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Sailing on the Lakes

The Lake District is without question one of the most beautiful areas of Britain. Strangely, however, most visitors spend little time on the lakes themselves (actually meres, tarns, waters and one lake if we are being picky), other than perhaps taking the ferry across Windermere , or one of the steamers there, on Derwentwater, Coniston, or Ullswater. They are missing out.
From the deck of a sailing cruiser or dinghy on one of the permitted waters you get to observe secret little nooks and crannies along the shore, jumping trout, cliffs and falls hidden from all but the most clued-up of hikers. There is a very different perspective to the hills as well, framed between the often glassy surface of the water and the blue of the sky.
Sailing on the lakes is then a marvellous experience. However twee his prose Arthur Ransome captured like no other the spirit of adventure, discovery, and the simple joy of messing about in boats in the region – his setting for Swallows and Amazons a composite of Coniston and Windermere. It’s a great place to learn to sail as well, with many specialist organisations offering courses for complete beginners from tots to retirees. Coniston Boating Centre, Glenridding Sailing Centre (from personal experience a very friendly place) on Ullswater, River Deep Mountain High on Windermere and Coniston, Royal Windermere Yacht Club , Low Wood Activity Centre , and a host of others can take you from newbie to confident in a few days. Why not consider learning to sail – and giving your kids that skill too – as the focus of a break, or to add another dimension to a longer holiday in the Lakes?
Some hotels, camping sites and other centres can help out with local knowledge and recommendations, and some even have their own jetties and launching facilities. We have extensive lists of accommodation in the region, check out our Cumbria pages.
If you are an experienced sailor but don’t have a boat, or don’t fancy towing it to the area and more dauntingly along the often twisting, dipping and narrow roads there, there are plenty of places at which you can hire craft: Glenridding Sailing Centre again, Derwent Water Marina and Platty Plus near Keswick , Low Wood Watersports, and several others.
The National Trust and local authorities allow launching of your own boats in a few places. Fell Foot on Windermere and Harrowslack on the same water charge for the privilege. Buttermere is restricted to 10 craft, no power craft; likewise Crummock Water (though there are no launching facilities there), both requiring local purchase of permits. Derwentwater is also free of powered craft. You will see dinghies swooping along Bassenthwaite Lake , but only members of its sailing club enjoy that privilege, though it is extended for a small fee to RYA members and members of affiliated clubs.
What do experienced sailors need to know about sailing on the lakes? Windermere and Coniston, and presumably Derwent Water , often benefit from an afternoon sea breeze thanks to their position. The weather, however, can be fiendishly changeable – do check the local forecasts. Windermere as the largest lake offers plenty of room for long runs and tacks, but it is also full of gin-palaces some of which seem ignorant of the 10mph limit – sadly some of them are ignorant full stop. Ullswater , further inland and certainly at the southern end more bowl-like, sees frequent changes of wind direction as valleys are reached, and notable katabatic winds dropping down the surrounding slopes. There are plenty of places for supplies – a huge store by the lake in Bowness , for example, and companies like Ullswater Marine with experience in outboard repair and similar services.
One more fact must be remembered: the lakes are generally very deep, and even in the summer once away from the shallows the water is very cold indeed. Wetsuits, waterproofs, or at the very least a change of clothes ready at the end of the day’s sailing should all be considered.
Sailing is a wonderful pastime. It can be frustrating, brilliant, rewarding and joyous in the space of a few minutes. Over a couple of days it can test the stamina, and over a lifetime empty the pockets. In the Lake District it is also a ticket to beauty: that little cove where no walkers ever make it; the awareness of the conditions it brings. It is also a passport to adventure, albeit one hopes controlled: swinging round a little island which makes kids feel like a mini Columbus; getting a tack (for once) just right, making dad or mum feel for a micro-second maybe that single-handed round-the-world trip is possible. Maybe not though. Give it a go. There is something in our make-up that draws us to the water (though buoyancy aids should always be worn!) Even the most teen of teenagers will force a smile out at some point on a trip, and it does wonders for the confidence of youngsters. In the evening in your hotel , cabin, caravan or cottage you can feel the satisfaction of a job well done, and will have the same appetite as those who have spent all day building blisters.

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