If you want to learn to sail, the RYA Dinghy Level 1 Start Sailing course is the perfect starting point. Here’s what I learned from a weekend getting to grips with a Laser Pico...


There can be few more forgiving places to learn to sail than Horseshoe Lake Activity Centre in Berkshire.

This inland watersports centre is home to paddleboards, kayaks, wild swimming and sailing alike, and this is where I first dipped my toe into the world of sailing on a sunny weekend in early September.

After some confusion about the starting time, I eventually met up with my two fellow classmates, who were equally keen to learn to sail, and our cheery teenage instructor, Harrison.


Our instructor Harrison kept a watchful eye on our attempts to learn to sail from the comfort of his outboard-powered safety boat

At the boatyard we were introduced to the boat we would be trying to tame: the ubiquitous Laser Pico.

Measuring 3.5m x 1.43m, this one-person dinghy is the default starter boat for newbies like us, and we were quickly taught the simple controls: a tiller with a hinged extension for steering and a mainsheet.

Harrison explained that this rope is like an accelerator – pull it and the Pico’s single sail would tighten, creating more speed.

Our default position involved keeping one hand on each with thumbs facing inwards, the so-called ‘dagger dagger grip’.

Of course, the sail will turn according to the prevailing wind direction, so in order to position ourselves properly in the boat we needed to learn the basic manoeuvres.

First is the tack, which is used when sailing into the wind. The basics of which are explained in the video below, but suffice to say we were all worried about hitting our heads on the boom!

Next up, to set the bar nice and low, we were told what to do in the event of a capsize. Once clear of the ropes, the Pico’s natural buoyancy makes it surprisingly easy to right by swimming around the stern and pulling down on the daggerboard.

However we were warned of the risk of the daggerboard getting stuck in our lifejackets and dragging us under – for that reason it’s important to pull on the side of the daggerboard and not the end.

The final piece of theory imparted before launch was the concept of the ‘no-go zone’, which is around 15 degrees either side of the direction of the wind. Sail in this direction and your mainsail will flap uselessly in the wind, leaving you ‘in irons’ and unable to sail upwind.

With that concept lodged in our minds it was time to rig the sail, attach the rudder and get sailing, but not before dragging the 60kg Pico down to the beach on a trailer – more than enough exercise to get the heart pumping!

Launching from the beach gave my feet a proper drenching and left me glad for my choice of Zhik Fuze lightweight sailing shoes, which dried out rapidly in the late summer sun.


Zhik Fuze lightweight sailing shoes dry out quickly, making them ideal footwear for anyone trying to learn to sail

Once the daggerboard was down, we drifted out into the deeper water and started to put our theory into practice.

Amid mercifully light winds, progress was slow, but I was delighted to be doing some real sailing just a few hours after starting the course.

It wasn’t exactly what you’d call comfortable – the collision of boom and cranium was a regular occurrence – but making progress under wind power alone brought a big confidence boost.

The downside of the light wind was that it wasn’t easy to get enough wind in my sail to counteract my 70kg frame weighing down on the opposite side of the boat, which would tilt the mast and bring the boom swinging round due to the effects of gravity rather than wind.

As a result, it was tempting to hold the boom away from my body, but we were discouraged from doing that until we had a better grasp of where the wind was coming from, and hence where the boom should be.

After an hour or so, we were instructed to make our way to the jetty and tie up for some more theory – starting with the four main knots we needed to learn and why the tangled mess we just tied was wrong!

The rest of this 16-hour, two-day course proceeded in much the same pattern, alternating between theory and practise.

Having got to grips with the tack, we moved onto the gybe (used while sailing away from the wind), which required a different technique and allowed us to sail a triangle-shaped course on the lake.

Other topics tackled included getting out of irons, recovering a man overboard, pumping the mainsail, the 5 essentials, and rights of way (something that the local kayakers and paddleboarders clearly didn’t understand!)

As the weekend progressed, the temperature rose and the winds grew even calmer, leading Harrison to propose our final challenge.

Having been towed to the far side of the lake, we were instructed to intentionally capsize our boat, right it again and then get back to the jetty as fast as possible.

What followed was the slowest, most undignified race I’ve ever taken part in, but a truly memorable way to end an inspirational weekend.

Back in the yard, I unrigged my Pico and proudly received my RYA Dinghy Level 1 Start Sailing certificate.

For the better part of £200, it was by no means the cheapest way to spend a weekend, but our progress was such that we covered many of the topics in Level 2, making that next step towards sailing independence potentially a lot quicker.

Better start saving…

A two-day RYA Dinghy Level 1 Start Sailing course at Horseshoe Lake Activity Centre costs £198, including wetsuit, lifejacket and dinghy hire. For more information, visit horseshoelakeactivitycentre.co.uk or to find your local training centre, visit: rya.org.uk