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Build Sailing Participation 101

by Mark Jardine 2 Oct 2023 20:00 BST
The team loading the container at Queen Mary Sailing Club © Guy Noble

There are times when things seem to just fall into place, and an idea becomes reality, seemingly with no trouble at all. Behind the scenes though there are always people with a can-do attitude who make it happen. This is a story of a pair of UK sailors donating ILCA dinghies to the St Vincent and the Grenadines Sailing Association (SVG Sailing) and it is one of those stories which was so good that I had to talk to the people behind it.

I'd received a short news article about UK Sailors donating equipment to SVG Sailing last week, so I quickly set up a Zoom call with Guy Noble of the UKLA and Tony Bishop from Queen Mary Sailing Club to find out more...

We'll start off with Guy, who was in Antigua on holiday, as he has the familiar conundrum that when he enters a major ILCA event, such as a World Championship, he also books a lovely holiday with his wife Nikki to gain 'brownie points' at home:

"We really love Antigua and have been there a few times. We booked The Inn at English Harbour, which is one of the most wonderful places, and there were a couple of Lasers on the beach, like a lot of these hotels have. Just down from there is a public beach, and as Nikki and I walked along it after breakfast one Sunday we saw some local kids swimming around and playing in the water. I got chatting to one of the mothers and I asked, 'Do your kids sail?', and she looked at me like I was some sort of alien and said, 'Of course not, how can we possibly afford to do that?'.

"While we were walking back, I said to Nikki that it's a terrible shame, that there's this beautiful sea with a lovely wind and it's warm, where we as visitors get the opportunity to take full advantage of the environment, and yet these kids who are local don't. I just thought that's all wrong.

"A few days later the Caribbean Championships just so happened to be on just around the corner, which I entered. I had a nice time and after the racing I got chatting to this couple and brought up the beach kids and how we could get them sailing, I said I was a member of Queen Mary Sailing Club and that we had all these boats in the dinghy park that are not used. From this conversation they talked to a guy who backs this little sailing association in St. Vincent (SVG Sailing) and had a transport company, and they managed to persuade him to put a container together to come from the UK back to St. Vincent, then got the St. Vincent government to waive any import duty; all the pieces started to fall into place, and I just needed to talk to Tony Bishop at Queen Mary SC."

For Tony this all tied together with a previous project he'd been working on just before the pandemic, so he was enthusiastic to help:

"Pre-Covid we were looking at creating something called the Abandoned Boat Club, to try and get young kids on the water, and in the process of doing that, we actually created a new membership category and found a way to do it with other club boats. So, these boats we'd found were fortuitously ready but without a project. When Guy tapped me on the shoulder, we were able to move incredibly quickly as we had six boats sitting here, most of them 20 to 25 years old, but actually in sound condition.

"What happens in a sailing club is that you have a boat park full of boats, and people have the best intention to go sailing, and fortunately, between 40 and 60% of the members do go sailing, but there's a minority where things change, life moves on, and these boats sit there. They keep paying their membership fees until the value of the boat decreases, the fees come a bit higher then, all of a sudden, there's this tipping point where they're paying more for their membership than the boat's worth, and then they decide to abandon the boat and it becomes the club's problem. There are thousands of boats across the country in this condition, it's not just our club. Interestingly, when I started sailing an Optimist, I got a bit too big, and my first boat after that was an abandoned Europe, at Bewl Valley Sailing Club in the 1980s."

So, in dinghy parks across the UK, and around the world, there is a huge stock of dinghies which are unused. Yes, some of them will be beyond repair and sadly need to go to landfill, but many are still in a sound condition and can be brought back to racing standard with very little work. Guy and Tony talked with some of their connections, and donations came in to get any missing parts together to complete the Laser / ILCA dinghies, as Tony describes:

"In a 20-foot container you can easily fit six boats, five stacked and one on its side. Donations came through from Rooster, Ovington, SailingFast and Trident, and Queen Mary SC members had sails which they donated; soon we had a whole pile of kit that went into the container, along with the boats."

Guy also contacted the Queen Mary ILCA / Laser WhatsApp group (200+ members) and the UKLA Facebook group (3000+ members) appealing for anything they could spare:

"It was amazing, really heartening. There were people that donated sails, spars and all sorts of things. Stokes Bay Sailing Club got involved as well, with Nick Harrison supplying some things. The UKLA has some very proactive sponsors such as Rooster, Ovington and SailingFast, and they were all really keen to support the idea. They couldn't have been more cooperative. Rooster then supplied a whole sailing kit to a Caribbean sailor who's going off to do the Pan American Games. Ovington supplied a huge number of strings and the sort of things that make those boats usable."

