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Knowing your rudder from an udder

Despite being landlocked, Motherwell pupils are showing a talent for sailing

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Despite being landlocked, Motherwell pupils are showing a talent for sailing

Sara is leaning back over the boat, almost parallel with the chilly waters of Strathclyde Country Park. Nicole is at the tiller, serenely surveying the way ahead. Hannah has wedged herself into the middle of the boat - she's scared because she can't swim.

Sara is 10, Nicole and Hannah are 11, and each has less than an hour's sailing experience - yet they're expected to go out on boats on their own, and work things out for themselves. The pupils at Motherwell's Calder Primary are throwing themselves into a programme that, after six weeks, should see them emerge as certificated sailors. For some, it might be the beginning of a path that leads to the 2011 International Children's Games in North Lanarkshire, and perhaps even to the Olympics - which wouldn't be bad for a landlocked part of Scotland where an obsession with football means other sports don't usually get a look-in.

Robert Mutlow, centre manager for course organisers SailLaser Scotland, doesn't think it's in any way premature to start talking about the Olympics with a group whose members are still so green that one boy thinks a "rudder" is an "udder", and another, when asked to identify the bit of a boat that sounds like an English city, shouts out "Hamilton" rather than "Hull".

Sailing, the sport of the international jet set and one whose exponents often draw on generations of family experience, is being opened up to a much wider group at Strathclyde Country Park. Children who would never even have thought of trying it are discovering talents they didn't know they had.

There are other places in Scotland where schools can send their pupils to try sailing, but these are often one-off taster sessions which go no further. In North Lanarkshire, pupils are taking part in six-week courses that will lead to a Stage 1 certificate from the Royal Yachting Association. If a latent passion for sailing is uncovered, pupils can - and often do - carry on learning at a Monday evening club for children.

Mr Mutlow hopes to find enough talented pupils to send a team to the children's games, and believes that bringing sailing to children from often deprived areas could unearth an Olympian. Since SailLaser arrived at Strathclyde Country Park in the spring, 300 pupils have already taken part. Tom Gallagher, assistant business manager of country visitors services, says that SailLaser's arrival resulted in the number of children learning to sail increasing by three or four times.

Most pupils' experience of sailing will end after six weeks. But in that time they should have learned skills and gained in confidence, which could have knock-on effects. Mr Mutlow has pored over A Curriculum for Excellence and pinpointed where scores of outcomes and experiences spring to life during the programme; this was important in persuading North Lanarkshire schools - some funded by the council - to pay about pound;14 per pupil per session (the charge is nearer pound;23 for private schools) and let them out of school for what adds up to three days.

It's not difficult to find "confident individuals" among the 32-strong Calder Primary group when The TESS watches their second session. In the first, a week previously, after just a half-hour onshore pep talk, they were single-handedly sailing boats - 3.5-metre Picos worth pound;2,000 each - with no one on board but themselves. "I couldn't believe they were so far up the loch," recalls teacher Doreen Richards.

"We work on the principle of trying to get them out on the water as soon as they can," says Mr Mutlow. "You find that children of this age group learn quickest when they go out and feel how the boat is to turn.

"An adult wants to learn all the answers before they go out, whereas a child wants zero. The kids don't necessarily have fear unless you tell them what's dangerous. If you said, `There's a boat - get sailing,' they would have a go."

So it proved for the Calder pupils in week one, most of whom set off happily on their own. In week two, the weather is a bit more unpredictable and it's not suitable for the Picos to go out, so small groups of pupils are setting sail on larger Bahia boats - worth pound;6,000 each - with an instructor on board, but it's still up to them to take control. Minutes after setting off, chief instructor Steve Noble is shouting for the boats to play "follow my leader" and get in line; a short while later the boats are assembled in neat single file.

The confidence-building and teamwork are obvious, but less so is the potential for memorable cross-curricular work. If the pupils have been studying plant life, Mr Mutlow explains, they could sail up to a tree and examine the leaves. If they have been looking at weather, they get no better idea of what a squall is than seeing one come towards the boat; first-hand experience of Scotland's capricious weather also makes the impact of global warming more tangible.

