Sailing vacations in the UK

“Our sailing vacations are about creating experiences, but they are also about building a community,” observes Nicolas Borchers, one of the skippers at our partner Naleia Yachting. “Many of our travelers are still in touch with each other years after their first trip together.

“Naleia started simply, with a group of like-minded friends who loved to sail and an idea that we would organise these trips and everyone would play a part on board. The trips have always been cross-cultural and cross-generational, with participants aged from 20 to 80. So Naleia grew from there, and now we have some people who have done seven or more trips. They keep coming back and meeting up with old friends.”

Sailing vacations have that rare quality of bringing together a group of people – often complete strangers to each other – and allowing close bonds to form very quickly. It is not unusual, as Nicolas points out, to make long-lasting friendships if you’re all part of the crew: keeping close quarters, sharing experiences and responsibilities with your fellow passengers, and coming to depend on each other.

Where can I go on a sailing vacation in the UK?

Most UK sailing vacations explore the west coast of Scotland and the Inner and Outer Hebrides, where the waters teem with marine wildlife. These trips typically see you either joining a handful of other passengers on a fully crewed boat for walks, photography and whisky tasting, or chartering a vessel privately for a family or group of friends.

However, there are plenty of people out there who would like to either learn the ropes or improve their skills and knowledge by pitching in with onboard duties. Beginner sailing vacations tend to be found in the calm waters of Greece or Croatia. But for those looking for something with a little more technical challenge and excitement, there is the option of crossing the Channel between England and France, navigating the busiest shipping lane in the world.

“We don’t run this trip every year, because there aren’t so many people ready for this level of sailing or want it,” says Nicolas. “But it’s one of my favourites among all of our vacations. It’s a great atmosphere and a great way to develop sailing abilities and approach a higher level.”

What do UK sailing vacations involve?

Crew vs passenger

Your role on a sailing vacation depends on what you consider the meaning of a sailing vacation to be. Most trips involve someone else doing the work, while you enjoy the views, wildlife, activities and meals. In many cases you will be welcome to pitch in a little if you like, helping with the sails or taking a turn at the wheel under the supervision of the crew. But it’s not expected.

But you can also find UK sailing vacations, such as crossing the Channel between England and France where you serve as an active part of the crew. These are a great option if you want to become a more competent sailor yourself. You will be required to help out throughout, from keeping watch at night to helping to navigate, as well as chipping in with all the other little ‘household tasks’.

“The crew shops according to the situation each day,” says Nicolas. “Perhaps we’re low on something or the fridge may be low on battery, so we need less chilled stuff. Then they prepare meals in the galley. Then there is cleaning, washing up… the amount all depends on the crew’s tolerance for mess! We want people to sail the boat themselves.”

What will I be doing each day?

Your day-to-day life on a UK sailing vacation depends on the type of trip you opt for. On a Scotland wildlife cruise, for instance, you might circumnavigate the Isle of Mull in search of basking sharks, porpoises, dolphins, eagles, seals and minke whales – so nothing too exciting there, then – with binoculars always at the ready.

Your ship might carry kayaks you can borrow or you might sail with an expert photography teacher who can help you improve your compositions. You might stop off at a distillery here and there, take a stroll on a beach, wander a few local shops in a town such as Tobermory – essentially, have a relaxed time of it.

“Everyone is busy for a lot of the time while crossing the Channel,” says Nicolas. “And then a lot of the time we’re doing nothing, just watching the coast go by. We often stop to check out land, and one of the aims with the cross-Channel trip is to explore the Channel Islands. Exploring is a big part of our sailing vacations. We always set aside time in harbours to do something, whether it’s to climb a mountain or hire scooters for a day.”

Your daily tasks will be handed out by an experienced skipper, with everyone expected to pitch in as and when necessary. You might take the helm, keep watch at night, plot the route using charts, or simply make a round of teas for everyone. Everything is done collaboratively, under the watchful eye of your skipper.

Do I need sailing experience?

