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An Ausome Rolex Fastnet Team with an autistic crew

by Mark Jardine 14 Jun 2019 12:00 BST

We spoke to the team of autistic sailors, led by Lottie Harland and Alex Ahmann, who are building up to race Ausome-Lyra of London, a Swan 431 yacht, in the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race, starting on 3rd August in Cowes.

The team is made up of eight sailors of varying ability, some who have sailed for many years, some who have experience as diverse as Optimists and tall ships, and some who are new to the sport, but all with an Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC).

We first spoke to Lottie about how she got into sailing:

"My first experience of sailing was with my Dad in an Enterprise dinghy when I was 8 years old. I remember going out when it was really strong winds and we capsized, and I landed on the boom! I really enjoyed it and definitely enjoyed the strong winds the most as it was fast with so much exhilaration and adrenaline."

Lottie was diagnosed as autistic soon after this at her second school in 2006, but she has never looked on the condition as limiting what she can do or achieve:

"My parents had the outlook that they weren't going to let it stop me doing anything and that meant I had that same outlook. Even if I'm anxious, my way of dealing with anxiety has always been to jump in at the deep end and hope I can swim!"

Lottie quickly moved on to Optimist sailing on her own and joined the local Opi club at Burghfield.

"I did one year at Opi club and didn't want to put my boat away for the winter, so my parents persuaded them to let me join the racing group. I joined the circuit and it all kind of went from there!"

Encouragingly, Lottie's parents found the sailing community to be exceptionally supportive following her ASC diagnosis. We spoke to Phil, Lottie's dad, about this time:

"We found everybody very inclusive and welcoming. The structure of sailing with each person in their own boat, but coming together as a group for briefings, coaching and debriefings seemed to work very well: time apart for being themselves and time together in a more social environment."

Lottie moved up through the squad system, with her coach subtly helping her in social situations where she needed guidance:

"When I was in the zone squad, I would talk a lot in briefings, so my coach made a hand signal to make sure that I knew when to stop talking, which worked really well! It meant everyone was able to understand me more and help me. When they did the selection trials they had a coaching weekend and the coach sat down with my Dad and I, where my Dad explained to her that I was autistic and she then understood my needs and could help me more."

Lottie has always enjoyed the racing, but definitely at a level of competitiveness where she was comfortable:

"When I got into the Youth Squad it started getting much more about results as well as having fun, so I started to not enjoy it quite as much. I knew that I loved sailing and I didn't want to quit altogether, so I started looking at crewing on yachts, posting on some Facebook groups, and managing to do some yacht racing, which I found a lot more fun. I like the racing, but it's not all about the results, and being able to talk to people after the racing was key. I found if people got very competitive, they wouldn't really talk to you afterwards if they had a bad race which is why I moved to yachts."

This experience of the squad system is what many have felt when they haven't quite 'made the grade' to a certain team and this often leaves sailors disillusioned with the sport, so it's fantastic to see that Lottie instead looked for other opportunities within sailing. Guiding squad sailors towards other aspects, such as yacht racing, would really help grow continued participation, while also helping yacht owners gain enthusiastic and talented crew.

"I sailed a Sigma 38 in the Hamble Winter Series. They were really nice and looking for crew, so I managed to get on their team in 2013. I met a guy on that who had a J/109, so I sailed the next year with him and did some of the offshore racing, and then met another guy who had an Impala 28, George Beevor, who is also doing the Rolex Fastnet Race with us and is a trustee of the Ausome charity. I started to do cross-channel races regularly with him in his Impala 28 and he's become like a second father to me."

Again, the sailing community has embraced Lottie and provided opportunities within the sport:

"If you can prove that you can do things well, they don't really care if you're a bit different. Whoever agrees to go and get cold water splashed on them for fun is kind of a bit weird themselves anyway!"

It was though an ASC support group on social media that Lottie met Alex, a co-founder of Ausome, a short while before he came to study in the UK. Originally from California, with only experience in tall ships, Lottie quickly introduced Alex to yacht racing and the cold water treatment of doing bow on a boat! Alex told us about his route into the sport when coming to the UK in 2014:

"Moving from traditional vessels to modern yachts I almost had to re-learn everything, but everyone was pretty friendly and had the attitude of 'We'll go do a race and get some beer afterwards and talk for an hour or so'. I really enjoyed it. On bow it was sometimes a little uncomfortable and I would sometimes ask myself why I was doing it, but when the next race came along, I was raring to go do it again!"