At this point you may be thinking that this was just a fortuitous set of circumstances coming together, but Guy was quick to point out that when you start asking questions, connections can be made:

"Tim Law, who was the person that introduced me to Carl James at Antigua Yacht Club, is shipping out a boat and a load of stuff to Antigua in the next few weeks. Again, he found a sympathetic shipping company. It's a question of ask, ask, and ask around. Who are the contacts? There are many people out there who are willing to help.

"It's keeping lines of communication open with people, making sure the cogs line up, as people often didn't know about each other - they knew each other, but they didn't know things were needed. I was a kind of facilitator, who got people together and talking, then suddenly things started happening."

Tony then gathered a team to load the container at Queen Mary Sailing Club to make sure everything could be safely delivered to the Caribbean:

"One guy said he'd bring the wood, and we put together a team, made the frame, and in a couple of hours everything was in the 20-foot container, packed down securely and nicely boxed up. We then made a big inventory of everything, because it's got to go to the port and then they've got a list of exactly what was in the container for the paperwork.

"It's all about opening doors and meeting people. You just don't know where these conversations are going to go. You don't know who you're going to be connected with and how these things are going to then spin off and have other benefits. The next stage on for this is Queen Mary Sailing Club potentially twinning with the SVG Sailing Association. Then you have this connection so that members can go and sail over in the Caribbean, and not just go on holiday: if they need to a couple of pintles or something, you can chuck that into your hand luggage and you could deliver them.

"Jenny Trumble, who set up the SVG Sailing Association together with Martic Ince, is very much the key person to this whole project. Her passion for sailing and her drive to make this happen is really behind this. Her excitement means it's got this sort of 'Cool Runnings' vibe to it, where you've got this island, which is getting this sailing kit, and you've got a top-class coach, who is taking a Caribbean sailor to the Pan American Games. So they've got this pathway for getting on the water, these islanders who have been supporting holidaymakers to go sailing, but couldn't go sailing themselves. The foundation of this is to get the islanders onto the water and see the islands from the sea, which they just can't do otherwise.

"You just never know where a conversation with somebody is going to end up, and that's what I like about the whole project."

The idea has turned to reality, but keeping the momentum up and building from here will take more conversations, so I asked Guy where he'd like to see things in two years' time:

"More boats out there is the first thing, and maybe some other clubs taking the initiative. If any clubs are interested then Tony and I can point you in the direction or give you some kind of handbook on how to do these things. It is a bit bespoke, as every club and situation is different, but the biggest piece of advice I can give is go and talk to individuals."

Tony added:

"There's definitely a lot of documented stuff that we can share, but just as Guy said it's about having those conversations and networking, because you've got to find the person that you trust that will deliver. Find a club that has a few boats, and then you have to put those people together and make it work. So, there's a bit of luck in this happening, but luck only happens when you work hard and talk to people, doesn't it?"

It once again goes to show in this day and age where we have every communication method under the sun available to us, what it often takes is actually communicating and networking to make things happen. Jon Holt at the Greig Academy with the Scaramouche Sailing Trust is a prime example of a person who gets people connected, and the results are quite incredible. We're not all Jon Holt, but we can talk to people in our spare time, and in the process achieve something remarkable. As a full-time practicing artist Guy doesn't have much time on his hands, but still managed to help get the project off the ground:

"It's kind of ludicrous in some ways, but you can do something which really takes very little, a little bit of push, and it can have life-changing consequences for other people, and that can only be a good thing. It's not philanthropic in a way, it's also selfish: I want to see singlehanded sailing, in particular ILCA sailing, prosper and grow. The ILCA is low-maintenance, you can learn the basics, and fantastic, world-beating sailors have learned their craft in the boat. Why shouldn't that be accessible to every single kid everywhere?"

These boats won't just be used by one kid, or one sailor in the Caribbean, and Tony has long believed that to be a good thing:

"The model where you've got multiple people using kit is the future. This is the way that we will sustain the sport. These boats we've sent out are going to be used multiple times by multiple people; they'll probably have more use in the next three or four years than they have done in their entire lifetime, and some of these boats are 25 years old. They've got a load of new spars, sails, and parts, so they will stay together. This second lease of life that they're going to have is probably some of the best sailing those boats will do. In the next three or four years we'll have some more abandoned boats, so we can continue to supply more to the project, and hopefully inspire other clubs to do the same."

So, this is 'Build Sailing Participation 101'. An inspiring project which can help get more sailors on the water and increase the diversity of sailing in the process. If you're feeling inspired then feel free to contact Tony Bishop at tony.bishop@queenmary.org.uk or Guy Noble via guy@guynoble.com and get started!

Mark Jardine
Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com Managing Editor

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