Sailing Scotland

Learning Family Sailing in Scotland

Dressed for sailing
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Family Sailing in Scotland

Sailing – it’ll be a great new adventure. That’s what Stuart told me. I didn’t really believe him but agreed to go anyway. That’s what I do. We booked a five day course to teach us skippering and crewing skills. Learning family sailing in Scotland. Together. At Easter. Well, the weather’s great for sailing then, isn’t it?

KIds enjoying sailing near Cumbrae Scotland

Simply enjoying the ride

Rocking like babes

We rock in our berths like newborn babies. While the sheltered marina keeps the full gale force of the wind from battering our boat, it whistles into the mast, lashes against the ropes and whips around idle winches. All around us, millions of pounds worth of yacht flap about in the wind and strain at their mooring lines. Overnight, beads of condensation form on the walls of my tiny enclosed cabin (bigger than a coffin, smaller than a cave.) They drip, drop onto my nose. The door pushes open and two little faces peer in, complaining of hunger. At least I don’t have to make breakfast. That falls to our instructor, Simon who owns the boat and is also our chef for the week. I am handed thick red dungarees and jacket. They are heavy and unwieldy; I feel like Fireman Sam on an Apollo voyage. I make my way to the deck with my family, fearing we’ll be pushing off from the safety of the pontoon into the hostile expanses of the Clyde before our breakfast has settled.

Windy weather while sailing in Scotland

It’s VERY windy, but you need wind to learn to sail. Don’t you??

Anchors away?

On deck, we meet our second instructor, Phil, and there’s information concerning prop wash, tides, and rudders. The wind blows. We struggle to remain upright on a slippy deck. We have a cup of tea and a biscuit. I fiddle nervously at a rope I later learn will hoist up the sail, enabling the transformation from close haul to broad reach. Our instructors take the helm. Hannah tentatively climbs across the cockpit onto my knee. Her wellington boot is ripped. Stuart winds gaffer tape tightly around it. She worries she’ll never be able to take it off again. I convince myself we won’t be going anywhere today. Hannah won’t need her wellies.

“Right, what do we need to think about then before setting off?” asks Simon. Unbelievably the answer isn’t wind.

Welcome to Rothesay

We head for Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Our first day is short as storms allow no opportunity for training and drills. It’s a straightforward sail and at 4pm we reach land again. Still swaying, even though we have left the boat, we seek out a chip shop on the sea front; Zavaroni’s, which we later learn is run by the sister of the more famous Lena. My mum used to love Lena Zavaroni. Mind you, she’d probably love her sister’s chips too. “Rothesay is a bit like Morecambe,” Simon briefs us before we get off the boat. “They’ve tried to regenerate it, but unfortunately too little, too late.” The settlement is dominated by Lena’s family who have café’s all along the sea front. But most tourists are in the pound shop.

Relaxing ashore after a hard days sailing

There are moments of sunshine and relaxation too

Piglets from the pound shop

We buy pound shop scarves and pens with pink Piglets on. We wrap the scarves tight around our necks as we brave the rain and wind, past the deserted crazy golf course. We take another opportunity for shelter in the public toilets. The man who has looked after these restored Victorian conveniences on a full time basis for the past 14 years is very keen that I see them in all their glory. This apparently involves a brief visit to men’s. I stand uncomfortably, studying the blue tiled urinals, worrying that someone might need to spend a penny.

Largs Marina, Scotland

Largs Marina. Now we’ve left it, I’m missing that dry, solid mainland!

Day 2: Sailing from Rothesay – Tarbet

Our instructor Simon stands behind Stuart. Stuart stands behind the wheel. We set a course for Tarbert, about five hours of sailing time away. The wind is strong. Stuart is being quizzed on wind direction, and is required to alter the course as the wind changes, and make the calls for any resulting change of sail position. I am terrified it’s going to be my turn next. I enjoyed the helm yesterday, but only because we were travelling in one direction and bouncing along over the waves. If I’m honest, the best bit of the day was the chips at the end. As the day progresses, wind and tide go against us. Stuart has to make some decisions. Thankfully there is no time for my turn. We pull up into the marina. I am supposed to take the bowline and jump onto the pontoon but the boat is too far away. Matt grabs the rope and vaults over the side of the boat in one easy move.

Captain Stuart relaxing on deck

Captain Stuart relaxing on deck – he seems happy enough

Let’s play cards instead

We eat late and teach instructors Simon and Phil how to play the card game Donkey. Phil is the Donkey. I don’t think he likes playing Donkey. On a late night trip to the toilets I learn that Stuart’s responsibilities and duties today are all going towards earning his Day Skipper qualification. I am not working towards that. My relief at not having to take the helm and direct the rest of the crew to competently manage sails/reefs/compass/wind direction is massive.

In port in Tarbert

In port in Tarbert. Hannah is unfazed by the whole sailing thing.

