Across the ocean

29th July 2005 at 01:00
Sailing might not be a popular hobby in Belfast, but negotiating the rough waters of the open seas is helping to put the city's teenagers on an even keel. Elaine Williams reports

The sun shines on Dun Laoghaire marina, the rigging of hundreds of sailing ships clinking in a freshening breeze. It's a perfect day to set out for the Tall Ships Race, but 16-year-old Jason McCann is anxious. His hood is up and his pale face is taut and pinched. The marina, a few minutes from Dublin, seems a million miles from east Belfast, where he started out early this morning trying to raise his friend and neighbour from his bed. He looks stricken: "He wouldn't get out, so he wouldn't. Couldn't be bothered.

It's his loss, his loss."

Jason and four other Belfast teenagers are heading across the footboards of the marina to the berth of The Lord Rank, the sail-training ship of the Ocean Youth Trust (OYT) Ireland. They and six university students from the Czech Republic are to be its crew for the first leg of the annual Tall Ships Race from Waterford to Cherbourg. It will be a demanding fortnight.

For the usually landlocked Czech students it will be a no-holds-barred encounter with seafaring. For the Belfast youngsters, from the Catholic Ardoyne and the Loyalist east of the city, who have not even crossed that sectarian divide never mind the oceans, it is a challenging prospect physically and culturally. Which is why some might choose to stay in bed.

They are greeted by the Czech ambassador, Josef Havlas, who will be sailing out into Dublin Bay with them for an hour or two. Jason looks doubtful.

Perhaps he would have been better off in his bed too. But by the end of the two weeks these students will have been sick together, held the watch together, kept a log, learned the rudiments of navigation, cleaned, cooked and celebrated as a team. They will be different people in terms of confidence and outlook. (In fact, they are all cock-a-hoop when they enter Cherbourg, because as skipper Dougie Walker half-jokingly predicted, despite their inexperience they have won their leg of the race in their class.) Special school head Eddie Jackson, a volunteer first mate for the OYT Ireland, says sailing's power to change lives makes it easy for him to spend his weekends and holidays training young people in the art of seamanship. You might think that being head of a special school for children with profound and multiple disabilities might be challenging enough. But he says he likes nothing better than leaving Highfurlong school in Blackpool on Friday to fly out to Ireland for a weekend's sailing with all manner of young groups. Last Easter Mr Jackson, who used a pound;500 government bursary for excellence in special needs teaching to qualify as a first mate a few years ago, was OYT Ireland's first mate for a crew of young people who had been traumatised by the Troubles.

He says that sailing with the Tall Ships on the final two legs of the race - from Cherbourg to Newcastle last week and from Newcastle to Fredrikstad, Norway, this week - will be a crowning glory. "There'll be 4,000 young people from 30 different cities of all different social backgrounds - from Gordonstoun to the Shankhill - on 130 ships sailing the different stages of the race. In port they'll go on each other's ships, mix with other cultures. They are challenged socially, emotionally, culturally as well as facing physical demands. How great is that?

"For a kid from the Ardoyne to sail off the south coast of Ireland with 200 dolphins swimming around - what does that do to them? It's easy to get burnt out in my job, but to spend your spare time out at sea and to be on the watch when the sails are floppy in the dead of night and the moon and stars are out - how spiritually rejuvenating is that?"

Mr Jackson is joined on The Lord Rank by Sean Patterson, a primary teacher from Newry, Northern Ireland, who will be the third mate. He joined the OYT in his 50s , jumping at the chance to fulfil a childhood ambition. "When you're crew on a sailing ship you just have to get on with it," he says.

"You have to get on with people, work together, it's in your face. But the experience of being out at sea, of being driven purely by the wind, that's totally de-stressing for everybody. It doesn't do anybody any harm to be in a new learning environment. I am still learning, they are learning. It's just a great craic."

As the boat moves off from its mooring the youngsters are soon busy with ropes and fenders. Dougie Walker, a salaried member of OYT, wastes no time in getting Ardoyne youngster Kevin McVeigh, 16, turning the wheel. Soon he has the young crew working the sails of the handsome Bermudan rigging. By the time The Lord Rank has left the marina, Jason has a coy smile on his face and Kevin is beaming from ear to ear. Paul Currie, 16, Kevin's cousin from the Ardoyne, helps him pull in ropes. As the ship heads out into the bay towards the imposing Ben of Howth peninsula, Paul takes in the scene with a look of pure pleasure. "If I wasn't here I'd be doing nothing, playing snooker all the time or football in the park. I think this is brilliant. I was brought up to treat everybody the same but I know if I crossed over (the peace line - the interface between Protestant and Catholic areas) I'd be beaten up. We're trapped. Here we can get away from all that."

The OYT is an educational charity aimed at youngsters aged 12 to 25 which is supported by government and other grant-making bodies, as well as business sponsorship. One of its trustees, an anonymous Irish businessman with interests in Prague, sponsors the Czech students to give the Tall Ships crew an international dimension. Gerry Brennan, a retired British army officer and OYT Ireland's executive director, grew up in the Falls Road and his mother still lives in the shadow of the peace line. "If you have two young people on watch together, they have to work with each other, no matter where they are from. The experience of sailing cuts through all the baggage that people bring with them," he says.

OYT Ireland also supports youngsters from Northern Ireland's ethnic minorities, as well as encouraging church and other groups to use the resource. "We can't tick boxes and say people will be better at the end of a sail-training trip but we know it works," says Mr Brennan. "We sail in some rough waters and young people feel they've really achieved something when they come through."

Eddie Jackson says the OYT work also has hugely beneficial spin-offs in his professional life. "I've sailed with some of the UK's best sailors. That does my ego an awful lot of good; it gives me a lift for working back in school."

The Ocean Youth Trust: Tall Ships race started on July 6 in Waterford. It ends in Fredrikstad, Norway, on August 6

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