Intended for healthcare professionals


Why I . . . go adventure sailing

BMJ 2024; 385 doi: (Published 17 June 2024) Cite this as: BMJ 2024;385:q1292
  1. Kathy Oxtoby
  1. The BMJ

GP Trevor Thompson talks to Kathy Oxtoby about the life changing experience of adventure sailing

After weeks of preparation, Trevor Thompson was finally out on the open sea in his Wayfarer dinghy. He was taking a solo cruise from Penzance to the Scilly Isles.

There was no other boat in sight and the remoteness of his situation was hitting home. As he passed Wolf Rock the sky darkened, the temperature dropped, and the wind picked up to a stiff breeze. “I suddenly felt incredibly alone,” he recalls. “Just at that moment, two Risso’s dolphins appeared, swimming swiftly off the bow for several minutes. I felt an elemental connection. It was amazing.”

Thompson, a GP at Wellspring Surgery in Bristol and professor of primary care education at Bristol Medical School, says that his passion for adventure sailing gives him “a complete reset of body, mind, and spirit.”

“It’s like going into another dimension. Everything you normally refer to—emails, meetings—disappears and it’s just you, the boat, and the shifting sea,” he says. “When you’re in the cockpit of a Wayfarer, you’re incredibly attuned to the shape of the sea, to the waves coming at you, and to the vagaries of the wind. You feel alive and alert.”

There’s a “primitive quality” to adventure sailing, he says. “While the land has changed a lot, the sea hasn’t changed much at all many thousands of years.”

“Adventure sailing” is a term coined by Thompson and his fellow enthusiasts, “because we go on adventures out to sea in our dinghies.” This pursuit has given him life changing experiences and his many adventures include sailing around the Isle of Anglesey with his son, a trip along the coast of Donegal, and a voyage to the Skellig Islands in County Kerry, “where the sky was azure blue and the air thronged with plunging gannets.” This year Thompson was awarded the Frank Dye Viking Longship trophy by the UK Wayfarer Association in recognition of his various adventures.

Thompson has always had a “great love of the coast, particularly the Irish coast.” But his love of sailing emerged in his 40s. He enrolled on Royal Yachting Association courses and joined local sailing clubs. He was lucky to be put in contact with fellow GP and sailing dinghy expert Chris Yerbury who taught him the craft. “After a few years I bought a Wayfarer and started having adventures of my own.”

A sailing dinghy such as the Wayfarer “has the advantage over a yacht in that it is more flexible, costs much less, and brings you closer to the coast,” he explains.

Before anyone can contemplate adventure sailing they need to get the basic skills and instincts under their belt. This takes a year of two of regular sailing in controlled conditions. Adventure sailing requires an additional set of skills, including navigation, anchoring, and “reefing”—quickly reducing the sail area to cope with stronger winds. There is also, he says, “a fair bit of campcraft.”

Adventure sailing is a mix of “complete abandonment to the elements and meticulous attention to detail,” he says. Before going on trips “there is a huge amount of preparation,” including safety checks, the studying of charts, and reviewing the logs of others who have done similar voyages. Safety equipment includes drysuits, buoyancy aids, an engine (typically stowed out of sight), flares, VHF radio, and, “for when the chips are really down,” a satellite location beacon.

With no cabin, sleeping arrangements involve either cramming your legs under the thwart or setting up camp ashore. “We tend to use a tarpaulin rather than a tent. In a tent you could be anywhere, under a tarp you remain fully connected to the environment,” says Thompson. The whole experience is “very much about the outdoors,” he says.

Adventure sailing benefits him as a clinician. “It resets my system and I come back to work fresher and more receptive.” And he brings his problem solving skills as a doctor to the sport. “Like clinical practice, adventure sailing is all about making short order decisions, based on limited information. Getting it right is hugely satisfying,” he says.

To those who “feel a call to adventure, sailing is something to think about,” he says. “I would recommend adventure sailing to anyone who feels they want to break free from the structures, responsibilities, and deadlines that modern life brings. You also get to make and learn from an enormous number of mistakes.”

Thompson is just back from his latest expedition to the outer Hebrides. His crew was Nigel Hart, a fellow GP and academic from Belfast. “The Hebrides are next level when it comes to remoteness, oceanic swell, and exquisite beaches,” he reports. Strong Westerlies held them back from their intended destination of St Kilda but they took immense delight in the islands of Pabbay and Ensay.

“With the people you meet in adventure sailing there’s a fellowship—we look after each other,” he says. “And if you’ve done a trip with someone there’s that bond there forever. And you remember, ‘We saw those waves. We did that, we were there.’”

How to make a change

  • Learn how to sail by taking lessons and joining a sailing club

  • Get the Royal Yachting Association day skipper certificates (theoretical and practical)

  • Crew for someone else on sailing dinghy adventures

  • Buy your own dinghy and adapt it (a decent second hand Wayfarer is around £3000)

  • Start doing your own cruises, building up from easier to harder voyages

  • Join an organisation such as the Dinghy Cruising Association or the UK Wayfarer Association