The dream of sailing is within reach of more children than you might imagine, says Phil Revell
Arthur Ransome would approve. Each week through the spring and summer, children from Roman Hill Middle School in Suffolk take a 10-minute journey down to Oulton Broad for sailing lessons which are built into their PE curriculum. The school, in Lowestoft, is close to Suffolk's Oulton Broad watersports centre and teacher Peter Thurgood takes one group canoeing while sailing instructor Peter Fenn takes another group out in the centre's fleet of Optimist dinghies. By the end of the summer most of Roman Hill's Year 7s have had a go at both activities.
Although the Broads are not far away, most of the children are absolute beginners. Only one of the pupils I spoke to had been sailing with her family. But they soon learn to handle the boats, which are lighter and easier than the Wayfarers that Susan, John, Titty and Roger had their adventures in.
"At the end of the six-week programme they go away as reasonable sailors, " says Peter Fenn. The students work towards Royal Yachting Association qualifications and can return at weekends and during the holidays to extend their skills.
It's a popular part of the PE programme. "I think it was great that we were able to give something like that a try," says 11-year-old Suzanne Capps. Kara Evans really enjoyed the sailing: "I hadn't done anything like that before. "
The course requires the pupils to carry out a capsize drill, which wasn't the high point for some. But others enjoyed it. "I liked capsizing," says Michelle Cole, who felt a sense of achievement when she succeeded in righting the dinghy.
Opportunities to sail in the area are many and a number of the children have had their interest kindled, including Michael Brown who is "looking forward to sailing in the future".
On the south coast the Solent has several centres offering sailing in the area. Calshot has a national reputation for outdoor pursuits and can offer a wide range of activities as well as sailing. The Southampton Water Borne Activities Centre offers schools the same curricular opportunities for sailing as the Broads centre.
"In a year we deal with about 70 schools," says centre manager John Thorne. "We have schools which use us on a weekly basis as part of their curriculum and after-school groups where children who have been on a course are able to come back and continue their sailing."
Children from Southampton or Hampshire pay nothing to use the centre and children who get the bug can progress through a series of courses and qualifications up to the Hampshire Schools Sailing Squad, which has had national success in competition.
Most residential activity centres which offer sailing will include it in a multi-activity programme where children might just get a half-session through the week. Not so at the Ocean Youth Club where sailing is the core activity. The OYC is Europe's largest sailing organisation and operates a fleet of seven ocean-going yachts from 40 ports around the UK. "The kids do everything, " says OYC's Kathryn Kelly, "From cleaning the heads to cooking in the galley. "
OYC offers a variety of sailing courses from two days to several weeks. A "standard", five-day course would cost students around Pounds 250, and could involve a starlit Channel crossing or some intricate navigation around the rocky coastline of north Wales .
OYC takes part in the annual Tall Ships race, as does the Faramir Trust, a small residential sailing centre based on the Durham coast. Faramir runs three large yachts and operate days sailing and longer trips. Its largest boat, Hartlepool Renaissance, has 12 berths and the smallest, Boromir, has five. A typical five- day stay would involve sailing off the north-east coast with a couple of nights at remote anchorages such as the Farne Islands. The trust was set up by the Church of England to offer challenge and adventure to young people in the North-east and still maintains links with the Church despite being under independent management.
Senior skipper Donald MacNeil described how, thanks to Lottery grants, the trust was able to offer remarkably low fees to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Normal costs are Pounds 28 pounds per day and the 1,500 young people who sailed with the trust in 1997 were involved in every aspect of running the yachts.
Martyn Styles of the National School Sailing Association will put schools in contact with clubs and centres able to offer sailing opportunities in their area. A coastline isn't a prerequisite as inland lakes and reservoirs often have a sailing club. And it need not be expensive. Most clubs, argues Martyn, have dinghies and kit to lend and are keen to welcome new faces.
TAKING TO THE WATER
And just what is a Mersey ferry doing in an estuary in south Devon? The answer is that the Egremont, ex-MerseyBirkenhead service, is the floating headquarters of the Island Cruising Club.
ICC runs sailing holidays from Salcombe and can offer large vessels such as the Provident, a converted Brixham trawler; classic yachts such as the Hoshi; and a fleet of dinghies and canoes which operate from a pontoon moored to the Egremont.
Westhaven School has been using the ICC for activity weeks for some years. Ten children are learning sailing along with two staff, Sue Slade and Brian Davies. Westhaven caters for special needs and Brian argues that sailing is an ideal outdoor activity for students, who are "taken further beyond themselves than they would normally go".
The opportunity to develop skills in a non-threatening situation, the high staffing ratios and the sheer thrill of controlling a dinghy as it cuts through the water - all combine to leave a profound effect on young people who participate. "You stop doing something you really enjoy," says one boy. "Then you go and do something you enjoy even more."
ICC staff have a wealth of experience with special needs students because a charitable trust, The Island Trust funds regular courses for disadvantaged and disabled young people. Instructor Emma Moscoso was working hard to involve a quiet and withdrawn boy without making the mistake of pushing him too hard. On the way to the beach games she chatted to him without demanding a reply and during the games she made a point of involving him in the activity.
On the way back to the Egremont he suddenly announced that it was his brother's birthday. "Contact," says Sue Slade. "That's one who's got something out of the week."
'All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,' John Masefield, from Sea Fever.
Today's mariners don't need to rely on the stars as much as they once did, but if teachers are concerned about returning to port in one piece they should check that organisations offering sailing activities are licensed: For small craft - with the Adventurous Activities Licensing Authority (AALA) Tel: 01222 755715
For larger sea-going craft - with the Marine Information CentreTel: 01703 329296
Calshot Outdoor Activity Centre Calshot Spit, Calshot, Fawley Southampton S045 1BR
Tel: 01703 892077
Island Cruising Club, Salcombe Devon. Tel: 01548 843927
The Island Trust, 10 Manston Terrace, Exeter, Devon. EX2 4NP Tel: 01392 256142
National School Sailing Association co Bellers Bush Dover Road Sandwich, Kent. CT13 0DG Tel: 01304 613226
Ocean Youth Club (For ages 12-24) The Bus Station, South Street, Gosport, Hampshire PO12 1EP Tel: 01705 528421
Oulton Broad Watersports Centre Oulton Broad, Suffolk Tel: 01502 587163
Southampton Water Borne Activities Centre, Floating Bridge Road Southampton. Tel: 01703 225525
The Faramir Trust The Boatyard, Middleton Road Hartlepool. TS24 0RA Tel: 07000 784751