Sailing around the country is no mean feat, but a group of special needs pupils has done just that. Yolanda Brooks reports
The landlocked city of Wolverhampton is not a place you'd expect to find a fleet of young sailing enthusiasts. Special needs schools are not an obvious recruiting ground for a round-Britain sailing trip. But last summer, the vision of one man gave students the opportunity to do just that.
Andy Morris, at Westcroft school and sports college, persuaded his headteacher, local businesses and other educational establishments to fund and take part in a nine-week sailing trip around Britain. During Kids Around Britain, which ran from May to July last summer, teenagers from schools, pupil referral units and local youth groups each spent a week crewing "Provident", a 95ft converted Brixham sailing trawler from the Trinity Sailing Trust.
Despite the enormous task that lay ahead, Mr Morris was unfazed by possible problems. "Having spent several years developing the programme, it was obvious that special needs are no obstacle to such an ambitious project and that sailing around Britain would be a fantastic way to increase participants' self-sufficiency, trust in others and sense of achievement," he says.
"The school has always taken students on residentials. We had been going to Bala Lake in Wales, and Pwllheli, on the Lleyn Peninsula, so they learned in sheltered inland water. And from there we asked where is the next progression for us?"
That progression cost pound;50,000, raised partly through two years of fundraising and the rest through sponsorship from organisations such as the Island Sailing Trust, the Britannia Foundation and Mansell Construction.
Each group of students was joined by a professional crew supplied by Trinity. They were involved in all aspects of ship life: scrubbing the decks navigation, hoisting sail and 4am watch.
A team from Westcroft started the journey from St Katharine Docks in London, with the ship stopping off at Portsmouth, Falmouth, Anglesey, Largs, Oban, Fraserburgh, Grimsby and Ramsgate before pupils from Old Park school in Dudley completed the journey by returning to port in Brixham.
The trip was made possible by the strong sailing tradition at Westcroft.
For well over a decade, Andy Morris's enthusiasm for the sport has enabled pupils to have access to watersports coaching and facilities. He is a Royal Yachting Association qualified senior instructor and started teaching students from Westcroft, a school for students with moderate learning difficulties, 15 years ago. After a local education authority sailing centre closed, he initiated the creation of the school's own sailing centre at South Staffordshire Sailing Club.
The centre is licensed by the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority and coaches canoeing, orienteering and inland sailing, all available to other local schools. During one month last summer, 650 students used the facility and 120 of Westcroft's 180 students took part in watersports.
It was a long hard slog from original idea to setting sail for Kids Around Britain, but Mr Morris says it has definitely been worth the effort. "It was amazing, they didn't want to get off the boat," he says. "A number of students burst into tears."
So successful was the trip that he has plans to do it again. "The majority were over the moon that such an opportunity was coming their way and we are hoping to make it a bi-annual event."
Seafaring Britain, page 36
South Staffordshire Sailing Club, Nr Penkridge. Tel: 01902 850 389.Trinity Sailing Trust in Devon offers off-shore sailing opportunities for disadvantaged children and those with physical or learning disabilities.
Tel: 01803 883355; email: email@example.com; wwww.trinitysailing.co.uk
* Schools participating in 'Kids Around Britain': Westcroft ; Old Park school, Dudley; Orchard Centre pupil referral unit, Wolverhampton; Tettenhall Wood school, Wolverhampton; Clifford project Walton Hall, Staffordshire; Duke of Edinburgh Scheme at Wildside activity centre, Wolverhampton; Loxley Hall school, Staffordshire; and Sunfield centre of excellence, Stourbridge.