Wapping Youth FC have championed young people building key water skills this summer, with many experiencing the benefits of the water for the very first time, thanks to funding from Active Thames.
Within the borough of Tower Hamlets, eleven to sixteen year-olds from Wapping Youth Football Club have experienced the River Thames for the very first time. Bridging the gap between ball sports and watersports, the football club included weekly kayaking and canoeing sessions into their summer timetable.
“The river is an amazing resource,” Nahimul Islam, founder and director of Wapping Youth FC, says. “It’s something we, and many communities around us, walk past and see every day and yet we cannot partake because of the cost associated with watersports. For us, it’s about breaking down barriers to encourage young people take part in a sport on our doorstep, a sport that they normally wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford.”
The football club, which was established in 2013, partnered with communities from low socio-economic backgrounds and with the council, to identify at-risk young people for the free sessions and create an inclusive and diverse paddlesports community. The sessions took place at Shadwell Basin Outdoor Activity Centre, a charity in East London.
A grant of £5000 from Active Thames helped fund sessions at the activity centre, where water-rescue trained coaches, facilities and equipment have been provided. Active Thames is a Port of London Authority initiative aiming to improve diversity and inclusion within watersports. It encourages those less likely to get on the water and experience its benefits to mental and physical health.
“We wanted to try something different,” Nahimul adds. “Paddlesports are very unique, and as this summer was going to be the hottest on record, and a lot of our members were interested, we took the plunge.” The watersports sessions were for two hours every week. Split into four groups, the 80 teenagers rotated playing football and kayaking, and were encouraged to compete against each other in leagues. Once the young people learnt the basics of kayaking and canoeing, including knowing how to safety exit a boat, they trained for races and competitions. “The kids have learned a lot quite quickly, so we added the competitions to push them further. We adapted the delivery of the project slightly to keep it exciting and competitive for members,” the director says.
“I’ve never seen the kids so excited. I coach them for football, but they were extremely excited for kayaking,” Nahimul smiles. “They looked forward to it and for 90% of the young people, it’s the first time they’d been out on the water. For them, it’s all about the opportunity that has been given to them, and the location was beautiful, especially when the sun was setting. The kids and parents are over the moon, and they are very grateful and appreciative.”
The football coach adds that retainment levels were high. “I thought the kids would attend once or twice, but even when the weather was bad, they were still eager to come. They were engaged, excited and they can’t wait for more!”
As one of the most deprived areas in England, many young people living in Tower Hamlets find watersports inaccessible because of the cost associated with it. “A lot of the kids don’t have space at home to have paddling equipment and many families have never left Tower Hamlets; they’ve never gone to the seaside which is where you would normally kayak,” says Nahimul. “We’ve been able to bring this opportunity to their doorstep.”
Watersports have allowed some participants who have previously never engaged with ball sports to experience the outdoors, be a part of a community, and try something different. “I have a lot of fun coming here,” said one sixteen-year-old , “I am excited to continue because it makes me feel productive with my time.”
From learning how to rudder to capsizing safely, a 14-year-old girl has thoroughly enjoyed learning the paddling techniques and going to classes after school. “I didn’t think it would be this fun. I was quite nervous before I got in the water but I’m getting better and confident the more I practice and attend,” she says.
“It takes my son away from the PlayStation and lets him do something that keeps him active,” one parent noted. “It’s also free and local which helps a lot.”
Another parent said: “My kids really enjoy attending and getting to know the other kids. It’s a very good opportunity to do something different away from football.”
Shadwell Basin Outdoor Activity Centre also encouraged ‘circle time’ after each session; a space where young people could talk about issues that matter to them. Many of them have opened up to each other and staff members, as well as conquered their fear or hesitation of the water. Nahimul says: “On the water, you need to communicate with each other and, because it’s been the same consistent group, it has created a solid bond and I have no doubt many of them have made life-long friends.”
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Active Thames is a partnership programme in place to support the development of watersports on the tidal Thames and inland waterways in London, Kent and Essex.
With over 15,000 football pitches worth of blue space, the tidal Thames is a fantastic place to get active. There is also an extensive network of inland waterways, which provide even more space for people to enjoy, and perfect locations to gain the skills and confidence needed to take on the tidal river.