The new home of making waves
THIS article begins with a confession – I have been asked to lie to you.
Ben Hedden, the manager at the Haven Banks Outdoor Education Centre, wants me to tell you that, on February 8, the weather conditions around the quay were sub-tropical.
"Tell them it was like being in Barbados," he says. "Tell them the sun was beating down and dancing on the water. We don't want to put people off."
It was not hot, nor was it anything approaching tepid. There were no whistling frogs croaking in the grass as green monkeys languidly sprawled in city treetops. It was two degrees north of snowfall and, after an hour, my knuckles had turned an alarming shade of purple.
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It is fair to say that the middle of winter, during a cold snap, is not the best time to embark on a beginners' course in sailing.
"We do run events this early in the year," said Ben. "But we have to be careful with the weather, water levels and wind.
"You get a much better experience when it's warmer."
Certainly today is conducted with a sense of apprehension about touching the water for fear of hypothermia, let alone falling in. And what we can actually do is curtailed by a number of factors.
"The water level is quite high and there's a bit of wind," says Haven Bank's senior instructor Suzie Corkery. "You'd think it would be good conditions for sailing, but it's not when you're just starting out."
So we go through the practical side of things, learning the names of all the key components of the topper, a sailing dinghy, that is the object of our lesson from the daggerboard (which aids stability and can also help to right a boat should it capsize) to the tiller. It is complicated and the sort of things which need to be experienced practically to fully grasp – it's all well and good knowing that you should duck when the boom swings, but another to actually do it without falling victim to concussion.
Safety, at all times, is paramount and every precaution is taken. When out on the water, instructors are always on hand in a motorboat to prevent those whop are struggling from being washed down the weir near the Port Royal. But that doesn't mean that you will not get wet.
"People have fallen in a billion times," says Suzie. This should be intimidating but actually seems curiously reassuring. "When the water is warm in the summer months, one of the lessons will be to learn how to right a boat and get back in as it is clearly an important skill. Sometimes they seem to like falling in and getting back out more than the actual sailing."
It is an activity which is immensely popular, albeit greatly influenced by the elements (meaning a number of sessions last year had to be cancelled) and the assumption must be that there will be even more budding sailors lining up when Haven Banks moves from its current base to its new £5.6m base on the opposite side of Exeter Canal.
"The centre has been in this building for more than 20 years and it has served us really well," says Suzie.
"But we're really excited about moving into the new building in July. It's looking fantastic.
"What we've achieved here has been brilliant but to have the investment in outdoor activities is a major boost for us and for Exeter."
The existing centre currently provides outdoor education courses for more than 25,000 young people a year.
They include courses for sailing, canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing, climbing, caving, orienteering, archery, raft building, team building and first aid at Haven Banks and locations around Devon (sailing also takes place at Starcross Yacht Club).
Devon County Council, which will run the centre in partnership with Exeter College, says the new centre will increase the take-up by providing an improved hub for outdoor adventure activities for young people and adults. This will include an indoor caving facility and, the highest part of the building, a 25m climbing tower.
"What we offer will still be the same," said Suzie. "We'll just be able to offer it to a greater number of people and from a much more modern facility.
"In terms of sailing, we have the holiday courses for children and we're able to offer courses for adults. I even did a stag party last year which was a real laugh after I'd assessed which ones in the group were actually in the correct physical condition to go out on the water.
"We can help you work to improve your skills and gain awards, and if anyone demonstrates real talent we can help you progress and direct you towards the clubs where talent can be further developed."
To find out more about Haven Banks, visit www.haven-banks .co.uk or phone 01392 434668. Activities will be taking place throughout the February half-term, including kayaking, archery and raft-building, while Easter activities will include a Dartmoor adventure day and sailing. All information is available on the website of on the centre's Facebook page.
Next week the Echo's attention will turn to shooting. If you are part of a club which would like to feature in the Echo, call 01392 442241