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The Evening Class;Yachting;Mind and body

Greenwich seems an appropriate place to study sailing and seamanship; and the branch of Greenwich Community College, where Brian Harrisson teaches nautical studies, is only a few hundred yards from the Cutty Sark.

When asked what the students get at the end of the course he says: "The Royal Yachting Association Day Skipper Certificate." "And a headache," adds Sandra, one of his nine students, from the other side of the room.

There is certainly a lot to remember. The students have to learn to read charts and tie knots. They must be able to distinguish the markings on buoys, to name four types of anchor, to avoid collisions and cope with various kinds of emergency. "What do you do if you've used up all your flares, your radio has gone and you're still in distress?" Brian asks. The students have plenty of ideas, not all of them facetious.

A central part is learning the language, its vocabulary vague-ly familiar from memories of Swallows and Amazons and snatches of half-heard radio shipping forecasts: leeward and starboard; bowlines and cleats; winds that are fresh to moderate or gale force.

Only about one third of the students have boats of their own. Others may sail occasionally but most come purely for interest, with no practical end in view - a kind of virtual sailing, like standing on the deck of the Cutty Sark and imagining the trade winds blowing in your face.

Much of the navigation studies have been rendered redundant by new electronic systems but Brian still offers practical experience at Southmere Boating Centre. After the Day Skipper course there is the Yacht Master's certificate. Both these "shore-based" courses include advice on buying a boat, to help these virtual sailors realise their dreams of the sea.

This class took place at Greenwich Park Centre, Greenwich Community College, Royal Hill, Greenwich SE10. Tel: 0181 858 2211.

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