Ullswater Yacht Club : How I learned to sail by John Thornley
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Home > Our Club > How I learned to sail... > How I learned to sail by John Thornley

How I learned to sail by John Thornley

Lovely to hear Sue and Dave Giles describing how they got into sailing, and inspiring to think that you can reach their standard without having been born to it. I was another that wasn't a sailor "man and boy", here's my story:

I was brought up on sailing stories told by my stepfather who variously sailed home-made boats on the upper reaches of the Wyre (he was a joiner) and then on various yachts out of Skippool and Fleetwood. I later to came to realise that many of his tales may have been a little far-fetched, but perhaps that was why they were so inspiring. As a teenager I also read and loved 'The Art of Coarse Sailing' by Michael Green and so by the time I was grown up, one way or another, I had an entirely secondhand love of dinghy sailing, yachting, and the Norfolk Broads. I've been playing catch up ever since!

I only finally got around to buying a boat when I was aged 19. This was a rather old and shabby Heron dinghy, sort of a Mirror with a deck for those not familiar. Perhaps through some kind of teenage angst I shunned any form of club or organisation at that time, so with a couple of friends we used to go down and sail from the public slip, determined to work it out for ourselves. With three strapping lads in a 10 foot dinghy we didn't go very fast, nor was there much freeboard to spare, and I smile to look back on how it would take us most of the day to sail the length of Coniston and back, armed with a flask and a large batch of spam sandwiches to be consumed at the other end of the lake, once we'd bailed all the water out and dragged the boat up the beach.

We had no sailing kit as such and if it was windy, which it always seemed to be that summer, we got cold and wet. As an antidote to this we went on a sailing holiday on the Norfolk Broads, at which point we realised that whilst the sailing yarns of my step dad might have been a bit far-fetched, pretty much everything in Michael Green's book was bang on the money! It was perhaps this week's holiday that really hooked me on sailing, and I've had a love of the Norfolk Broads ever since. It's a magical place.

Anyway, back to Cumbria and sick of getting wet, I had a look round for something I thought might be a bit more stable than the Heron, and with zero knowledge by chance ended up buying Flying Fifteen 2144 that was for sale at Coniston Sailing Club. Compared to the previous boat it was fast and stable, which is why when I was twenty and should really have been flying around in a Fireball or similar, we were blazing around in a 20 foot keelboat! Suddenly sailing seemed easy and Coniston seemed small, so I moved to Windermere, joined South Windermere Sailing Club and was consumed by the racing bug. Even though I used to sail all sorts of other dinghies over the following years, the Fifteens were always the best supported fleet there, so always the best choice for racing. Weirdly it still seems like that!

Not the most orthodox career path I guess, but after thirty years learning the hard way (on and off) it perhaps shows sailing can be all things to all men (and women).

  • - John Thornley

Last updated 14:13 on 9 May 2020

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