As a child, I was fascinated by the Swallows and Amazons stories: all that messing about in dinghies on the Lakes, those so-plausible-they-might-be-true adventures.
The sense of freedom and self-reliance that Arthur Ransome described was part of a different world, one where father trusted his brood – “better drowned than duffers” – to muddle through whatever the odds. Sure, the gender stereotyping hasn’t aged well – and no one, even in the 1930s, should ever be called Titty – but gosh those kids had fun.
The seventh book in the series, We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea, was a particular favourite: John, Susan, Titty and Roger find themselves navigating from Harwich to Holland after the yacht they’ve been sailing drags its anchor in fog. Suddenly the Swallows are alone on a proper seagoing vessel for the first time, and they have to learn the ropes really rather quickly.
They lose the anchor; John nearly falls overboard; there’s a peculiar interlude when they rescue a kitten from the middle of the North Sea. And then, in a quite staggering coincidence, they arrive in Flushing (Vlissingen) just as their dad is leaving the harbour to meet them back at Harwich. He leaps aboard, is impressed once again with the resourcefulness of his children, and everything ends well.
Anyway, that particular adventure is where I learnt about bowline knots, and port and starboard lights, and reefing, and mainsails, and where Flushing is, and what you call kittens when you rescue them from the sea (Sinbad). Ransome sketches the mechanics of yacht sailing so vividly that I felt I was there with the Swallows, feeling every wave, hauling every sheet. But that’s as far as it went. I’ve never lived near the sea, I’ve never messed about in dinghies, my yacht sailing was entirely vicarious. Until now.
Whereas John and his siblings had to get to grips with handling their vessel over one turbulent night, it turned out that Neilson – a tour operator known for resorts that expand your activity skill set while at the same time allowing you to collapse on a sun lounger should you so wish – would allow my family to do the same over a fortnight.
Where the Swallows had to cross a windy, chilly North Sea, Neilson offered up the sun-soaked Ionian version, frisked by a light breeze. The Swallows bought some clogs in Holland and adopted the kitten; apparently we’d be able to purchase inflatable flamingos in the resort shop and adopt quite a lot of Greek wine.
Dazzled at the prospect, I convinced my somewhat dubious family – no member of which is called Titty – that we should give it a try.
Truth turns out to be a great deal more enjoyable than fiction on a Neilson “Stay and Sail” holiday. One week is spent submerged in the various delights of Neilson’s Retreat Beachclub at Sivota on Greece’s Ionian coast, during which four days are spent being trained up to “Introduction to Yachting Level 2” standard (as certificated by the Royal Yachting Association).
Then, provided you can prove you know your port from your starboard, you’re given your own boat and sent off with a few other equally surprised-looking families for seven more nights as part of a flotilla, pottering between Corfu and Paxos.
They’re not cheap, these boats, as Phil, our trainer pointed out. I checked on yachtworld.co.uk, the yachties’ equivalent of eBay, when I got home. He’s right: it’s £90,000 for a fairly new Darfour 375, the type we were due to sail. Hence the need to concentrate. You don’t, as Phil said, want to be crunching the stern against the harbour wall in a fit of overcommitted parking. (You “park” your boat in a marina, apparently. I found the term strangely relaxing.)
So it was that three out of the four members of my family – our younger son, aged 13, decided the kids’ clubs looked like too much fun to commit wholeheartedly to the learning process – found ourselves practising man-overboard drills and discovering how to navigate using maps (sorry, charts) and dividers.
We hoisted mainsails, pulled on sheets and checked our bilges. We worked out how to drop anchor using the windlass. And we learnt to park, which our 16-year-old turned out to be rather good at.
There are few more idyllic places in the world to call a classroom, with the water every shade of blue and Paxos lurking like a vast grey crocodile offshore. Corfu seemed close enough to touch sometimes, while to the north we could just make out Albania.
The Greek mainland was, of course, rather closer: parched and freckled in green, hills bulging like jelly moulds, with bright bays to splash about in every lunchtime. The winds, too, were perfect: strong enough to enjoy the thrill of sailing, but not so strong as to get us into trouble.
Back on shore, Neilson’s Retreat Beachlub scrapes upwards in a series of terraces that makes just getting back to your room from the beach feel like the equivalent of half an hour of Zumba. And should you wish instead to do half an hour of Zumba, then that is also available, along with a menu of other options, from paddleboarding to yoga, Pilates, tennis, dinghy sailing, water skiing and windsurfing, with classes run by a team of tanned and buff Neilson employees.
Our spacious “garden sea view” rooms were reached via a twisting path that tiptoed past olive trees, hibiscus and bougainvillea. They were quietly functional rather than fancy, but provided a blessed escape during the – extremely brief – periods we had available between activities.