Another crewmember on Ausome-Lyra of London is Marc Lonergan, who grow up with undiagnosed autism, but has learned to adapt throughout his life. We found out how he first started sailing:

"It was by accident really. I lived in Bermuda for a while and in 2009 a girl I was seeing at the time decided to invite me along to a Wednesday race. I'd never been on a sailboat before, but I got absolutely hooked on it. The owner left the island and sold me the boat, so I bought the boat to learn how to sail, read a book called 'Sailing for Dummies' and one great sailor called Chuck Milligan took me on board his J/105. The year after we won an international race together. The community in Bermuda were so supportive. If you're keen, they embrace you. When I came back to the UK they introduced me to people over here - it's definitely a sport where if you're keen and really want to get into it, there aren't any barriers."

We talked to Lottie about the goals of the Ausome charity itself:

"At school I had a lot of issues due to being autistic and sailing was the thing I really looked forward to each weekend. I found it really helped with life skills, social skills, confidence and self-esteem, and I wanted to give other people the same opportunities I had. When Alex came over to the UK he wanted to help me with the charity, and George Beevor, who I had been sailing with regularly, has always been really supportive of me, and also did some work on statementing* when he was a politician, so he decided that he'd help too and so we had the three trustees of the charity and started to get it registered."

Alex explained that the process of starting a charity was extremely long:

"With our university studies and George's work the process took about a year. We had to wait three months for the application to come through. There are difficult points such as: to get a charity registered you need a bank account, but to get a charitable bank account you need to be registered as a charity! We eventually sorted this out, but then registering for Gift Aid was like doing the whole process again, as Gift Aid don't talk to the charities people - you can't just tick a box to say you're a registered charity."

So the Ausome team have seen how it's easy to break down the barriers in sailing, but the barriers to starting a charity were far harder!

"It was very much plugging away, keeping an eye on emails and making sure we could get everything done. Once registered my dad has been really helpful as, being autistic, I struggle with executive functioning**," said Lottie.

Throughout Lottie's education, her parents have supported her development as Lottie describes:

"All through school, for example when schools tried to illegally exclude me, my parents knew their rights and wouldn't let them push us around. Without them I wouldn't have come out with my GCSEs or A Levels, and therefore wouldn't have gone to university. If I hadn't have done all of that then I don't think the sailing would have ever worked either and I wouldn't be living independently now. Parents have to be supportive and know their rights."

When it comes to opportunities through the Ausome charity Lottie explains how people can get in touch:

"You can just email us and we'll see what we can do and we also have our Facebook page. If the Fastnet goes well then we're aiming to do more things. First we need to raise awareness and capital, see if we can borrow more boats and allow more autistic people to get out on the water."

"As George says when we're on his yacht, everything is so nice and tidy when we're on board. Autistic people can learn things very quickly when they're interested - they think in a different way, so when they come across a problem, they might be able to solve it quicker, coming at the problem from a different angle. Having an autistic person in a crew can definitely help and we want to show that having an autistic person on your team can be a real asset."

The requirements for the Rolex Fastnet Race are meticulous, with sea miles, yacht inspections and safety requirements, but this has been a process the team have worked through as Lottie says:

"Miles Delap, who owns the yacht, does events such as the North Sea Race and the East Coast Race which in themselves are enough for the mileage requirements and we've had enough of our team on board each race to get the necessary qualification miles. The main barrier is the money as it's expensive to run a campaign. It's not expensive to be a crew on a campaign, but to run it is quite expensive. EAORA (East Anglian Offshore Racing Association) really kick started everything during their dinner in 2017, holding a raffle raising £600 which they gave to us. Judy Payne-James who owns Forensic Healthcare Services paid our entry fee and lent us her swimming pool for our sea survival - she's been amazing helping us with everything. Barton Marine have given us new blocks and we've been given crew t-shirts by Essex Embroidery & Print - people have been really great. Ausome has also just been awarded a sizeable grant from the RYA Foundation for all the additional safety equipment and training that will be needed."

The team's aim in the Rolex Fastnet Race itself are first and foremost a safe passage, but there is of course a goal within the fleet as Mark explains: "We'd like to come mid-fleet. We're never going to be up in the top and get a Rolex watch sailing an old Swan, but I think mid-fleet is realistic, especially if it's high winds as the boat handles strong winds well."

We wish the Ausome-Lyra of London team all the best in the Rolex Fastnet Race and that the initiative they've shown in getting out on the water leads to more autistic people taking part in sailing! To find out more about Ausome then please take a look at www.ausome.org.uk and visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AusomeSailors. You can also donate towards their Rolex Fastnet Race campaign through their website.

* A 'statement' is a legal document which sets out the support that the education board deem appropriate

** 'Executive function' refers to the cognitive processes that help us regulate, control and organise our thoughts and actions

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