Learning the ropes with Salcombe Dinghy Sailing

By Ross Purdy on September 20, 2016

What happened when one complete novice took to the water under the instruction of Ross Crook of Salcombe Dinghy Sailing?


To many, South Devon and sailing are practically synonymous. But for every resident and visitor who loves to spend time on the water, there are plenty who have only enjoyed watching the action from the safety of the land.

Ross (Purdy) trying to control the tiller, under the direction of Ross (Crook)

It seems that sailing is something that lots of people learn as children, before coming back to the pastime at some point in their lives. But what about those who have (a) never tried it before and (b) don’t have any sailing in their family background? How should they go about getting their sea legs?

As someone who didn’t know a mast from a mizzen, I was the perfect candidate to find out. So I went for a taster session with Ross Crook from Salcombe Dinghy Sailing, an RYA training centre which provides all-year-round lessons and a range of small sailing boats for hire.


When I tentatively made my way towards the water, the clouds above Salcombe were still locked in discussions as to their plans for the day. A warm morning with little breeze had been forecast, which I had taken as good news. As Ross greeted me and handed me a buoyancy aid, he told me that we might be using the motor a fair amount, as unfortunately there wasn’t much wind around. Rather than admit that I hadn’t even considered that the lack of wind could be a bad thing, I gave a dutifully disappointed nod.

The sky was clearing as we chugged our way through a labyrinth of bobbing boats to find our lugger, which was moored a little way off Whitestrand Quay.

Looking back towards Salcombe from the dinghy

Getting onto the lugger involved just a single, decisive step between the vessels.

‘Once you decide to go, don’t change your mind. The key is to commit,’ advised Ross. From the outset, I was relieved to know that my instructor would be pitching his guidance at the right level: no piece of advice could be too basic, as I didn’t even know how to get onto a boat, let alone control one!

Once on board and clear of the marine maze, Ross allowed me to take the tiller and we headed towards South Sands. We swan-necked our way down the estuary – not because I’d challenged myself to complete some kind of slalom, but simply because it took me a while to master the art of the straight line. The trick, Ross informed me, is not to overcompensate with the tiller. Keep the turns soft and subtle.

Luckily, I like to think that my look of ‘studied concentration’ is fairly similar to the face I make when I’m terrified, so observers tend not to be able to spot the difference. At first, I was very much in the latter mood, not helped by the fact that I had taken my camera onto the dinghy. I would have survived to sail another day if we’d capsized, but I doubt my Nikon would have made it back in working order!

Keeping an eye out for traffic, from kayakers to rib-riders, demanded more attention than I’d expected. Watching the Kingsbridge and Dart estuaries from a distance, as I have countless times, gives an impression of open space and tranquillity, even when races and regattas are taking place. But on the water, even on a quiet Sunday morning, it all seems a lot busier.

The South Sands Ferry - something else to look out for.

Ross set up the sails – the mizzen, mainsail and jib as I learned – while I took in the scenery and tried to commit the terms to memory. Getting onto a boat without falling in, motoring along in a vaguely straight line and then learning three whole words struck me as enough work for the day. But of course we hadn’t even started the lesson…

The sails promptly filled and we can began moving – I thought, quite quickly – across the mouth of the estuary, when Ross said, ‘This is a plodder really. It’s not built for speed.’

Sailing out of the Kingsbridge Estuary

Ross then began talking me through the process of putting a tack in (the fourth nautical addition to my vocabulary in under an hour). This, for readers as unfamiliar with sailing as I was, is the process of changing a boat’s direction by turning it into the wind.

The process seemed clear enough in principle, especially on a small vessel like this. But it still had a tendency to disappear from my brain as soon as the words ‘Ready about!’ were heard. Still, with Ross’ patience and clear directions, it went in after just a few repetitions. The nerves began to subside and before long, I’d stopped worrying about capsizing and seeing my camera sink into the salty depths.

Ross starting to relax while learning to sail a lugger.

After an hour or so’s leisurely practice at the mouth of the estuary, we turned back inland and made our way towards South Pool Creek. Ross spends his working life on the water and has detailed knowledge of the winds that come and go as the topography of the land changes. Sure enough, the sails sag when the trees and hills to the north slow the wind, and we pick up speed when it finds its way through a gap. Ross is in no hurry, and seems to be as natural a teacher as he as a sailor, no doubt due to his years of experience at doing both.

After close to three hours on the water, it’s time to head back to dry land. The time flew – or rather sailed – by, and I’m struck by how accessible dinghy sailing can be for the first-timer, but also how essential it is to have an expert take you through it.

I had little else planned for the day, while after lunch Ross was expecting a family to arrive for a group lesson. Throughout the summer, he usually works seven days a week, along with a team of RYA instructors they employ from the local area. But rather than looking like someone staggering towards the end of a long season of gruelling outdoor work, he comes across as someone who truly loves what he does.

Ross Crook from Salcombe Dinghy Sailing

And to me, admittedly after just three hours on the water, it’s not hard to see why.

Find out more about Salcombe Dinghy Sailing here.

Salcombe Yawls on the waterIn this blog article, we asked local legend ‘Scratch Hitchen’ about what makes the Salcombe yawl special.

With beautiful waters to explore, a wide range of sailing schools and boats for hire, along with plenty of fantastic accommodation options, Salcombe is the perfect place to come and learn to sail. So why not book a lesson next time you visit? Take a look at our Salcombe holiday cottages here.