All-inclusive sustenance arrived from a groaning buffet that was as tasty – with plenty of Greek salad and baklava – as it was copious. On the two non-inclusive nights, we wandered down the hill to the pretty local town, a scoop of harbour rammed with boats, for dips-and-olive-based meals (the Swallows, I recalled, had to make to with tins of “pemmican” and the odd bottle of “grog”).
We managed a strenuous cycle to nearby Plataria; we tried Pilates in the pool; and we even collapsed on those sun loungers occasionally. I could go on, but you get the gist: staying in a Neilson resort is like having someone continually sculpt your perfect family day out, which in turn transforms you, briefly, into the perfect family.
Then, halfway through our fortnight, we walked down the resort’s jetty to sleep on our yacht for the first time. Ray was our skipper, in charge of eight boats, including our 37-footer, called Barcelona. He was also responsible for our route and would, ever calm, help us park at night. His catchphrase, “slow is pro”, is one that I have carried with me ever since.
Jan, his wife, was also his mate, and made sure we had all the information we needed, from where we’d be meeting for dinner to whether there was a shower available in the harbour, to paying port fees and the best places to fill up with water, spinach pastries and beer.
Finally, there was Allan the “enjo”, a salty sea dog who was in charge of engines, on-board lavatories (smelly, there’s no getting away from this) and fouled anchor chains.
The next morning we all hoisted our sails to start our first passage: a short hop north to Plataria. Here, after a nerve-racking few hours afloat, the flotilla parked up to bond over sundowners and a vast fish dinner on the quayside. The children made friends; the adults shared anecdotes of sailing incompetence.
From here we quickly hit our sun-blessed stride: first, a morning talk from the ebullient Ray, who handed out GPS coordinates and a deadline for reaching the next destination, as well as suggestions of places to stop for lunch.
We’d shop for breakfast, then we’d set sail to one of the idyllic coves on Ray’s list, where we would anchor, snorkel and eat Greek salad before sailing off again. Finally we’d park, have dinner in port with our new flotilla friends and fall asleep on our yacht.
On a prosaic level, it’s rather like a caravanning holiday: because of those lavatories, yes, but also because you potter from place to place with all your belongings; because you’re constantly searching out a decent shower; and because the interior of your vehicle is decked out in fake wood.
Overtaking isn’t a problem though, and more romantically, the boys decided to sleep out under the stars on the roof of the boat each night, and each harbour was utterly different, yet delightful.
How different? Allow me a moment of nauticality: we anchored “stern to” on that first night at Plataria and swam next to a sleepy promenade in the early evening light. At the marina in Corfu Town (“bows to”) we climbed ancient steps to seek out dinner in the alleys of the old town. At the lovely village of Lakka on Paxos, we simply dropped anchor in the bay with a host of other yachts, before rowing to shore in our tender for a wine-soaked evening in a taverna.
It was “bows to” anchoring (with a kedge and stern lines, for all you pros out there) at Mongonissi in the south of Paxos, where a model boat competition was arranged by Jan. And back on the mainland at Parga, we hit the beach on purpose, so that Ray could drag the anchor up on to the shore. Dinner that night was a swanky affair, before the boys set off for a morning’s watersports.
We always felt safe, plotting routes on our chart every morning and communicating with the other vessels, however distant, via VHF radio. And we only properly messed up once, at Emerald Bay on Antipaxos, where we cruised in to anchor with our sails up (really, not a good thing to do) and nearly collided with several cross captains as we beat a retreat.
Other, less extreme, incidents included forgetting to put our fenders out and an embarrassing moment with a kedge anchor. Each was a little adventure of its own, a story to tell when our flotilla finally made its way back to Sivota, with Ray handing out certificates for everything from “best at parking”, to “most relaxed skipper”, to “most shipshape ship”.
We hadn’t drowned; we weren’t duffers. Like us, you may never have meant to go to sea, but you’ll be awfully glad when you do.
Ben Ross travelled as a guest of Neilson (0333 014 3350; neilson.co.uk/beach) which offers a two-week stay-and-sail holiday at the Retreat Beachclub in Greece, from £1,782 per adult and £1,475 per child (2-14 years), based on travel on July 21 2019. The price includes return flights from Stansted, resort transfers, seven nights in interconnecting garden rooms on a club board basis, water sports and activities, and kids’ clubs
(2-17 years). For the second week, you move onto your own yacht on a self-catering basis and explore the Ionian as part of a flotilla, with a lead crew. For those new to sailing, the four-day Introduction to Yachting course is an essential part of the first week and costs £239pp.