A sailor’s life for Cara

Cara Houchen, Yacht Club Commodore Alan Dixon, Arthur Ketley and Charlie (Alan's pet dog)...
Cara Houchen, Yacht Club Commodore Alan Dixon, Arthur Ketley and Charlie (Alan's pet dog)...
Have your say

HEADING to the Sunderland Marina, I had my fingers crossed for a calm day.

As much as I love the idea of sailing, as soon as the thought enters my head, my stomach starts churning and nausea kicks in – that’s before I have even stepped foot on a boat.

But I was determined to give it a good go and when Alan Dixon welcomed me on board his beautiful yacht Charlotte, I managed to push the sea sickness to the back of my mind.

Charlotte is a 30-year-old Contester 32 (in laymans terms that’s her make and model) and Alan, who has been Commodore of Sunderland Yacht Club since December, regularly takes her out with his faithful companion, one-year-old cocker spaniel Charlie.

As Commodore, Alan is the chairman of the club, which has just over 300 members aged between 8 and 86 years old, and is run purely on a voluntary basis.

He has been a member on and off since 1978, and has sailed dinghies and keel boats, and at one point he gave up sailing to pursue wind surfing.

He soon went back to his passion, though, and in the 1980s he began sailing yachts.

He said: “It’s a magical moment when you leave the harbour and you’ve had your engine on to get out, then you switch it off and there’s silence and you’re sailing.

“It’s a great feeling using the wind to travel, it’s free, and someone else can use it afterwards.”

He added: “Cruising, which is what I do, is travelling by sea to visit other ports of interest – it’s just a beautiful way to travel.

“There is a wonderful sense of freedom and sense of achievement if you cruise. It’s knowing that you’ve got to where you planned to get to.

“If you race, however, it’s the sense of getting round the course as quickly as possible.”

Before we set sail Alan gave me a quick tour of his pretty lady Charlotte, while his second in command Arthur Ketley, who is also rear commodore at the club, got her ready to head out to sea.

Inside was a lot more spacious than I had imagined, with a bedroom, toilet and small kitchen all fitting comfortably below deck.

Alan, from Roker, has been sailing for over 50 years, and he is just as passionate now as he was when he first started.

“I was eight years old when my dad bought his first boat,” he explained. “It was one of the first cartopables (boats that are light enough to fit on top of a car roof) and I had my first sailing experience at St Mount’s Bay in Cornwall.

“It was only a 10ft boat, but from there on I was hooked. I’ve sailed ever since.”

After strapping ourselves into life jackets, including Charlie who has his own dog jacket, Alan turned on the engine and the smell of diesel followed us out of the marina.

Alongside Charlotte there are a huge variety of boats moored at the marina, from fishing boats to dinghies, and just outside these bays are the yacht club’s own moorings, which Alan told me they maintain themselves to keep the costs down for members.

He said: “It can be an expensive hobby. The average boat is about 25ft, and second-hand they can cost anything from £5,000 to £20,000. But the running costs are little more than running a car. You need to pay for insurance, maintenance and mooring, but it’s something you and your family can enjoy every day if you want to.”

He added: “I’m retired so I’m down here as much as I can be. It’s my version of the garden shed!

“But my wife is not really interested. She will get out on a sail occasionally, but only if it’s a calm day.”

As we glided past the huge barges in the port and the fishermen perched next to Roker lighthouse, Alan switched off the engine so we to could experience that ‘magical moment’.

I had not realised how loud the engine was, and suddenly all I could hear was the boat cutting through the waves. Looking back I saw Sunderland in a whole new light.

Seaburn front was illuminated by the sun, and surprisingly it was the Stadium of Light which still dominated the skyline, even a mile and a half out to sea.

Desperate to keep myself distracted to avoid focusing on the rocking motion of the boat, I asked if I could go to the very front of the yacht.

For me this was the best bit – despite having to scramble on my hands and knees to get there.

There is little room for manoeuvre once you’re on board, and as I made a grab for different ropes and poles, none of them felt particularly stable, so I decided the commando crawl was the best option.

The front of the boat was completely different. It felt like you were taking off as the boat went over each wave, and then you drop so low you think you’re going to go right under the water.

We were lucky the weather was good and the sea was calm, but it’s not always like that, and both Alan and Arthur told me that the weather can be unpredictable sometimes.

Alan said: “We’ve had our share. A force nine gale in the middle of the North Sea was not too clever.

“You think that was horrible, but then you remember all the good sails and you go back out again.

“We would never knowingly go out in bad weather though, it’s just uncomfortable if you do.”

He added: “It’s just a wonderful hobby. It’s important to realise though that it’s a sport, we don’t just laze about.

“If you’ve been out for a decent sail it’s like a full upper body aerobics session – you definitely sleep well after a good sail.”

We decided to head back to land as my sea legs were definitely wearing thin, and we pottered back at no more than four knots.

Charlotte can go up to seven knots, which is the equivalent of 8.5 miles an hour, this may not seem fast, but when she got up a bit of speed as we headed in to the marina you could definitely feel it.

Alan has sailed Charlotte all over the UK, from the Thames to the Orkney Islands, but his ambition is to sail around Britain.

He said: “It’s on my list. I’ve already seen some breathtaking places, but the possibilities are endless, and there are so many destinations I want to get to.”

Alan may have witnessed some amazing sights on his travels, but one of his favourites is right here in Sunderland.

He said: “We always go out and drop anchor for the Airshow, it’s a wonderful sight. The big jets change direction almost on top of you, and the noise is deafening.”

Back on dry land, it was photographer David who looked a little peaky – I was just pleased I had managed to keep my breakfast down.

I really enjoyed my first time on board a yacht, but if I try it again I will be taking Alan and Arthur’s advice to take a few sea sickness pills first, so I can enjoy the experience fully.

l Don’t miss tomorrow’s Echo for more water-bound action, as Alison Goulding pays a visit to Durham Amateur Rowing Club.