Sailing by the Old Man of Coniston

John & Moira Rugg - family summer sailing holidays.

Five times we trailed a boat to the Lake District – four times with our 16ft Gaff Rigged Winkle Brig followed only once with our Dehler 25.


Coniston is thought by many to be one of the most beautiful and interesting areas of the Lake District National Park with Coniston Water nestling between spectacular mountains to the west and north, rolling hills to the east and gentle flood plain farmland to the south. 

As well as sailing there is something to interest everyone in the family from climbing the “Old Man” for the energetic and fit, to visiting local events, gardens and houses.  Footpaths and nature trails are everywhere, there are mountain bikes for hire in Grizedale forest to the east and Brantwood, Ruskin’s house to the west, can even be visited by boat.

Small ferries operate a ‘bus service’ up and down the lake all day between six jetties.

When the sun is shining on the Coniston town quayside with ferries busy picking up and disgorging passengers, the local continental style cafe and its jetty could almost be a miniature Vaporetti landing stage in Venice.  In addition a splendid Victorian coal fired steam driven Gondola plies the length of Coniston for most days during the summer months.

Our friends and their three children had the use of the above private house at the southern end of the lake each August and for some odd reason would often invite us plus another family to join them at Low Water End.


The three acre garden has a further cottage and a large boathouse, containing a selection of traditional ‘Swallows and Amazons’ style sailing and rowing boats, and a jetty with views across the water to what was the home of Arthur Ransome. With three families the older children were required to camp on the lawn and some slept on the boat. Adults in the house and cottage having priority over beds and bathrooms!


Traditional Dinghy on the Low Water end Jetty and the store for trailed boats.


We occasionally met and sailed with other families with trailed dinghies and boats, many pitching their tents at camp sites on the lakeside with jetties or beaches to launch from.

The local sailing club will issue temporary membership and provide boat parking facilities for visitors trailers and dinghies.

Coniston Water is about 5 miles long and 870 yds at its widest point with a predominately rocky bottom and enormous variations of depth, 55 mtr at the deepest point. Approximately 40% of the shoreline is National Park or National Trust access land with many beaches, inlets and coves where one can come ashore or moor alongside where there is a jetty although there are very few suitable places to anchor due to the depths. A speed restriction of 10 mph is rigidly enforced and as a result there are few and often no power craft.

The well run and very helpful Boating Centre at the NW end of the lake, as well as hiring out Wayfarer sailing dinghies, rowing boats, and small, electrically powered, motorboats, also operate and maintain the public slipway and will assist with launching and recovery if required.  There is a small fee to launch and can include parking for your trailer although this is sometimes a problem on busy public holidays. They provide a secure boat and trailer on shore secure storage facility for about 100 local boats and can accommodate a few visitors.

All the water is navigable and runs approximately NE to SW with a predominant SW or NW wind with a few hundred interesting areas of wind shifts that can rotate through 360 degrees in the space of a few boat lengths if you get too close to 

the shore.   The famous Wildcat island of Swallows and Amazons fame is two thirds of the way down the lake but watch out for submerged rocks in the eastern channel.

The lake launch site has a wooden jetty and a decent slipway complete with a large hand cranked winch which looks as though it was probably manufactured before the Second if not the First World War.  We used our trailer winch most times but the boat centre will launch the boat using a large tractor with an extended rear tow bar which reverses until the trailer is submerged and the boat floats off.  Between the slipway and the main jetty is a small beach with very fine shale and small pebbles  which we preferred as it is less steep than the slip, plus we could launch the Winkle Brig without getting either the wheel bearings or our feet wet! 

Ice cream, sticky buns and tea are on hand at the cafe with an outside seating area used by tourists waiting for a ferry often provides an audience for one to amuse.

There are no charts for Coniston but the OS maps are usually sufficient and a Lake Users’ Guide is available free from the boating centre or the local information centre. This contains a map giving details of what is in, on and around the lake as well as safety and conservation requirements and regulations.  

A typical three family day on the water would often consist of a motley collection of fast modern dinghies including Lasers and Toppers crewed by teenage girls and boys determined to out-sail the adults, the occasional windsurfer, the odd rowing boat or a canoe, one or two traditional style clinker sailing dinghies plus our Winkle Brig as mother ship manned by some of the adults and well stocked with drinks, ice, food, money for ice cream stops at a specific lakeside location, towels and changes of clothes.

The teenagers would always reach the destination first – often Wildcat Island but they would invariably pretend not to have anything to do with Swallows and Amazons but climb the rocks and hurl themselves into the water which is surprisingly warm.

Whilst the younger children and adults would join in the spirit of the journey, identifying and renaming local inlets and farms to Rio Bay, Cormorant Island, Houseboat Bay, Holley Howe and Dixons Farm.

The favourite mooring spot was on the island in the harbour used by Swallows and Amazons crews. An exploration of the area was followed by a picnic with perhaps the youngsters taking a swim whilst the adults snoozed and sunbathed, then off for a sail up the lake and back home to the house and its landing stage and boathouse.

In addition we usually hired a Wayfarer from the Water sports centre and used this to teach the basics of sailing to a wide variety of children over the years. Interesting to note that children were far happier to pay attention and be taught by anyone but their parents and that it paid to separate brothers and sisters! The girls tended to listen and follow instructions whereas the boys were often prone to show off and mess about but particularly enjoyed the capsize drills.   

The sailing could be challenging at times particularly for the lighter weight youngsters who managed to cope very well having often made it clear they preferred to sail a Topper or a Laser and compete with youth training pupils at the local sailing club.

The alternative was to be with us in the Wayfarer that we would often use to provide instruction and advice to novices sailing single handed. 

Some youngsters were accomplished canoeists and paddled with the fleet to assist anyone experiencing difficulties.


One year we spotted someone with a 22ft twin keel Silhouette sailing too close to the east side of the island and unfortunately then hit a rock. They cleanly removed one keel causing the boat to perform a fast pirouette and sail like fury for an inlet but they settled on the bottom with the cabin full of water about three yards from the island. 

There are some very shallow areas close to the lake shore, mostly clear of rocks but a few uncharted shale rather than sand bars provide a magnificent if unintended braking system for rash youngsters! Dinghies are best provided with lifting rudders and centreboards otherwise a visit to the local boatbuilder may be required.  Supplies of paint and varnish were often in demand to obliterate any scars on traditional boats belonging to the house – a task inevitably undertaken by the adults.

Most evenings the wind drops to a gentle F1 or F2 breeze providing an opportunity to slip away from the jetty in a traditional dinghy and gently sail up the lake with little or no sound apart from that generated by a wide variety of bird life on and around the water’s edge.

The occasional dinghy or rowing boat may also be out and a nod or a wave is usually all that is exchanged. If the wind dies a gentle paddle back results assisted by the slight current found flowing out through the non-navigable river leading to the sea a few miles to the south.

When the time came to start the journey home and recover the boat at the slipway at the other end of the lake this often resulted in a race up the lake which for some odd reason is always a beat to windward. Keeping clear of the ‘nil wind zones’ and taking advantage of the windshifts causing the burgee to corkscrew is an art enhanced by local knowledge and luck.

Recovery is as simple as the launch with many willing helpers to get the boat out, de-rig and stow everything.

The slipway closes at 5.30 pm and we would usually aim to recover the boat the night before our long trail home and have a farewell meal with our friends at one of the many splendid local hostelries that welcome and cater for children and animals, if required.

Coniston is never very busy in terms of boating and whilst the sailing club hold regular weekend and evening races there is plenty of room for everyone. 

Brochure picture of a Dehler 25