The instructors find that those who get the most out of sailing are often shy children and those who do not usually excel in the classroom. On the water, Mr Noble says, "they really start to get stuck in and start to show confidence", thriving when they learn by doing, rather than watching demonstrations.

The pupils at Portland High, a special school in Coatbridge, also responded particularly well. They could see and hear the water, Mr Mutlow explains, and had to decide in an instant how to react to it, meaning they learned in a more natural, "kinaesthetic" way. "If they don't like something in a classroom environment, they can run out the door," he says. "You can't do that in a sailing environment."

The excitement created by the sport is intense. Groups are split into two - taking turns at sailing and theory - and the second group can hardly wait for the first to get out of their boats. Mr Noble has to put out an arm to keep them back: "Woah, woah girls. It's like getting on a train - you wait for people to get off first."

The buzz lasts all the way back to school. The pupils talked about little else in the playground after coming back from the first lesson, Mrs Richards says. "They all wanted to go back on the Friday. They couldn't wait for a week."

And the fervour often spreads beyond the children. Since arriving in North Lanarkshire, Mr Mutlow and Mr Noble have at times found it hard to convince people that it is worthwhile getting into a sport other than football, but a child's enthusiasm does the talking for them.

"You find that when the children get into sailing, the family gets into sailing, because the dad wants to be able to answer the questions." says Mr Noble. "It's something that some families never thought they would do."

Three girls in a boat

For someone who is confidently picking her way through blowy conditions in only her second sailing lesson, Nicole Baird (on the left) has a surprising confession to make: "I don't like boats, but this one's OK because I know it'll float."

Her fear of boats and the water stems back to having seen Titanic. The difference here, the 11-year-old from Calder Primary says, is that she is in control of the boat and she feels safe having lots of other boats - all steered by classmates - around her.

"I didn't realise it would be as easy as it is," she says, pulling calmly at ropes while she talks. "Last week, I fell in. The water was cold but I managed to get back up into the boat. I wasn't scared. I just laughed. I like sailing because you can see all the things around you. The only thing I don't like is it gets cold. It's probably the best thing I've done at school."

Classmate Sara McCrae is a daredevil, bounding over when there's a chance to take over from instructor Zoe Jarvis, and leaning back over the water when there's not. "I'm not even holding on to anything!" she trills.

Between peppering Zoe with questions, she says she loves sailing: "I just like coming out and enjoying myself." Her enthusiasm for all aspects of sailing - particularly falling into the water - knows no bounds. "It's the best thing I've ever done, and it's probably the best thing I'll ever do at school," she says. "To be honest, I thought I wouldn't enjoy it, but it's more fun than I ever thought it would be. I'd like to stay out longer."

Hannah Gilmour (middle) says she likes sailing, although it is a "bit scary". The P7's eyes dart about. As the boat zips through the water, she shouts "Nicole!", imploring her classmate not to go so fast. She's worried about capsizing, even though Zoe explains how the boat's design ensures it won't happen. She rushes from the side of the boat to the centre, and gets down on her haunches. "I don't like . the boat is rocking," she says, the tension rising in her voice.

"It's rocking!" she repeats, louder. Nicole and Sara reassure her. Their teacher, Doreen Richards, later says she is proud of the pupils who were scared to get on the boats, but also those who lent them a hand.

Now Hannah is adamant she wants to get off. "I'm very, very scared - I'm really scared."

Zoe waves to chief instructor Steve Noble, watching from a powerboat. He nips across and helps Hannah climb aboard. Minutes later, the tension has disappeared from Hannah's face as she overtakes the sailing boats and waves merrily. "The speed boat was fun," she says. "It goes really fast."

"She's achieved something," says Mr Noble. "She loved the powerboat."

Learning to sail

These sailing centres are part of the UK-wide OnBoard programme ( which encourages work with schools:

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