Written by Matthew Diggle, TM Engineering Manager
Following the recent announcements about the Hitachi Corporate Social Responsibility policy I thought I'd give it a try. A while ago some friends told me about a charity that offers sailing trips to a range of groups of different ages and from varied backgrounds. They found that marine environment helped with the groups as it is unusual and so becomes a “leveller”; almost everyone is a “beginner” and so pre-existing hierarchies are broken. It also provides a sense of adventure and excitement that appeals to some (particularly young male) people who might otherwise be difficult to attract. I've sailed a bit myself and I enjoy helping people learn and develop, so I thought that this was, perhaps, something I could get involved with.
I got in touch with the charity and they offered me a place as a helper (possibly even a "responsible adult") on a five-day trip they were running as a Duke of Edinburgh Award residential course. They already had a skipper, first-mate and second-mate on board, and so I'd be third-mate, or maybe they said "third rate" I'm not sure. I also filled in the CSR form and got it approved, so the company donated two days of leave towards my time off.
It was a little daunting to head off to spend five days living with a whole group of people who I didn't know, in an unfamiliar (and quite cramped) environment, doing very different things from my usual routine. However, I needn't have worried as the other leaders were friendly and helped me settle-in before the young people arrived.
We had a group of seven young people aged 16, 17, and 18 on the trip, most of whom were working towards their Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award. They had not met as a group before and many had no sailing experience. I found it interesting to watch how wary they were when they first arrived, some were quiet and shy, other full of bluster and show, but all rather uncertain about their place in the group and not sure what the next few days would hold. The other leaders, who had more experience of this sort of thing, helped everyone to get to know each other, partly by us all introducing ourselves and saying something that we knew a lot about. The skipper's specialist subject was, rather surprisingly, cows (apparently he's a vet in "real life") and mine, less surprisingly, was railway signalling. However, no one asked me anything about signalling during the rest of the trip, and as far as I know no one approached the skipper with an enquiry about animal ailments.
The boat, Morning Star, is 62 feet long and is slightly unusual in that the hull is made from concrete, but in other ways it's quite traditionally rigged and old-fashioned.
It is actually designed to be hard to sail, so that the crew have to work together. For example hauling-in the main ropes requires two people, one “sweating” or pulling the rope and the other “tailing” or controlling it. Furthermore, most jobs require at least two ropes to be worked, so the rope teams have to co-ordinate their efforts. It’s impossible for one person to rush ahead, and in fact if they try it usually results in having to release the ropes and start again. Another challenge is the unfamiliarity of the tasks and terminology, so first of all everyone has to "learn the ropes", literally. They might all look much the same, but it is important to know which one does what and absolutely vital to know which are under tension and which are slack before untying them.
I was impressed by the speed the young people picked up the basics of sailing the boat and the generous way they shared this knowledge if one of them was not certain what to do. By the end of the trip some of the more confident members of the group were allowed to lead activities, such as raising sails, with the leadership team merely observing and providing quiet guidance. The skipper must have thought that I'd learned a bit about the boat too, as he left me in charge as we sailed back across the Thames estuary at night, dodging big boats and sandbanks.
The young people didn't just get involved with sailing activities, they also had to take turns with cooking and cleaning. In fact it was the challenges below decks that seemed to be more difficult for some of the crew to handle, and I had to teach one of the crew how to make instant coffee and to explain to another that “Earl Grey” is not ordinary tea. However, they all did their share without grumbling, and I was impressed that they took turns to volunteer to get up early to make breakfast, overcoming the stereotype of teenagers staying in bed.
As they left to go home it was great to see that seven individuals who had arrived five days earlier had become a tight-knit team, swapping email addresses and in some cases planning their next sailing trip together. Team building that might take several weeks in a work environment happened very quickly, and although this was an unusual environment there were certainly lessons for me to take away and apply in my normal life. For example, the leadership team had to employ different coaching, instructing, encouraging, and (at times) commanding styles, but teenagers do not, in general, put up with being patronised or bossed about so the styles we used always had to be appropriate to the situation and instructions had to be given clearly and in a manner that they could understand.
So overall, although it was physically challenging and, at times, rather uncomfortable, I really did enjoy the experience. The four leaders had to work together closely, which seemed to go well, and it was great fun to work with young people, full of energy and enthusiasm, and with a strong desire to learn new skills and fully participate in activities. In fact the only thing that didn't go well for me were the card games the young people played in the evening; the rules seemed arcane to start with and became increasingly complex as the night drew on until I didn't stand a chance of keeping up. Maybe next time I'll take a book to read instead!
If you're interested in finding out a bit more about the boat and the charity their website is www.morningstar.org.uk and someone took some drone footage of us off the Walton on the Essex coast which you can watch on YouTube here: Morning Star Trust or by searching for "Morning Star Trust Walton".