Join Falmouth's sailing fraternity

The sailing event may be held in Weymouth and Portland during the London 2012 Olympic Games, but competitors had to undergo a gruelling qualification process that ended in the pretty Cornish town of Falmouth. We sent Jonny Payne to find his sea legs.

Having seen local lad and three-time Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie make light work of the waves off Falmouth the previous day during the Finn Gold Cup – which cemented the final qualification places for the London 2012 Olympics Finn class – sailing looked relatively straightforward. Admittedly, the absence of wind that caused the race to be abandoned may have had something to do with it.

Today, however, as I prepare to take to the water myself, there’s luckily enough of a breeze to set sail. After instructing me on how to rig the Bosun dinghy, which looks very sturdy (despite some water inching in), Nick, my tutor, sets us on our way from the charming quayside. He tells me to pull the jib sail so it’s in line with the main sail that he’s controlling from the stern, and the boat navigates neatly out of port.

We're heading out into the world’s third deepest natural harbour, which has allowed Falmouth to grow over the centuries as a key maritime hub. Not only did Ainslie hone his talents in the mouth of the River Fal but Dame Ellen MacArthur chose to complete her record-breaking solo circumnavigation here. What’s more, the town is also home to the Pendennis super yacht builders and the impressive Falmouth Week regatta every August.

Falmouth sailingTake to the helm during a sailing lesson
WTG / Jonny Payne


As we bob about in the harbour on this warm summer's day with Henry VII’s Pendennis Castle standing proud to starboard and its twin St Mawes Castle to port, we're passed by local families on sailing vessels of all shapes, sizes and budgets. Seemingly here, gaining your sea legs comes before learning to crawl.

It’s soon my turn to be helmsman. I take hold of the tiller (which controls the rudder) in one hand and the sheet (the rope controlling the main sail) with the other and follow Nick’s instructions to tack (a sharp turn to change direction in order to catch more wind in the sail). Remarkably the boat starts to turn smoothly, but I’m soon all fingers and thumbs and find myself entangled by a python-like length of rope. After a few more attempts, however, I seem to have mastered the basics and can at least turn without getting myself in too much of a muddle.

We head out towards the open water and St Mawes across the bay, which Nick describes as “quite posh” and “full of gin palaces for the yachty types”. If the wind had been stronger, I would have attempted the crossing…it sounded fun. But the light wind sets us at a gentle pace for which I’m quite grateful.

After an hour or so, Nick feels it’s time to try a gybe turn, my last manoeuvre of the day. This time, instead of pushing the tiller away from me, I’m told to pull it towards me. The boom comes across very quickly and I duck out of the way while transferring my weight to the other side. It’s very quick and again takes a while to get used to, especially avoiding the boom which could easily knock even the most aware into the deep-blue abyss below.

Let the crew make the brew

Falmouth River FalExplore the mile-wide mouth of the River Fal
Cornwall Marine Network


If doing it all yourself seems like too much hard work, why not charter a boat for the day and explore Cornwall’s spectacular coastline, from Falmouth’s beaches and pretty St Mawes to The Lizard peninsula or Land’s End (the most southerly mainland point of the United Kingdom and the most westerly mainland point of England respectively).

A number of yacht charter companies are located in and around Falmouth. Among them Trysail offers crewed day sailing packages, which let you explore the Fal estuary in style with breaks for a Cornish deli lunch and afternoon tea. If you want to 'muck in' you’ll have the chance; or alternatively, put your feet up and make the most of the spectacular views.

Explore historic Falmouth

Falmouth certainly lives up to Cornish clichés, but in a subtle, tasteful way. After getting off the quaint two-carriage Maritime Line train from Truro at Falmouth Town Station, I soon pass pastel-coloured guesthouses with lovingly tended pot plants and sprawling rockeries.

As I head into town, I come across independent cafés, shops and restaurants hugging undulating streets that are crossed by narrow alleyways from both sides, like the skeletal remains of a fish.

Falmouth attractionsDelve into Falmouth's maritime history
iStockphoto / Thinkstock


There are pasty shops crammed full of the tasty, meaty parcels, and tea rooms serving cream teas and crab sandwiches – there’s even a place where you can have a go at making your own pasty (Choaks Bakery on Killigrew Street if you’re interested).

The various quays hidden at the end of narrow streets off the main bunting-strewn thoroughfare are peppered with locals’ hangouts, which I half imagine to be full of the sounds of fishermen dancing merrily to sea shanties. Among these is the Wheel House Crab & Oyster Bar, a gem of a place serving unfussy seafood that even most residents have yet to discover.

The older part of town soon gives way to the modern Discovery Quay, home to celebrity chef Rick Stein’s fish and chip shop, seafood bar and delicatessen. The National Maritime Museum Cornwall, which has a fascinating array of exhibits charting the town’s historic importance as a fishing port and as a key hub for trans-Atlantic communications, can also be found here. While just over the headland there are various swathes of sand, none more impressive than the crescent-shaped Gyllynvase Beach.

Falmouth foodSample fresh shellfish or steaming pasties in Falmouth's eateries
WTG / Jonny Payne


Falmouth also provides a good base from which to explore Cornwall’s other major attractions, including the Eden Project, the Tate gallery at St Ives, St Michael’s Mount, and the towns of Newquay and Padstow, which are all an hour or less away.

Far from being a hangout for coachloads of pensioners that's more befitting of other coastal towns on the south coast, Falmouth has a young and upbeat feel. This is thanks, in part, to its attraction as a sailing destination suitable to all levels of sailor, from beginner to expert. And given its glut of water sports facilities, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the ‘next’ Ben Ainslie emerge from these waters in the not too distant future.

Need to know:

How to get there: First Great Western trains from London and other major destinations.
Where to stay: St Michael’s Hotel & Spa, overlooking Gyllynvase Beach. Rooms from £118. Find the cheapest deal for St Michael’s Hotel & Spa with World Travel Guide.
Learning to sail: Falmouth School of Sailing offers two-day learning to sail packages from £165.
Yacht charter: Trysail sailing packages £75 per person, including lunch and cream tea.

For more information on Falmouth, contact Falmouth Tourist Office or Visit Cornwall.

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