Dinghy Sailing in Portsmouth Delivers Better Mental Health

Ian Parker has been a dinghy sailor for 50 years and a dinghy instructor for almost as long. In 2001 he spent some time in mental hospital and is a recovering alcoholic. Here, Ian reports on the benefits of dinghy sailing for mental health and recovery.

Your tummy muscles are screaming at you for a break. The slightest incorrect movement of a sail or the steering could result in a sudden cold bath. The wake is coming off the bough straight into your face. The powerboat that they sent to watch over you can’t keep up. You are pushing 25 knots. The sun is in the sky and the water is blue. Your mind and body are flat out with the task at hand. You just haven’t got space in your head for negative thoughts or feelings.

Dinghy sailing can be highly therapeutic in the treatment of both physical and mental health problems. I should know. I’ve had both. Learning to sail will stretch you physically and mentally. At my sailing centre we’ve had people with a variety or physical and mental health issues and they have all made improvements because they’ve learned to sail.

Previously I was with Sailabilty which helps disabled people get on the water in a variety of sailing dinghies. Now I work at a sailing centre in Portsmouth which is for military service people and their families. But there are a large number of other sailing clubs in the area, some of which teach students the basics.

Dinghy sailing is extremely INexpensive. Do not confuse it with yachting which will cost you an arm and a leg (and then you can’t sail the boat). Learning to sail a dinghy takes about a week full-time and costs a few hundred pounds. You can buy a dinghy for a few hundred more and you’re in business. Most of those costs do not reoccur. If you look after it, a sailing dinghy will last years. You then have minimal club membership and insurance costs yearly.

You don’t have to be a good swimmer. Buoyancy aids are mandatory and in the Solent and its estuaries, safety craft are always ready to help if you get into trouble. Dinghy sailing is remarkably safe. Drownings are virtually unheard of.

Sailing a dinghy is a multitask activity. Occasionally people good at single task sports, such as football, tennis, hockey, etc will struggle at first because in a dinghy you have to do lots of things at the same time. Women compete with men in dinghy sailing up to a very high-level so, yes boys, I’m afraid it’s true women make much better multitaskers.

For example in a sailing dinghy, the helm (steerer) has to steer the boat, set the mainsail, decide on the course, decide when to turn, and balance the boat. The crew has to set the jib (the small sail at the front), balance the boat, keep a 360° lookout and watch the water for gusts. In anything other than very light wind, both people in a dinghy are working hard. After an hour or two of sailing on a strong-breeze afternoon, most sailors are in bed by 9pm that evening, having given up trying to stay awake.

The Royal Yachting Association (RYA), which is headquartered just up the road in Hamble, can provide all the information needed for people who want to get into dinghy sailing. The RYA qualifications which a training club can provide are valid all around the world. They’re a bit like an international driving licence from the UK.

There’s a reason for that. The UK is the greatest sailing nation on earth. Some would say that Ben Ainslie is proof of that. But you don’t have to be Ben Ainslie to enjoy this wonderful activity. All capabilities are catered for in boats which offer varying degrees of challenge. You can try them on taster days at sailing club.

Don’t leave it too long before you try and see if the flavours appeal to you.