes and apart from having to wear a lifejacket, that was about as far as supervision went. We taught each other to sail. That’s how it worked. And mostly it did. I learned I thought the Mirror dinghies looked ugly with their blunt plywood bow and it was years before I knew anything about the fairly substantial part of English socio-economic history they represented.
I only capsized once, when I half-knew I should have pushed the tiller away instead of pulling it closer to me. It was summer so it didn’t matter – you just paddled with your feet, floating on your back until everyone was mustered on the dock and we worked out what to do about the boat. No biggy.
That was where it started, there and under the Dining Hall in the old Girls’ School block, where the boats were stored for the winter. One Easter my friend Phil and I got the job of re-painting the Enterprises. We were supposed to be revising for A Levels, but instead we were entrusted to go and get the paint in Trowbridge, turn the boats upside down, sand them then paint them, two coats minimum. We – well ok, I then – bought paint called Ocean Mist, which I’d thought to be a sort of Ocean Mist colour. You know, misty. You don’t have to play it for me. Because it was cheaper than white and I seem to remember some sort of scam whereby I got to keep the money I’d saved by not buying actual white.
The problem was, in daylight Ocean Mist was a sickly light green. There wasn’t any daylight under the Dining Hall. We didn’t find that out until about a week of talking about girls and painting the boats. In those days you could go to the pub afterwards. It wasn’t just that pubs were open, but so long as you could pretend to be over 18 then they’d serve you. If you couldn’t they’d throw you out. It was a different time.
The very last time I sailed there, just after A Levels, was the best sailing I’ve ever done. I was single-handed, running downwind to the dock on the very last sail at school, one summer Wednesday. Not much wind, but a nice speed. I went past the little pontoon jutting out into the water, then went about and got the speed just right, so I ended-up with the boat stopped absolutely dead in the water, exactly on the dock where I wanted it.
I’m just about to get a new boat, or new to me, anyway. Just as soon as lockdown is over. It’s not an Enterprise. Nor, thank God, a Mirror. I don’t know how long it’ll take to be able to sail it like that little dinghy that golden afternoon.