The Ocean Youth Trust gives young people a wonderful taste of adventure on the water. As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, Roz Whistance discovers what it does for Island children.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the Ocean Youth Trust is that its devoted officials have to spend a deal of time persuading young people to take part in what they have to offer. For this is the chance of a lifetime.

Nine youngsters, aged between 12 and 16, who have no previous sailing experience, get to crew a 72ft ketch, the John Laing. They help to plan a four-day voyage, and sail it to their chosen destination. They learn that turning round is called tacking and that when helming ‘you have to have about three pairs of eyes’, according to one of last year’s participants. But mostly, what they learn is the joy of being part of a team, and the self confidence that comes of facing new challenges.

Last October the group took themselves from the Isle of Wight to Alderney, in the Channel Islands. The trip involved coping with high winds and the inevitable seasickness, but also took in a shopping trip once in Alderney and a Halloween party, staged by the crew.

Being in control of such a vessel is no light undertaking. Most of the youngsters are taken aback by its size: “When they used to do the Round the Island races they used to call out ‘Watch out! We’re 55 tons of steel!” says Marion Hemming, Vice Chair of the Isle of Wight support group to the OYT. She and Chairman Brian Mead are passionate about raising awareness of the opportunity to be part of a John Laing adventure. They spend much of the year going into schools and encouraging them to alert parents to what a voyage with the Ocean Youth Trust could do for their child. They can also organise funding: “Lack of funds shouldn’t put off an enthusiastic youngster.”

The trip takes place annually in the October half term, and is preceded, once all the children have been recruited, by a ‘bonding barbeque bash’, to get to know each other. It was unfortunate that not everyone could make this year’s bash, which might have dealt with some of the initial fears. This is what Christopher Ilott wrote in his log:

“Because I have ginger hair I was expecting to be bullied about it. That was what I was most scared about. When we got to John Laing I was surprised that no one took the mick out of me for not knowing about boats and being ginger. It was a very friendly atmosphere.”

To Brian and Marion, the voyage is just as valid for giving confidence and friendship as it is for teaching about sailing, though at the same time they believe a love of being on the water is a wonderful gift to give a young person.

“They join the boat, have a briefing, meet everybody, are divided up into two watches, and they go through the safety briefing, and handed out their oilies. Then, where they go depends entirely on the weather. The more the young offer in terms of enthusiasm to the skipper the more they get out of it,” explains Marion. “On one voyage they sailed that boat from here to Alderney and two stops in France over four days. The skipper was obliging enough to say ‘right, if that’s what you want to do’ – because they were so enthusiastic. They did night crossings, they got over being sea sick“

Brian adds: “Of course they come back so proud, having done something like that. A lot of their parents say they come home so exhausted. Often the shyer, quieter boy or girl gains the most in terms of confidence from the experience.”

The adult crew are CRB checked and are experienced in dealing with the qualms, fears, and occasional inappropriate behaviour which can happen if a child feels pushed into the trip. Marion and Brian are constantly looking for more financial support to enable deserving young people to take part, and a luncheon to thank supporters and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the OYT, is to take place, in the presence of the Lord Lieutenant, this month.

Let the children’s logs speak for themselves:

Jenny Gibbs, aged 14, starts as a girl who writes: “We dragged ourselves out of bed at 7am! There were no showers (ah!),” and, later that day, refers to “my new best friend, a yellow bucket!” to one who reports: “The crew decided to give us a man overboard drill with a pink buoy with a face drawn on it, tied to a bucket, they called him Bob! They launched Bob over the side and we had to point and yell and keep our eyes on him which was harder than it sounds because he disappeared and reappeared with every wave, but getting smaller all the time!

“I then got to take over the helm and had to tack again so we were heading for the Isle of Wight again, however just as we  were turning a huge wave came up and broke over the front of the boat and everyone got soaked (except me!)”

Joe Aslin says: “This has been an amazing experience… I thoroughly enjoyed all the aspects of sailing the boat from plotting a course to reefing a sail and from helming to doing the log. But by far the most significant thing I shall take from this is the people I met.”

Bethany Capon writes: “In the morning I was given the role of first mate: I got to tell everybody what to do and shout at the others, because the rain was loud. It was bad weather today, it rained heavily and was very cold. I steered the John Laing out of Cowes with winds of 30 knots, and did quite a lot of helming up the river.”

Finally, back to Jenny Gibbs: “It was raining cats and dogs and a force 9 gale was blowing (very windy!). We were very glad of a hair rinse after not having had a shower since Wednesday: however, after 10 minutes of being pelted with freezing cold water the novelty wore off. She finishes by saying: “It was an absolutely fantastic experience that I would recommend to anyone!”

For information about next October’s voyage, contact Marion Hemming, tel: 760221.