Journalist, editor and producer covering society, business, architecture, tourism, rural regeneration, conservation. I work/have worked for The Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Business Insider, Reader's Digest, Icon Films and the BBC. I also provide consultancy services to international brands.
Having been a decent parent for a dozen years, my powers are inevitably dwindling. My boy and I were constant companions, initially because he was an infant and couldn’t walk, then for a while couldn’t outrun me. There followed a brief but jolly period of voluntary companionship when all we needed to be happy was a bag of sour suckers and a Lego box.
But now he’s 13, I’ve been relegated to holding stuff while he disappears or simply collecting him after the action’s over. We talk but I don’t understand what he says. He spends a lot of time splicing tracks to films he’s shot for his Bebo site.
We are spiralling into separate worlds. In many respects, this is healthy. He needs his space and he has it, a fetid half-lit room in which he commands hitmen on his PS2 but, as any child psychologist will explain, it’s also important to keep the channels of communication open, and to do that involves finding common ground and common interests.
Vigorous outdoor stuff involving mud, sweat, fear and an activity at which both parent and child are equally inept in a place neither are familiar with tends to freshen things up. Theoretically the great outdoors brings new – nobler – aspects of character to the fore: grit, courage, confidence, determination, patience and a certain degree of humour. New challenges such as battling the elements, pitching a tent, surviving without television are an opportunity for people to select new and better roles for themselves: the intrepid, unflappable parent; or, perhaps, the relaxed, tolerant parent; and the independent, practical teenager. And whereas at home everyone is free to pick a role with impunity and fight it out, in sink-or-swim situations requiring teamwork, those roles have to be compatible. Ideally some of that new-found spirit of co-operation sticks. That’s why psychologists recommend outdoor activities. A recent TV series showed parents doing crazy stunts in an attempt to convince their children they were not old, uptight fools. There are easier ways.
An activity such as sailing demands hard work, steady nerves, acquired skills, application and teamwork. Dozens of centres around the UK offer single and multi-day sailing tuition (especially popular with weekend fathers) and some have Royal Yachting Association Training Centres abroad in warmer and, on the whole, flatter waters such as the southern Ionian Sea.
With hindsight, a small dinghy might have served the purpose but flicking through brochures, a 36ft Benéteau yacht looked more sturdy. Brighton-based company Neilson has established itself as one of the active holiday specialists most adept at extending its services to the younger sailor and families. It has fleets of yachts in Brighton but also in Croatia and off the Greek island of Lefkas. Weather plus the fallback distractions of tavernas and banana boats gave the latter the edge. I signed us up for the four-day Introduction to Yachting course. On the Ionian there are almost imperceptible ripples on the sea and the occasional puff of wind.
We circle Skorpios in a training boat with two funny Geordie police detectives and an instructor who demonstrates how to hoist and reef the mainsail, heave to, crash tack and fish fenders out of the water, take a three-point fix, bash the anchor chain hard to release it, and moor stern to. George’s attention drifts. We seem to have opposing objectives. Mine is to stay on the moving boat at all costs, his is to jump off it into the green waters of every cove in the Ionian. What’s more, he confesses over a plate of calamari, the bit he doesn’t like about sailing is getting the sail up and tacking, the best bit is motoring really fast. As a crew, we don’t seem to jell. But I’m wrong. The differences that begin to surface on the boat are useful. He has no interest in navigation but is keen to take the wheel and steer the course I randomly plot; reluctant to command ready about but fast to furl the genoa; he wouldn’t suggest we reef but he’d make a nice job of lowering the halyard. He doesn’t know what needs to be done; I can’t recall how to do it.
Somehow as we set off across the sea to join the flotilla, things come together. We are, reassuringly, a good team. This modest Odyssey is a showcase for emergent talents. He’s adept at claw knots, the use of appropriate jargon, winching, operating the VHF radio and swimming ashore, a bag of euros tied to his shorts, in search of feta cheese and a beer for his mother. I applaud, his confidence grows, he tries more things, I get prouder and more effusive still, and on it goes. Conversely, when we hit force five winds and rough waves with a hole in the hull and a bow full of water, he cheers, a glint of admiration in his eye, as I stoically thump the yacht down the coast on its side without reefing. I’m ready to take on the Atlantic.
There’s little scope for impressing each other like this in the course of a normal day at home; few opportunities for an adolescent to flex his independence, enjoy the satisfaction of a challenge. But adventure, which we’re careful to strip from modern life, is clearly useful in some deeply socio-dynamic sort of way and a catalyst for parent-child bonding.
Jiri Zuzanek, professor of sociology and leisure studies at the University of Waterloo, Canada, who has written extensively on the parent-child relationship, says a lack of shared interests and values lies behind the widening gap between teenagers and parents, not simply lack of free time. Without these shared interests, parents are at risk of losing emotional contact as children reach adolescence. “I am sure it helps to find an activity that both parent and child can enjoy together,” says Dr Roger Greenaway, a specialist on the role of outdoor adventure in social development, “but it could be more important that the activity creates plenty of opportunity for idle conversation. This doesn’t mean filling in every silence. It does mean getting to know each other in different ways. Having fun and achieving something together can help but spending uninterrupted time together probably matters most.”
This is true. There’s not much more exciting than sailing when the wind picks up but it’s the memory of lying on deck at night in a safe harbour under a starry sky, united in a sense of accomplishment and love of olives that endures.
Sailing, like many adventures in the great outdoors, is a great bonding experience, but more than that, a chance to give your child skills and the confidence to set them free. George now has his RYA competent crew certificate and a log book of his own. As soon as he knows where he’s going, he’ll be able to steer his own course.
SORREL DOWNER / FINANCIAL TIMES. FIRST PUBLISHED 2007
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