YBW talks to young sailors and their instructors about the challenges of learning to sail and the difference that sailing has made to their lives.
Whether it is sailing in a Scottish harbour, experiencing the thrill of being on the water in a reservoir in Manchester or dinghy racing in the Solent, there are now plenty of opportunities for young people to get into sailing.
There are more than 300 clubs across the UK which offer courses for those up to the age of 18.
The Royal Yachting Association’s Sailability programme, which aims to encourage those with disabilities to sail, also means the sport is open to everyone.
This summer, the 1851 Trust will be providing free sailing taster sessions to 1,000 9-13-year-olds in the Portsmouth area.
It will be partnering on the programme with the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation, which has just launched a new website that highlights how sailing improves the lives of young people.
Different routes to sailing
No everyone has sailing in their blood. Ellen MacArthur famously grew up in landlocked Derbyshire and became so passionate about the sport that she saved her school dinner money for seven years to buy her first boat.
Following her retirement from professional sailing, she established the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust to help those aged between eight and 24 regain their confidence, on their way to recovery from cancer.
Alison Young was aged eight when she learnt to sail with her father, who received sailing lessons as a birthday gift.
She is now the first British woman to win a World Championship title in a solo Olympic dinghy class, and will be competing in Rio in August.
Others have strong sailing backgrounds. Sir Ben Ainslie‘s father, Roddy came seventh in the first edition of the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973-74, sailing Second Life.
Sir Ben started sailing in Cornwall “as an 8-year-old in a duffle coat and wellies”, before going onto Olympic glory.
Sailing with a local club
Many people, like 13-year-old Sam, learn to sail with their local sailing club.
The teenager started sailing with Saltash Sailing Club on the River Tamar, Cornwall because “most of my friends were doing it and it seemed quite fun”.
He says that although getting out on the water solo was a big challenge, he likes the team work and learning sailing skills.
Fellow sailor Callum, 14, has now transitioned into racing. “The skill jump is huge,” he said.
“A desire to get out on the water, and to see what my dad was doing all the time,” prompted the teenager to try sailing, and winning his first race in his topper was a big achievement.
“I think it will be something that I continue through university and adult life because of the potential of things that you can do in the sport,” Calum noted.
Meanwhile, Daniel, 15, is already thinking about becoming an instructor as soon as possible.
“I really love sailing and enjoy the challenge,” he said.
For 11-year-old Hannah, the sport is “fun and sociable”. She said seeing the enjoyment her older brother and father got from sailing made her want to try it.
Hannah is also proud of “overcoming my fear of open water”.
At just £5 a session, Saltash Sailing Club has tried to make the sport as accessible as possible.
Instructor Malcolm Wood, who didn’t start sailing until his 30s, said: “At my club, we are proud of the fact that our young sailors come from across the social spectrum, attracted by our reputation or the enthusiasm of their friends.”
He continued: “The majority of parents cannot believe how cheaply we offer access to the sport in terms of training, equipment and opportunities to broaden their horizons within it.”
Samantha Gerry, 22, now instructs at the club having joined at the age of 12.
“Sailing was a chance for me to socialise with friends, learn sailing and have fun at the same time. At the age of 14, I bought a Laser 2 and raced it every week with my friend and still do. This led me to start yacht racing on my family yacht,” she explained.
Gerry said it is important to make sure each session “is challenging and fun” to keep the interest of her students.
“We see massive changes in young people who sail. Usually they are nervous and sailing can sometimes be daunting! Young people change in confidence when sailing; they learn skills and meet friends which builds their character. Learning something that is new and challenging can be very rewarding and it is amazing to see the change of confidence in the young people,” she said.
Sailing with the school
For the students of the Greig City Academy in the London borough of Haringey, sailing is certainly not second nature.
Just over 73% of the students from the mixed-sex comprehensive are deemed disadvantaged, and more than 62% of them have English as an additional language.
Greig City Academy Sailing was founded by teachers at the secondary school. Since 2013, nearly 1,000 students have taken to the water for the first time.
The club now has a fleet of six dinghies in King George V Reservoir in London, and a McGregor 22 and a former Admirals Cup racing yacht, Scaramouche at Poole Harbour, Dorset.
It is on Scaramouche that members of Greig City Academy Sailing hope to become the first student led team to enter the Fastnet Race in 2017.
