WITH A STEADY WIND and the sun on your back, few pastimes are as engaging as skimming over the water in a single-handed sailing boat. You're at one with the elements and in control of your destiny. But, just when you think sailing is a breeze, life on water can fast become less than shipshape, especially when beginners first try tacking - sea-speak for turning. The mainsheet tangles round the tiller, the boom bashes your head, a squally wind creates havoc with the mainsail, tossing you and your dreams of circumnavigating the globe overboard. It would be easy to quit, especially if you've capsized three times that morning, you're soaking wet and the junior kayaking class are sniggering at your misfortune. But sailing is strangely addictive. 'It's a really exciting sport,' said Marvin Leung Chin-pang, a graduate of the University of Science and Technology, and one of five beginners on a recent introductory course at Chong Hing Water Sports Centre, Sai Kung. He capsized five times during the two-day course. 'It's all part of the fun.' Connie Chen began her first sailing course last December but that was called off because of bad weather. 'I really wanted to try again,' she said, adding that she hopes to take more advanced courses in the future. 'The real challenge is trying to find the breeze, especially on a calm day when there's not much wind.' The Leisure and Cultural Services Departments (LCSD) runs a flotilla of affordable programmes throughout the year: sailing, kayaking, windsurfing, for juniors and adults at different levels. A two-day introductory sailing weekend costs $70, qualifying you to take advanced courses on two-man dinghies. If you complete the four-day basic skills training course, you can hire craft for practice at the weekends. The course covers the basics, such as essential boat handling techniques, fundamental background knowledge about aerodynamics and wind speed, how to rig a boat, and what to do if you capsize. Students will also become acquainted with sailing terminology, such as how to tell the difference between genoas, jibs and spankers - all types of sail. By the end of the weekend, you'll know your kicker from your centreboard, how to bear away, tack, and luff up. Classroom time is required, but by mid-afternoon you're on the water, alone, and the fun begins. Most of the instruction and information sheets are delivered in Cantonese. Local sailing buffs say the sport teaches young people more than just how to point a boat in the right direction and catch the wind. 'The children on our courses develop a lot of confidence. They learn about safety, control, leaving and returning to shore, which is far from easy, and by the end of our five-day course they are ready to take the boat out by themselves,' said Alison Taylor, head of sail training programmes at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club (RHKYC). David Reid, director of sports at South Island School and a seasoned sailor in Hong Kong waters, says sailing teaches young people responsibility. 'When you are sailing solo, you have to be in total control, able to rig the boat, carry out repairs, and keep everything in order. This is a valuable lesson for kids in Hong Kong,' he said. The school, like some other international and ESF schools, offers sailing as an extra-curricular activity. It might not look like a highly physical sport, but after a few days on the water and when the wind gets up you soon get fit. 'You need to be a good swimmer and to have strong stomach muscles when you're hiking out [leaning out to stabilise the boat],' Taylor said. 'And righting a boat when it capsizes is demanding.' For Harris Chow Kin, the Chong Hing manager, and former local windsurfing champion, sailing introduces children to another side to Hong Kong. 'You get to see different geological features on the cliffs as you sail around the shoreline and lots of sea animals and birds.' Yvonne Yung Wing-ka, 22, a student at the University of Hong Kong, this year took the introductory course at Chong Hing. She thinks sailing shows how you learn by making mistakes and taking risks. 'No one is going to be perfect first time round. It's good to capsize a few times because you'll learn from the experience,' she said. The downside is that demand for inexpensive LCSD courses is high and facilities only support a handful of courses each year with courses filling very quickly. But if you are patient, you can learn to sail, handle a kayak and windsurf at all levels of expertise. Alternatively, sailors prepared to pay extra can contact Hong Kong's private yacht clubs which also run courses. They are much more expensive and priority is normally given to club members. A five-day course with the RHKYC for teenagers costs $4,520 for non-members, while Aberdeen Boat Club will be running summer courses at Middle Island, Repulse Bay, for nine to 15-year-olds. Courses cost $1,500 on a 'first-come-first-serve' basis, although preference will be given to members. Another water sport growing in popularity in Hong Kong and available through the holidays, at Wan Chai Swimming Pool, is water polo, a tough game that combines rugby, football, wrestling and swimming in a frenetic test of strength and agility. 'It's one of the most physically demanding sports,' said Wong Yat-sun, one of the organisers of the water polo branch of the Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association (HKASA). 'You need to be a strong swimmer to get involved.' Teams consist of six players plus one goalie and the object of the game, which is played in a swimming pool, is to 'score' by throwing the ball into the goal. Wong is keen to point out the intellectual aspects of the sport. 'It's a very tactical game It teaches you to be assertive and courageous and to be a good sportsman,' he said. 'It is a contact sport and people play hard,' he said. The HKASA runs a water polo scheme at Wan Chai Swimming Pool every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evening for $240 a head. 'Anyone can come,' said Wong, 'but it's best to watch first to see what's involved. If you have goggles and a cap, you can join in.' Seven local schools, including King George V School and St Joseph's School, play in a league which was set up in December 2002, and plans are being drawn up for basic water polo technique training for 13-year-olds and above. But if you just want to relax this summer and keep fit, Hong Kong has 13 public swimming pool complexes, two leisure pool complexes and one designated training pool under the department's management. The cost is $19 for 14-year-olds or above and $9 for under-14s. Information on water sports and swimming activities over the summer at the Leisure and Cultural Services Department at www.lcsd.gov.hk Other useful contacts include: Chong Hing Water Sports Centre, Sai Kung, tel 2792 6810. St. Stephen's Beach Water Sports Centre, Stanley, tel 2813 5407. Tai Mei Tuk Water Sports Centre, Tai Po, tel 2665 3591. The Jockey Club Wong Shek Water Sports Centre, Sai Kung, tel 2328 2311. Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, at www.rhkyc.org.hk/sailing/training/youth.htm Aberdeen Boat Club, tel 2553 3032. The water polo branch of the Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association, tel: 2572 8594.