On most sailing vacations in Scotland, you won’t need to lift a finger unless you want to, with a full crew handling the boat as well as meal preparation. Cross-Channel sailing vacations, however, do require at least some prior experience.

“The Channel is different,” agrees Nicolas. “It’s not the Med. This trip is not really for beginners because it can’t be done in a day. A night crossing is required and the skipper needs to rest too, so they need to be able to trust the crew to steer, navigate and avoid traffic. The skipper has to know their crew’s capabilities and limits, as it’s very busy, especially at night, with loads of lights around. It’s quite easy to get disorientated.”
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What’s life like on board?

These are small ship sailing vacations, so there will usually be 6-11 passengers in total. Sharing a cabin with another person is the norm, although you can often pay a supplement to have it to yourself. It’s worth noting that the bed arrangements vary – if you’re crossing the English Channel by yacht, for example, your cabin may have a double bed or two singles. Living arrangements are compact, even cramped at times, but you’ll get used to them quickly. Bathrooms are shared, although water is limited.

The types of vessels available on UK sailing vacations range from handsome tall ships and ex-passenger ferries and lifeboats to ocean-faring sailboats that have tackled the Pacific, Antarctic and African coastlines. They’re comfortable, practical and reliable. Everyone comes together in communal areas, whether that’s on the outdoor decks or in a roomy saloon, which will have a fully equipped galley kitchen for preparing meals. There will be a small fridge on board, so you can chill your evening wine, and if you’re taking your teenagers sailing around Scotland, you can reassure them that they can charge their devices throughout the trip.

How do I get to my boat?

“Sailing is a very environmentally friendly way of traveling,” says Nicolas. “We use wind power as much as possible. But to be honest, it is a worry how people usually need to fly to their departure point, which is why we have started offering information to our travelers on how they can get to their boat overland to help them cut their carbon footprint.”

Happily, this is less of an issue with UK sailing vacations, where if you’re coming from Europe the best way to arrive is by rail, traveling under the Channel by Eurostar. An overnight sleeper runs from London to Scotland, and you can connect with the West Highland Line in Glasgow, taking you to Oban – the launching point for many Hebrides sailing vacations.

If you’re on a cross-Channel sailing vacation, then you’ll likely cast off from the Isle of Wight. There are dozens of ferry crossings every day from mainland ports such as Portsmouth and Southampton, which are around two hours from London by train.

If you want a sailing vacation with your carbon footprint kept to the absolute minimum, our vacation partners and our own friendly Travel Team are always happy to advise on how you can get to your boat overland.

Best time to go on a UK sailing vacation

“Summer is definitely the best time to go on a UK sailing vacation, given the British weather!” says Nicolas. “In terms of winds, you reliably get westerlies, but in summer there is less chance of the gales that can force you to stay in harbour. That is one of the big challenges with crossing the Channel, as you don’t have much of a time window. It’s important to state beforehand that because the weather is unpredictable, there is a risk that we won’t manage the crossing, so we might sail around the coast instead. But then isn’t that flexibility the joy of sailing anyway?”

In Scotland, the sailing season spans from April to October; the winter seas are too rough and obscure wildlife. Summer is midge season in Scotland, and your skipper will keep you on the move at dusk to avoid them.

“April is often fantastic here,” says Julie Dubois Marshall, Managing Director of our partner St Hilda Sea Adventures. “Spring is in the air, the flowers are growing, and the puffins arrive at the end of the month. Everything is coming back to life after the cold. Most Aprils recently have been really warm too.”

As for what to pack: “I’d recommend that guests bring lots of layers. These are such fantastic trips and really enjoyable if you’re well equipped. We can get all four seasons in one day, even in the middle of summer, so lots of layers that you can or remove as you warm up or get cold is perfect.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: pxfuel] [Intro: Draco2008] [Where can I go on a sailing vacation in the UK?: Gunnar Ridderstrom] [What will I be doing each day?: Draco2008] [What’s life like on board?: Tyler Karaszewski] [Best time to go on a UK sailing vacation: Mike Smith]