The poor man’s yacht

Ornella D’Souza goes sand yachting on the beaches of Le Touquet in north France

A red boiler suit overall, blue helmet, green and yellow gloves… I’ve never been this covered up at the beach. I’m thankful for this incubation, though, given the grey skies, gusts of wind, and drizzle. The scene: I’m learning to sand yacht, an activity that looks like windsurfing, but is done lying down in a boat that has a sail and three wheels, and glides only on sand. I’m at Le Touquet (le tu-kay), also called ‘Paris of North France’, to which the elite from Paris, Belgium, England and Germany, flock.

Come summer and the tony town of 5,000-odd inhabitants burgeons into a populace of 2,50,000 vacationers, who throng to Le Touquet’s 33 tennis courts, three golf courses, a horse-riding arena, host of water sports, casinos, a shopping promenade, Belle Époque architectural edifices and cottages, sumptuous fish cafes and a small airport, all blanketed in pine, elm, elder and poplar. The trees were planted in a bid to give France a slice of paradise after two businessmen, who bought this patch in 1903, were unsuccessful at converting it into farmland. When the owner of Le Figaro newspaper, seduced by the foliage, hunting and fishing made it his home, other moneybags from glamour, business and politics followed suit. It became the bolthole for lovers HG Wells and Amber Reeves, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, while Winston Churchill, PG Wodehouse and Noël Coward remained frequent, glitzy frolickers. A long corridor at the 1930s luxury hotel of Le Westminster shows off autographed photos of dignitaries who stayed here.

Land yachting or sand sailing first found mention in a book by Chinese Emperor Yuan of Liang (r. 552–554 AD) as a 30-seater wind-driven carriage. The first ever race was held on the coastline of France and Belgium in 1909, after Belgian geologist André Dumont made the first model with four wheels, French inventor Louis Blériot further tweaked it. It was engineering grad Henry Demoury, who arrived at the yacht design of today. The world record for sand-yachting at 95mph was on these very sands of Le Touquet.

“Sand yachting is also a poor man’s sport. It became popular among those who couldn’t afford a motor yacht,” says Jean Bernard Bacquet, my sand-yachting instructor from Centre Nautique de la Manche Bertrand Lambert.

Bacquet is an old hand – sand yachting since 1983 and training newbies for the last five years. He’s one patient, yet no-nonsense instructor. “Leave that phone in the locker,” he ordered gruffly, owing to the sandy environ and wet boiler pockets, but leaving us with no photographic evidence of this escapade. Next, we were taught to ready our yachts: fix the mast, roll on the sail, secure this construction by adjusting the pulley and knotting the ropes at the right length to push and release the sail, giving into the whims of the wind and secure the foot bar so the feet stay bent and not flat. To turn left, we’d have to press the right foot on the bar and to go right, press the left foot.

Realising that some of these instructions were lost on us since we’ve never set up our own sails, he softened his military stance, repeated himself, and even drew out on sand with a twig how we were to circle around the traffic cones he’d placed as route markers.

I felt like a free bird when I hit the sand. It was just me and my yacht on the deserted shoreline, a feeling that halted abruptly when the yacht did. This kept happening to everyone, with Bacquet patiently rescuing us damsels stuck in the sand, and at times narrowly missing the sea. “Not enough wind,” he sulked before hitting upon a brainwave. It involved tying our yachts together in a row to his jeep and driving this serpentine construction along the beach for a good 20 minutes. We waved at the lovers strolling around, admired the colourful beach huts and went tsk tsk at Le Touquet’s new drab matchbox flats behind them. Happy, bumbling moments such as sand yachting at Le Touquet stay immortal in the mind’s eye.