I can’t decide whether or not the unique language in sailing that we use is a good thing. The constant dumbing-down of sailing for TV audiences drives me crazy, because I think if the audience is sufficiently interested, they’ll take the time to find out what a ‘violent luff’ or a ‘Chinese gybe’ is. I don’t know about you, but I can watch and enjoy a football or rugby match without necessarily understanding every nuance or subtlety of the game.  

But I was reminded just how difficult and weird our sailing language is, when I took part in Cadet Week at my home club, Stokes Bay Sailing Club. It was a good opportunity to introduce my kids to sailing for the first time. It was an eye-opener for them, but for me too. After sailing for more than 30 years, this was the first time I’d spent a week sailing with absolute beginners, both the kids and their parents. It was a reminder that learning to sail is a lot learning to drive - you have to get used to doing five or more things all at once. A bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy, but much harder.  

One of the things I soon realised that the concept of ‘up’ for towards the wind, and ‘down’ for away from the wind, was most lost on deaf ears. Understandable, when you think about it. When you’re sailing a boat on the surface of the water, you don’t really want to go ‘down’. Not unless you were on a submarine. Similarly, ‘up’ seems a bit optimistic, unless you’re sailing a foiling Moth. So the idea of ‘towards’ or ‘away’ from the wind seemed a better use of terminology, except that I soon discovered that the knowledge of where the wind is coming from is not in-built to the human psyche either.  

As sailors, we get so used to the tell-tail signs of the wind direction that we take it for granted. The waves tell you where the wind is coming from, right? But it turns out this stuff isn’t at all obvious to the absolute beginner. I started to remember why many of us put burgees at the top of the mast.  

I did a good deal of the Cadet Week sailing on board a Laser 16 with the owner, Ian Bugden, and about 10 kids at a time. This Laser 16 came with a roller-furling una-rig, where the sail rolls up into the mast. With a high boom and the ability to set as much or as little of the sail as you want, it is one of the safest boats imaginable, and perfect for the job of taking kids - or adults - sailing for the first time. Trouble was, most of the kids wanted to jump overboard and go swimming. Meanwhile, the Topper group were all busy capsizing.  

What’s with the falling in the water thing? I thought boats were all about staying dry on top of the water. But of course, that’s not the whole story, is it! Messing about in boats is what it’s all about, and if falling off your boat is more fun than staying on board, then why not?  

Overseen by the indefatigable Grace Clark, we had some serious racing talent running some of the groups including Grace’s husband Derek - 470 Olympian, current 49er coach and designer of multiple dinghy classes - and our club Commodore, Nick Harrison, coach to Iain Percy and the late Bart Simpson for London 2012. But for Cadet Week, competitive instincts were cast aside in the name of fun, and getting wet for the sake of getting wet.  

Capsizing my Topper was all I wanted to do when I first taught myself to sail on Island Barn Reservoir back in 1981. I guess capsizing is the one thing you can truly claim to be good at when first learning to sail! Since then, of course, the racing bug took over and like most of us, the priority has been to avoid the capsize at all costs. But ultimately, racing is just a more structured form of messing about in boats. My first introduction to racing was to go on a racing course on the Isle of Wight, organised by Bryan Willis with expert input from John Caig, a former Fireball World Champion who saw the potential for making the Topper a one-design race boat for people who were too little to compete in the Laser (there was only the Standard rig in those days, no Radial or 4.7 options).  

Back in the sepia-toned early 80s, we kids in our Toppers set out from Stokes Bay, as it happens, to sail across to Bryan’s sailing HQ at Wootton Creek. So seeing the kids messing about in boats at Cadet Week reminded me of my first time sailing on the sea, on those very same waves at Stokes Bay 30 years earlier.  

Meanwhile, Bryan is better known these days as the world’s leading expert on the Racing Rules, and this summer has been chairing an international jury that has made some of the most controversial but much admired decisions in the 34th America’s Cup. As Bryan would no doubt point out to those team members of Oracle Team USA who were punished for making illegal adjustments to the team’s three AC45 catamarans, messing about in boats is fine, and should be encouraged. But this should never be confused with messing about with boats.