In their element

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
With the wind whipping their hair and the sea heaving underfoot as they frantically winch sails, it's no wonder boys love messing about in boats, writes Caroline White

Fourteen-year-old Alex Dyke is excited about his school sailing trip, but he is also anxious: "I thought there was going to be writing involved, like worksheets for remembering the names of parts of the boat."

Alex is a pupil at Sunnydown school in Caterham, Surrey, which takes boys with specific learning difficulties, including dyslexia. A school group recently spent three days on board "John Laing", a 72-foot yacht run by Ocean Youth Trust South, an educational charity which runs sailing trips as personal development opportunities for people aged 12 to 25. And, as Alex was delighted to find, the dreaded worksheets did not materialise.

Heather Perkins, Sunnydown's senior residential childcare officer, feels that extra-curricular activities are vital for dyslexic children. "It can do so much to develop their confidence. Most of them were at mainstream schools before they came to Sunnydown, and will have been struggling. They often come to us with low self-esteem, and we have to work hard at building them up again."

Nine boys and three adults from Sunnydown join the "John Laing" and the OYT team in Poole. The skipper, Mark Todd, is a professional sailor with years of experience of working with young people. "We see such a variety of crew members, not just with dyslexia, but anyone needing to build their confidence, or team-working, or even leadership skills. My priority, apart from keeping them all safe, is to give everyone, of every ability, a chance to achieve something they didn't think they'd be able to do."

The crew are divided into two teams, and the weekend begins with some training sessions, including fitting a life jacket, using a safety harness, and operating the headsail sheet winch. One of the boys, less confident than the rest, initially refuses to try this. A deal is struck: everyone else will finish and leave so he doesn't have the pressure of an audience.

Watching the others means he knows what to do when his turn comes, and after doing it perfectly, he never looks back.

With the focus strongly on demonstration and practice, the crew become visibly more excited by the prospect of putting their new skills to use.

The boys cast off the mooring lines and the boat heads out to sea. Everyone takes part in hoisting the sails, and "John Laing" begins to heel over.

Tim Magson, one of the group's three adult leaders, has a strong background in outdoor activities for young people, but says nothing beats sailing:

"It's a fantastic thing to do. Modern life is so sanitised that kids often don't get a chance to achieve their full potential. Here, you're out in the elements, away from land. It's the truest adventure the children will ever experience."

Having enjoyed some spectacular sailing, a spell in an isolated anchorage, and lots of fun and games in harbour, the boys are unanimous in wanting to sail again. This is Sunnydown school's first trip on board "John Laing", but other schools specialising in dyslexia return year after year.

Bob Collier, who teaches at Stanbridge Earls school near Romsey, says: "The experience has been the most tremendous confidence-builder for our pupils.

Sometimes an individual who lacks self-belief has got off the boat looking two feet taller."

Alex, free from the tyranny of worksheets, concludes: "It was excellent. No one's ever taught me how to tie knots before. I like that no one pushes you or anything but they let you do it for yourself."

Ocean Youth Trust South:

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