Sea-Change Sailing Trust are providing eye-opening barge voyages for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in an effort to provide invaluable life skills and personal development outside the classroom; thanks to funding from Active Thames.
Onboard Thames sailing barge Blue Mermaid, 14-year-old Hamish is looking out over the River Colne when he picks up my call. Anchored in Brightlingsea, the water is calm and peaceful; the sky orange with the setting sun. His week-long expedition with Sea-Change Sailing Trust has not always been this calm however, the teenager tells me it’s been choppy, with high winds and a looming thunderstorm. “I like it,” he says. I imagine him grinning. “The bad weather makes the waves hit the boat harder, it’s exciting.”
It’s dinner time onboard the engineless Blue Mermaid – a hands-on affair where the six young people and crew pitch in together, and despite spending the day onshore in Brightlingsea, exploring and visiting the shops and swimming in the sea, Hamish is still buzzing with energy. “It’s been exciting, we’ve been to two beaches now which was fun, and definitely my favourite part.” Visiting the East Anglian Coast is a first for Hamish, who is from Maidstone, and he’s only swum in the sea a couple of times.
Provided by charity Sea-Change Sailing Trust, voyages such as these aim to provide disadvantaged young people with the knowledge of historic barge sailing, while developing resilience and teamwork skills. It’s also an opportunity for the young people, some of whom have never left home before, to visit new locations. A grant of £3500 has been provided by Active Thames to fund voyages, as well as support the succession plans of the trust. The initiative led by Port of London Authority gets new communities on the water supporting access, diversity and inclusion in watersports.
From learning how to handle the sails, to steering the barge and climbing the rigging, the young people learn the theory of sailing, while also cooking, cleaning and helping with preparation. Richard Titchener, executive officer of the trust and barge skipper, says the five-day trip allows the young crew to settle in and challenge themselves as they do almost everything onboard. “We drop the anchor, because on a Thames barge that means throwing heavy chain over a windlass barrel and it rumbles out very quickly, so we do that,” he says. “But we are delighted to have the help of the young people to wind it back in again when we get going the following morning!”
The young crew, aged 12 to 14 years old, from The Young Lives Foundation, have travelled from Heybridge Basin, through the River Blackwater to West Mersea and then onto Harwich.
“It’s a lot of fun and a lot of hard work,” Hamish says. The GCSE student has never sailed before, but he’s always wanted to be on a ship and be at sea. “The barge is a lot bigger than I thought,” he tells me, “and there’s a lot more to do than I thought too – there’s lots of ropes to pull!” And when I ask him whether the different coloured ropes are confusing, he replies: “No, it’s worse, they are all the same colour!” From there, they have travelled through the River Stour to Brightlingsea and then will travel back to Heybridge Basin. “Once you’ve done one job, you’ve got to move quickly to another,” Hamish says. He admits it’s hard being away from home but has enjoyed learning new things and being off his phone. “It’s been a great experience and I would do it again!”
Established in 2007, Sea-Change Sailing Trust is made up of a small team of three, who strive to continue the tradition of sea sailing barge. In 2019 the team, with the help of many others, built their own barge, a replica of the original 1930s Blue Mermaid, which was one of the last Thames sailing barges built. That barge was sadly lost during the war.
“Sailing is the vehicle that helps people develop and change and identify what they want to do and what they have strengths in,” Richard explains. Lessons learned in school are placed into real, practical contexts such as using maths to navigate. Boundaries and rules have a greater validity on a boat than school Richard says, as you can see the consequences greater: if you run you could fall off the side. “You share experiences with others and participate in something bigger than yourself, it’s a big boat!” the 66-year-old adds. “It’s such a different experience and we like people to develop a feeling that they are part of a family. We try to create a home away from home.”
And away from the hustle and bustle of his home in Kent, and with the waves gently splashing against the side of the barge, Hamish tells me he feels completely settled. When I ask him to sum up the experience in one word, he enthusiastically replies with “excellent”. And as he watches the sun going down, he revels in the peace and quiet and the sense of belonging.
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