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Project sets sail for a third year

The Royal Yachting Association's initiative to introduce city children to the fun of sailing is reaching out to hundreds countrywide, Roddy Mackenzie reports.

Children aged 8 to 14 are finding their sea legs thanks to the Sailing in the City initiative launched by the Royal Yachting Association Scotland two years ago.

The programme, initially designed to give city children the chance to get on the water, has been a huge success. The project's third year will be launched on April 1 at Victoria Park in Glasgow and then will spread out to new parts of the country.

It is estimated that 2,600 children have now been through the introductory taster sessions. These cover such basics as paddling, steering, boat balancing and, if the wind is favourable, sail handling.

Of the 1,600 children that went through last year, over 300 have advanced to stage one and over 100 to stage two.

Stage one - held as soon after the taster sessions as practicable - gives instruction on such things as how to rig a dinghy, launch and tie knots.

Stage two offers more in-depth work, including stopping, turning, crewing and how to deal with capsize.

Thereafter, a follow-up mechanism encourages children who have been through all the courses to join a sailing programme and go along to a local club.

RYA Scotland has been keen to show that sailing is not an elitist sport and is available to all.

It was evident when the programme was being piloted in 2004 that RYA Scotland development officer Jane Scott needed more hands on board. Suzie Blair was recruited by the governing body to co-ordinate the programme last summer.

There are now three boat trailers (18 boats in total) available for the project and there is a much bigger pool of instructors available to teach the children, though more are being sought.

"Although we started off trying to bring the sport to inner city children, now we are attempting to spread it as wide as possible," says Ms Blair.

Sessions have been held throughout Scotland, including North Uist and the Isle of Lewis.

"We spent a week on Coll last year, where we took the primary children during the day and the adults at night. That was a huge success.

"We still work with inner city children. In Easterhouse, we use Auchinlea Park, which is one of the smaller areas, really just a boating pond.

"The children really like it. I was back there recently and a couple of children told me how much they enjoyed it and they'd been watching Ellen MacArthur on television," Ms Blair says.

"The kids really take to it and we can show that it is not just an upper class sport."

The project has not been without teething problems. It is hard work getting the boats to locations, Ms Blair says. "Sometimes the locations are not up to scratch. We arrived at one where we were only ankle deep in water.

"Last year, we were also plagued by strong winds wherever we went and that caused problems but we always managed to cope.

"The instructors are well prepared and can still play games with the children and give them experience of the water, no matter how shallow it is. We are adaptable; that is one of the strengths of the programme."

Safety is paramount and there are always at least three instructors at every venue, Ms Blair says. "There are no risks taken with the children.

"Even if they choose not to take sailing any further, they will have learnt important safety guidelines on the water through the taster sessions."

Ms Blair continues: "There is no doubt that it has introduced a lot of children to sailing who would not normally have been given the chance. A lot of them would never have given a second thought to the sport but, now it has been offered, they have shown they are keen to pursue it."

RYA Scotland is working on ways to monitor more closely the progress of children who go on to pursue the sport more seriously.

"It is evident from an early age which children have a natural ability," Ms Blair says.

"One problem we are hoping to address is how to monitor children's progress through the scheme. Short of stamping them on the hand or electronically tagging them, there is no way of looking at how children go on from Sailing in the City to sailing in later life.

"But things have worked very well initially and it's a case of where we take it on from here.

"We have just submitted a proposal to SportScotland for more funding.

"We're desperate for commercial sponsorship as well, to enable us to safeguard the future."

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