Our sailing staycation: yacht charter after lockdown

Rob Peake enjoys getting afloat again after lockdown, with a day charter from the Hamble, on the cleanest yacht known to mankind…

Perhaps against the expectations of some, the safest holiday you can undertake in the world today is on a yacht.

Yes, you still have to contend with the normal perils of life afloat – your G&T may spill as another boat’s wake sends ripples across your anchorage, and you might have to tweak the jib sheet more than once as you pootle round that nearby headland.

Who knows, you might even have to reapply some Factor 50 after an afternoon swim off the bathing platform.

Of course, in post-Covid world, what you really want to know is that the yacht you will find on your handover day will be clean enough to operate on.

I don’t get halfway through this question, when we turn up at Universal Yachting on the Hamble, for our day charter of a Dufour 412, before fleet manager Steve reassures me.

Steve has in fact spent most of the last year scrubbing hard in between charters and covering not only Universal Yachting’s fleet of Dufours but also himself in the necessary anti-viral mist.

On board, all knives and forks are in sanitised plastic bags and similar measures have been taken for other implements.

Any pandemic-induced neuroses can be dispelled. This is probably the cleanest, freshest boat we have ever been on.

Our children, aged 7 and 10, disappear down below to explore the three cavernous cabins and multitude of lockers, while Steve gives my wife Kathy and I the handover chat.

We’re only out for a day, so he doesn’t give us the long version reserved for week charters – and we pay close attention, because our own sailing together has been on a 1980s Moody, not a modern Dufour that comes bristling with the latest systems.

Steve has been kind enough to switch on and set up everything that we’ll need for the day, from batteries to plotter. We take note of the basics – VHF, emergency kit and heads procedure.

And then there is nothing for us to do other than to work out how to get this good-as-new, quarter of a million pound yacht that belongs to someone else out of the marina without an embarrassing mishap.

Both Steve and company boss Chris have given excellent advice on coming in and out of Mercury Yacht Harbour, but the Dufour is a typically massive modern yacht and we know its high side decks will cause more than a bit of windage.

We give the bowthruster a few trial squirts, leave go the lines and motor on out. We have with us Kathy’s mum, Sue Heaser, who is here partly as a thankyou for having had the kids to stay for the past week, but mostly because she’s a far better sailor than either of us.

Sue has the helm and steers the boat out into the river easily. No mishaps, the sun is shining and we’re in the Hamble, which for sailors new to the area is an attraction itself.

Sue and Kathy, both lifelong east coasters, enjoy watching ‘the cradle of yachting’ slide past to port and starboard. Jolie Brise is a highlight, neatly moored up as we motor downstream.

It’s a glorious Friday and the Solent is empty. With the help of 10-year-old Miles, who is self-appointed chart-plotter, and seven-year-old Amity on the wheel, we take an easy route towards Osbourne Bay.

The twin wheel set up on the Dufour means an adult can steer on one side, while a youngster gets the hang of it on the other. The deck and cockpit space is huge and really this boat, with eight good berths down below, could take two or three families easily.

We spread ourselves out luxuriously and settle down for a rare day afloat. It’s been a while, mainly due to parenthood rather than lockdown, since mum and dad have sailed together.

In the old days, pre-kids, we found it worked best with Kathy as skipper, while I did nav, ropes and tea. We settle into the old routine and all works fine.

There is, of course, the inevitable rustiness that comes after a long period ashore – and in 2021 after almost an entire year ashore – but luckily granny Sue has been enjoying some more regular sailing on Arthur Ransome’s Nancy Blackett on the River Deben.

Universal Yachting are keen to attract people who are newer to sailing and may want a skipper. No problem – they can provide.

Their ‘Pop Up’ days are designed to get new sailors afloat, particularly as the pandemic persuades many people that sailing is a good option if they can’t fly to the Algarve.

Unsurprisingly, Universal Yachting are already getting booked up for the summer ahead.

Nobody needs explaining how perfectly well-suited UK chartering is to the idea of bubbles, social distancing and not being able to fly.

And us Brits are blessed, of course, with some of the finest coastline in the world. Not all of it, admittedly, lies in the Solent, but as we near the Isle of Wight things get decidedly more scenic.

We potter round below Norris Castle and into Osbourne Bay, to join a handful of other yachts anchoring there for lunch.

Universal Yachting’s charter party the day before had apparently tacked all the way up the Beaulieu and explored their way up the Medina too, before arriving back at base after nine hours underway. That’s getting your money’s worth.

It’s true that the Solent is ripe for exploring, with plenty of places off the beaten track, and plenty on it.

We have a more leisurely time in mind. After sandwiches and coffee, we raise the anchor on the electric windlass and slowly get underway again.

We pootle past Cowes and take a right turn after the Brambles cardinal, heading home while enjoying more Solent sights.

Not an ambitious trip by anyone’s standards, and all the better for it!

The two children have loved their first day on a ‘megaboat’ and mum and dad have got the wind in their hair again after almost a year without getting afloat.

For more on Pop Up Sailing Days with Universal Charter click here.

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