Avid readers of the HICSE website may remember that I have done some work with the Morning Star Trust sailing charity in the past, supported by Hitachi’s Corporate Social Responsibility programme. One of the things that the Morning Star Trust does is run Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme expeditions and this year the charity asked if I would become an official Expedition Assessor, able to monitor expeditions up to “Gold” Level. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme is actually a large organisation with lots of groups and support services, and it runs a very slick training programme. Through this I learned about the key aspects of an Award Scheme expedition and that, although most young people do the traditional “walk across mountains carrying large packs” type of expedition, it is also possible for them to do different types of expedition, including by bike, horse-back, canoe, or on a sailing boat.
Obviously, the restrictions due to the Coronavirus pandemic have turned the world upside-down over the past few months, and one of the minor side-effects of this is that recreational sailing, including Award Scheme expeditions, has been impossible over the summer. However, one group of girls that had postponed an expedition from earlier in the year worked out that if they formed a “bubble” and if various other safeguards were put in place then it would be possible to run the trip over the autumn half-term, so it was off to sea for me again after all. Usually groups have a week of training and practice followed by a separate 4-day expedition during the long summer holiday, but because this group only had their half-term break, we had to fit everything into a single week. Although the group had to plan their own routes and sail the boat, there had to be a skipper and mate (me) on-board to teach them about sailing and to make sure that they were safe. We also had to do the manoeuvring and parking in marinas and harbours.
Our trusty yacht “Bright Star”
This particular group had not found the thought of walking, carrying packs, and camping particularly appealing. On the other hand, they reasoned, you get a cabin on a boat and, once the sails are up, you can spend quite a lot of the time sitting down watching the world go by. Sadly for them, because it was now rather late in the season, the weather conditions were not ideal, so they had to work a lot harder, and when they could sit down it was not particularly warm or dry. In fact there was considerably more wind than strictly necessary and at one point the wind tore the mainsail, so we had to put in to harbour to fit a replacement. Later on the force of the wind bent a metal fitting holding one of the other sails. However, I am by training a mechanical engineer so rather stereotypically I got out the tool-box and after the judicious application of a hammer to the offending part it was roughly back to its original shape, although to be honest I don’t think it’ll ever be quite the same again. Still, my rough and ready repair enabled us to keep sailing safely for the rest of the week.
An expedition you can do sitting down, even (occasionally) in the sunshine
The crew are smiling, so it can’t have been too bad!
The girls were all novice sailors and they did find the conditions a little alarming at times. One of them in particular did not find my advice that she should enjoy her breakfast as it may be her last-ever meal particularly helpful. Still, we were able to show them how to sail the boat safely in strong winds and quite big waves. It was great to see how they gained confidence both in the boat and in their own abilities during the week, and by the end they were comfortable in conditions that quite a few more seasoned sailors might have baulked at.
By the end of the week we would all laugh in the face of danger
Another aspect of an Award Scheme expedition is that the group have to do their own catering. This was relatively straight-forward in the evenings when the boat was tied-up, but a bit more “interesting” at lunchtime when the boat was underway. Once again they got better at it as the week went on and by the end they were happy to go down into the cabin whist the boat was bouncing around and produce a simple hot meal. Actually all this was quite a treat for the skipper and me, as we were not allowed to help with cooking or washing up but we were allowed to eat.
Later on in the evenings the group had a little time for relaxation, but the pandemic restrictions meant that they couldn’t leave the boat so they tended to play incredibly competitive games of UNO. As a father of three boys I had not previously realised quite how piercingly loud a group of teenage girls could be.
An evening card game getting underway
The skipper and I got our own back though because we are famous (or infamous) for our sense of humour. On this trip we found that our selection of “dad jokes” were totally beyond the girls’ experience and we discovered that a joke that has to be explained instantly becomes completely un-funny to the audience, however we found them trying to explain our jokes and puns to each other hilarious.
The weather forecast for the last day of the trip was for even stronger winds, so we moved into more sheltered waters the previous evening. This was a wise move as the next morning there were very large, breaking waves at the entrance to the harbour and if we had been foolish enough to try sailing through them then our breakfast could very well have been our last. To reinforce this message I saw a news report a little later in the day about a yacht a little further off-shore that had been capsized by a freak wave and although the sailor wasn’t injured they had to be rescued by the RNLI and Coastguard helicopter. At times like that I think that my policy of being a relatively cautious and risk-averse sailor is a good idea.
The skipper on the helm on the last day, whilst I was downstairs navigating
As part of an Award Scheme expedition the group has to have an “aim” so the girls decided to film parts of the trip and produce a video of sailing hints and tips, which they showed to us when we arrived back at the boat’s home marina. I was impressed by how much the girls learned over quite a short period, and by how well they coped with quite challenging conditions, so I was pleased to be able to tell them that they’d successfully completed their expedition. I was also pleased, and more than a little surprised, to hear them say that they had enjoyed themselves and that we hadn’t put them off sailing for life. Sadly, the announcement later that day of a new lockdown means that the Morning Star Trust’s first Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme trip of 2020 will also be its last, so it’s time for me to pack away my sailing gear until next year.