The crew, who are supported and advised by yachtsman Lawrie Smith, are all currently training for the race in addition to taking their GCSE’s this year.
The teenagers raise awareness of the Scaramouche project and raise funds by speaking to local sailing clubs and yacht clubs across the country. Most recently, the students were invited to a private meeting with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace to talk to him about their journey.
Montel, 16, is one of the helmsman. He saved money and bought a dinghy from Ebay to train for the Fastnet.
“I spoke to Lawrie Smith, who said that all good helmsmen start and train in dinghies,” he explained.
“Dinghy sailing was what I expected. I really enjoy this because if you make mistakes, you get found out. The bigger boats are more forgiving but dinghies really show what you’re made of,” said Montel, who found the transition to sailing yachts a challenge.
“Sailing yachts was a lot harder than I was expecting. Having 14 crew to deal with was a big shock. Also the forces involved are so high that if I make a big mistake, the consequences can be serious,” noted the teenager, who is confident of taking part in the Fastnet.
Shabazz, 16, is the sail trimmer. “Without me the boat will not be fast. I have learned communication is actually important,” he noted
The youngster found sailing harder than expected. “You have to be agile, strong, and have a good knowledge of how the boat actually works. My biggest issue was concentration. In school, you only have to concentrate for an hour at a time. On Scaramouche, you have to focus for the whole of your watch – up to 5 hours at a time,” he said.
He hopes to be able to “show other people from state schools that they can get into the sport”.
Jordane now wants to be a delivery skipper when he is older. The 16-year-old says sailing has helped his confidence.
“I’m not a very loud person but when I do sailing, actions speak louder than words. I’m one of the helmsmen and I have always enjoyed the racing my team makes in dinghies,” he said.
Junior, 16, said sailing has become “addictive”. He first experienced the sport on a school trip, and hopes to go on and achieve sailing and dinghy qualifications.
“I’m in charge of the running back stays. Not many people have heard of my job before. It’s not a glory job, but it is the most important. Without me, the mast could come down. With no mast, they can’t sail! So I get responsibility,” noted Junior, who added he is working hard to secure his place on the crew for Fastnet.
Sailing for all
Every year, the RYA’s Sailability programme introduces some 53,000 young people and adults with disabilities to sailing.
Philippe Wines is an instructor with Cowes Sailability Club. Every season, volunteers take out up to 60 young people from St George’s Special School in the Isle of Wight. They range in age from 12 to 18.
“There is no formal RYA type teaching as such because the young people concerned either have severe physical limitations and/or severe learning and/or behavioural issues. It is more a case of building confidence and allowing the students to handle the helms of either a specialist power boat called ‘Dougal’ (a RoRo wheelchair friendly catamaran powerboat that carries 12 people) or our Drascombe Lugger ‘Iris’,” explained Wines.
“Many of the young people just enjoy trailing their fingers in the water and deriving some comfort and thrills from doing so. This helps to quieten those with behavioural issues,” he continued.
Wines started RYA dinghy instructing in 1995 and powerboat instructing in 2010. He decided to volunteer with Cowes Sailability “to give something back and share with others a recreation I have enjoyed for over 60 years”.
He believes patience and good humour as well as “the ability to empathise, and not patronise” are necessary for teaching young people with disabilities. He added that the support and inspiration of the St George’s community and his fellow Cowes Sailability volunteers is key.
“According to the Head and Deputy Head of St. George’s the children return to school with smiles on their faces (Cowes Sailability’s own motto!) and with their confidence extended. Most importantly they feel a real part of the great Isle of Wight sailing community from which they previously felt detached from,” explained Wines.
Asked what he gets out of his work with Cowes Sailability, Wines said: “Very often a large lump in my throat and a tear in my eye!”
St George’s encourages its students to take part in the programme by suggesting that “sailing is more fun than maths”.
“For some it is an enormous achievement to even get on a boat floating in the water and overcoming being frightened. For others, helming a powerboat, under strict supervision, is probably the only time these young people have controlled a powerful machine, or helming a sailing boat (under strict supervision),” a spokesperson for the school explained.
The school says these “little achievements makes the young people feel equal to their non-disabled parents, teachers and Cowes Sailabilty instructors and helpers”.
More information on sailing courses for young people visit: