Philanthropy | For Goodness’ Sake

A sailing trip can be therapeutic, as well as fun

A great day out at sea can make all the difference

A sailing trip can be therapeutic, as well as fun

June 18 2009
Claire Wrathall

Most of us who’ve messed about on boats can identify to some extent with the adage that sailing can feel like standing in a cold shower tearing up $100 bills. But, though there’s no denying that boating can be an expensive pastime, there’s a great deal of good that can come from spending time afloat. So therapeutic is the proximity to the elements and the rhythm of life aboard that a raft of rehabilitative sailing charities exist to improve the wellbeing of people with disabilities, cancer sufferers or those from disadvantaged backgrounds by teaching them to sail.

Last year, Hull Primary Care Trust announced that it wanted to spend £400,000 on a 22m sailing yacht for Wilberforce Youth Development, an organisation named in honour of the politician, slave-trade abolitionist and son of Hull, William Wilberforce. The boat would be used to teach 150 unemployed 17- to 19-year-olds to sail annually over 14-week courses, at least a fortnight of which would be spent away at sea. The thinking was that this would improve their life chances – by teaching them discipline and respect for forces bigger than they were, not least the sea and the weather; and by improving their fitness.

These objectives resonate with those of the Trinity Sailing Trust, a charity based in Brixham, Devon, that runs sailing courses for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or with special needs or behavioural problems. As one teacher said after a few days at sea: “During the trip they had no choice but to take responsibility for their behaviour. Normally, in the event of them kicking off they would leave a trail of destruction and hurt feelings behind them. [Here] they had to accommodate the needs of others, question their ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude and work as a team.” What the kids had to say was more poignant: “It was nice to eat the food at the table like we did. I’ve never done that,” said one.

Also for the younger generation, in 2002 the British yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur established a trust in her name, the object of which is to provide sailing holidays and day trips for eight- to 18-year-olds in recovery from cancer or other serious illnesses, which it runs in conjunction with children’s and cancer hospitals across the UK. (Its vessels have nurses on board, and there is onshore back-up from a paediatrician.) By the end of this year, more than 350 young people will have sailed with the trust.

Of course, sailing can be therapeutic for adult cancer sufferers too, hence the charity Sail4Cancer, which aims to provide 1,250-plus “sailing days” a year to patients, their families, carers and the recently bereaved, but also exists to raise funds for treatment, care and research.

In contrast to sailing on smaller yachts and dinghies, the Jubilee Sailing Trust was founded “to promote the integration of people of all physical abilities through the challenge and adventure of sailing tall ships on the open sea”. Its two square-rigged ships have been customised with lifts, handrails, flat decks and wide corridors in order to accommodate wheelchairs, as well as hearing loops, Braille signage and speaking compasses, enabling them to be sailed by crews of 40 people of all abilities and disabilities.

Founded in 1978, since when more than 36,000 people have sailed with it, JST is a large enough concern to have commissioned its own ships. Smaller charities such as the Ellen MacArthur Trust, however, try to maximise resources by borrowing boats – in which case organisations such as Blue Box Sailing also deserve applause. This Southampton-based company has two ocean-going yachts that can be chartered for days out and events, but it will also lend them to registered charities, as long as they can demonstrate that “a day sailing an ocean racing yacht will make a difference”. (It doesn’t want approaches from charities that just want to use the day as a prize or fundraising incentive.) As co-owner Jonathan Bradfield puts it, “We’re lucky – we go sailing every day and call it work. However, there are many people out there for whom a great day on the water can really make a difference.”