Day 4: Portovadie – Largs

Stuart and I sneak off to the posh toilets for a shower, and then back to the bar for an early morning coffee, leaving the two instructors to babysit. When we come back there is breakfast on the table and the kids are dressed. Phil and Simon have passed their competent parenting certificate. Today I am hoping to master competent crew. But it’s not to be.

Half an hour into sailing, Cameron notices “a bit of a puddle” in the cabin. Five minutes later we all have that sinking feeling.  The two instructors are downstairs, shouting at us to pump away at the bilge pump. I am at the helm. On my own. I still haven’t mastered the points of sailing. I make Stuart take the wheel, and I take the bilge pump handle. Cameron and I do shifts on the bilge pump, trying to clear the water out of the boat. The bilge pump isn’t working. Matthew hand pumps water from the centre of the boat into a bucket. Two buckets a minute. Phil gives the the bucket to me and I throw it over the side and pass it back. Simon is calm as he passes up the emergency grab bag, containing radio, flares and smoke canister, and then he lets the coastguard know we are in trouble.

Family Sailing

Is everyone enjoying themselves?

A prop shaft sized hole in the boat

It seems the propeller has come out, taking with it the prop shaft. There is a prop shaft sized hole in the boat. Phil is cutting a bung while Simon has his hand over the hole. The coastguard alerts the RNLI because we have a four year old on board.

“Cup of tea?” asks Simon.

I’m a dedicated fan of having a hot drink at any time. But now?


“Really. We’ve put a bung in…we’re not sinking any more. We just have to work out how we’re going to get back to Largs.”

RNLI approaching yacht in distress

RNLI approaching yacht in distress – they’re coming

And now the RNLI are coming

Cameron spots a red boat in the distance. Its crew are wearing helmets and outfits that look like space suits. They pull up beside us and two of them climb on board.

RNLI rescue - boarding the yacht

RNLI rescue – boarding the yacht. They’re here….

“Cup of tea?”asks Simon.


“Really. We’ve put a bung in and stopped the sinking.”

RNLI rescue - boarding the yacht

RNLI rescue. We’re coming aboard…

Saved by a bung?

“Well done for carrying a bung,” says the RNLI man. “Most boats don’t.”

He takes our details down with the pink Piglet pen from the pound shop. Satisfied we aren’t going to sink, they power away. Unfortunately the RNLI man takes Piglet with him in the pocket of his space suit.

RNLI aboard for rescue

All looks safe enough here…

Time for a brew on the way home

We now have the task of getting back to Largs. We have to do that on sail power alone as the motor won’t work. Luckily there is wind. And thankfully the kettle works on gas. We have another cup of tea. It takes a further six hours and several more cups of tea to get back to Largs Marina amid deteriorating weather. Stuart takes the helm and I hang out with the kids and Phil, who asks the children if they can do a reef knot. They all swiftly do one.

“They’re very good granny knots,” says Simon.

“Dad taught us them,” say the kids, proudly. I smugly do a correct reef knot and hope a ‘points of sailing’ quiz won’t follow.

Young boy takes the helm on family learn to sail course in Scotland

Still time for a little tuition

High and dry

We are towed into the marina and lifted high out of the water by a large crane. There is no propeller or prop shaft to be seen.

Yacht being lifted out of the water in Largs Marina

That’s the end of that course then!

We go for chips in town. We need to sit inside and warm up. The adrenine rush of the day has left me with a headache. The chip shop counter is inside a curry house. We have fish and chips with Indian tomato relish. We take fish and chips back to Simon and Phil who are sitting in the boat by the water, about ten foot off the ground. We have to winch Hannah up with a rope and life jacket. The rest of us climb a ladder. We sleep soundly, without water, wind or sail noise, hoping that no one needs the toilet in the night. In our floating hotel that no longer floats.

Day 5: High & dry in Largs

Today is cancelled. Well all tuition and sailing are anyway.  Breakfast is however served in the marina café. Scottish sausage, bacon and eggs. It’s never tasted so good. Over coffee Simon offers us a free sailing course later in the year. We accept.

“Are we in line for incompetent crew certificates?” we ask.

“Oh you’ve earned those,” says Simon, still smiling through adversity. He is waiting to hear whether the boatyard or any of the workshops nearby have the right size of prop shaft to plug the hole in his home.

Yacht being lifted out of the water in Largs Marina

Out of the water… high and dry

But better people..

We say goodbye, make our way back to our car and climb in, knowing we are better people now. We are survivors. We had expected to be sailors; we’re not there yet.

But we have taken charge of a helm of a yacht. We have emptied bucketfuls of the Clyde over the side of a yacht. We have met a lifeboat and its crew. We have enjoyed a challenge and a drama and a nice cup of tea.

Young boy takes the helm on family learn to sail course in Scotland

Yacht being lifted out of the water in Largs Marina

We did it. As a family..

And we have done it as a family. They didn’t even do that on the Titanic.

What an Easter holiday…and we’ve only been away a week.

Sailing an uneasy partnership

Not the easiest of sailors

And the best bit was?

“What was the best bit of your holiday boys?”


“What about you Hannah?”


“Now Mum, where’s my Piglet pen?”

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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