Landlocked? No problem

26th September 2003 at 01:00
The call of the sea is so strong that these students have been handling the most advanced yachts afloat.

Phil Revell reports

There is precious little by way of coastline in the land-locked county of Buckinghamshire. But Jeremy Graham, a religious education teacher, waxes lyrical about life on the ocean wave. "There's something magical about the sea," he says.

At Dr Challenor's grammar school, Amersham, he has devised a sailing programme that has seen some of his students take charge of some of the most advanced yachts in the world.

Last May, a group of pupils took out state-of the-art Global Challenge boats - used in the BT Global Challenge round-the-world yacht race - which are designed to take on the worst that the Southern seas can throw at them.

"It was two days, 86 nautical miles, mainly for people who know what they are doing," Mr Graham says.

Members of the group know what they are doing because he takes groups of students sailing three or four times a year. There's something for all abilities, from absolute beginners to aspiring professionals.

But Mr Graham is not an instructor. His sailing experience has grown alongside that of his students. The real expertise is provided by the United Kingdom Sailing Academy (Uksa), based at Cowes - where else? - and is a registered charity dedicated to providing sailing experience. Tt has a fleet of some 300 craft, including the 67ft Global Challenge boats, one of which, Albatross, won the first BT global race under its sponsor's name, Nuclear Electric.

The sailing academy trains professional yachtsmen, but beginners can also try their hand on the fleet of slightly smaller dinghies, sailboards and canoes.

The academy was set up by round-the-world yachtsman Noel Lister in 1987 and claims to be Britain's top sail training centre. Supporters include Britain's best-known yachtswoman, Ellen McArthur, and Princess Anne.

Jeremy Graham became involved after accompanying a group on a traditional outdoor activities weekend to an inland centre. He was not impressed with the experience. "They did a little bit of everything. The sailing involved bobbing about in a dinghy. It was all a bit dull."

Next time, he organised a similar visit to Uksa, and was struck by the number of boys who later decided that they wanted to spend more time sailing. "Since then we have gone with the intention of sailing," he says.

"I've been very happy with the academy. They're safe, and if I ask for something, they work hard to put it on."

Earlier this year, a group spent two days of a week-long course being taught how to drive a motorboat. Meanwhile, a more advanced group was learning how to handle a spinnaker.

A sixth form group wanted to use sailing as the expedition element of their Duke Of Edinburgh award. "We asked Uksa, 'Can we do this?' - and they said yes without hesitation," says Mr Graham. "The boys were given a Colgate for four days. That's an awesome yacht that takes a crew of four."

The academy's west Cowes centre on the Isle of Wight is in Britain's sailing heartland. Every possible sailing opportunity is within easy reach - from sheltered coves and bays to the Solent and the Channel. Groups can learn to windsurf and canoe, as well as sailing. In the evenings there are games on the beach or trips offsite.

The academy offers multi-activity trips where groups try a range of sports, but the focus is mainly on sailing and the sea. That is what makes it unusual. Most of the centres that specialise in one activity see adults as their main market. And most teachers planning a school trip want to emphasise the opportunity to try something new.

Outdoor instructors usually see the activity as incidental. The education benefit comes from the teamwork and challenge. Few of the children on multi-activity courses will go on to be rock climbers, kayakers or sailors.

It's what they learn while "having a go" that is important.

It's an argument that Jeremy Graham is familiar with. The beginners groups he takes are offered a range of activities. But he's convinced that sailing offers something extra.

"They develop skills, including teamwork, courage and perseverance, but they also have the opportunity to come back with a qualification," he says.

Sailing isn't cheap. The former prime minister and well-known yachtsman Ted Heath once remarked that sailing was like standing underneath a cold shower tearing up pound;5 notes. A week at Uksa will cost in the region of pound;300.

"You put them out in a boat, they take the helm and they're in charge," says Graham "They come back with all kinds of tales - that's the buzz."


For Uksa, contact the school manager. Tel: 01983 203023; email:;

Other centres offering a sailing experience include: Baltic Wharf sailing centre, Bristol. Tel: 0117 9073019.

Rockley Watersports, Poole and France. Tel: 01202 677 272.

Calshot Activities Centre, Hampshire. Tel: 023 8089 2077.

Water Park Adventure Centre, Cumbria. Tel: 01229 885456.

Plas Menai, North Wales. Tel: 01248 670964.Sailing is regulated by the Royal Yachting Association which might be able to offer advice about other sailing centres. Tel: 023 8062 7400

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