Creativity, confidence and independence afloat

Creativity, confidence and independence afloat

RYA training for young people

Sara Mills, Communications Officer with the Royal Yachting Association (RYA), looks at how RYA training is shaping the future for young people on the water

With no legal requirement to hold a licence to skipper a boat in the UK, the RYA’s stance is clear – it’s about education, not legislation. The proof is in the pudding, with more than 250,000 people a year completing an RYA training course.

Boating in general is on the increase, and there has been a steady growth in the number of young people taking to the water on a regular basis. Is this a happy coincidence? Or is there a broader picture?

RYA training forms a pathway for everyone, from complete beginner to professional skipper and professional racer. It sets and maintains the international standards for recreational boat training, and also for those needing professional qualifications to start a career on the water. The courses form the basis for a large proportion of cadet training and inspirational youth schemes like the Duke of Edinburgh Award. And for many school leavers looking for maritime careers, RYA qualifications can lead to small-craft training of lifeboat crews, police officers and Royal Navy recruits, models that have been adopted around the world.

With courses run through a network of 2400 centres and schools in 58 countries worldwide, there are hundreds of opportunities, including many ‘Start Boating’ courses for children.

The idea is simple. The more competent you are at handling a boat, the more you will enjoy your time on the water; and by making boaters more responsible for their own safety, there will also be fewer incidents afloat. And the sooner you start, the easier it will be.

Safety aspects

RYA Director of Training Richard Falk explains: ‘Our purpose is simple: to promote and protect safe, successful and rewarding British boating; a safe mind-set and learning from others are vital if this is to be achieved.

‘Our ethos is one of proficiency and self-sufficiency learned through world-class training, supported by our publications, along with the comprehensive guidance and safety advice that’s readily available at

‘Rather than simply prescribing a list of what to carry, or what to do when things go wrong, we aim to help boaters avoid trouble in the first place by thinking about what we do and how we do it.’

Starting young

Imagine sparking a passion for sailing in a child, watching that child’s confidence and independence grow week by week, and inspiring that youngster so much that they always want to fit sailing into their life. This is the ethos that sits at the heart of the RYA OnBoard programme, which encourages clubs and centres to introduce schools to water sports.

Since its infancy in 2015, the scheme has introduced half a million children (aged 8–18) to sailing and windsurfing, and this number is growing.

‘In sailing, we know the life skills and positive attributes that sailing can bring a child or young person,’ explains Alistair Dickson, RYA Director of Sport Development. ‘The OnBoard programme really focuses on harnessing and communicating these benefits to successfully engage with teachers, youth leaders and parents to help them see beyond sailing as a sport purely for fun – to see it rather as an activity that embeds traits that can shape a child’s life, while having a great time in the process.’

Making a difference

Grasmere Primary in the Lake District is one school that has seen sailing have such an impact on its pupils that they have made it one of their extracurricular activities.

Headteacher Jo Goode explains: ‘We have children who have been absolutely transformed. They feel a sense of achievement from doing something on their own and it gives them greater confidence, which is reflected in the classroom, even, for example, not being afraid to ask for help or put their hand up and answer a question.

‘Sailing changes so fast and it teaches them how to read a situation and deal with problems from an early age. That can be in pairs and communicating to patiently solve problems together, or as an individual listening to instructions and carrying them out. These are skills that constantly feed into academic learning and later life.

‘Many children say being on the water is the first time in their lives they have felt freedom like it. There are no mums and dads telling them what to do, it is all on them. The adrenaline and independence they get from being in control and making their own decisions is amazing.’

Sea Cadets

In the 2016 boating season alone, 13,246 RYA qualifications were awarded to Sea Cadets and volunteers, helping to boost their confidence and self-belief, while enriching their CVs. It opens doors, rewards, and teaches them key life skills – but it’s fun, too.

Cadet First Class Kacey-Leigh is just one of thousands of young people to benefit from earning internationally recognised RYA qualifications. ‘The first time I went sailing was pretty scary, but I thought to myself, “You’re a Sea Cadet, you can’t be afraid of the water”, and it turned out I was silly to be,’ she said. ‘I found a new talent of mine: I am now a level-four sailor, I have sailed offshore, and I have competed in several sailing competitions and regattas.’

Project Scaramouche

We did it. At 01:39:19 am on Friday 11th August 2017, Scaramouche crossed the finish line of the Rolex Fastnet Race 2017. One blown-out spinnaker on the final stretch shows we were not giving up right to the end. This may be the finish line, but really this is just the beginning. Behind that entry on the GCA Sailing blog there is quite a story, and RYA training had a major part to play.

In 2013, Greig City Academy (GCA) set up a school sailing club to allow inner city London students access to the sport of sailing. To put this in perspective, 73 per cent of students who attend GCA are deemed disadvantaged, and 62 per cent of them have English as an additional language.

Over the last three years nearly 1000 students have taken to the water for the first time. Today GCA Sailing has bases at the Stoke Newington Sailing Centre on West Reservoir in London with a fleet of six dinghies, and in Poole Harbour, Dorset, with a MacGregor 22 and a former Admiral’s Cup racing yacht Scaramouche.

Their passion for sailing has grown and their goalposts have moved – so much so, that in 2017 a team from GCA Sailing became the first-ever student-led team to enter the Fastnet Race. Crew member and year 11 student at GCA, Shabazz said: ‘I’ve never learnt so much so quickly. Our hard work paid off and I love it!’

Jon Holt, head of outdoor education at GCA, is in charge of the project. He said: ‘I’m just a geography teacher with an interest in sailing. The RYA’s qualifications give children a framework to work within – a structure so that they can progress and get a certificate at the end.

‘For many adults, Day Skipper is a barrier and getting the ticket can seem like a hard slog. But these children are 16 years old. For them it’s completely different. It gives them kudos because it’s considered an adult qualification, so it’s the very opposite. It’s aspirational to them.

‘There is no better example of open-minded people who want to promote diversity and promote giving young people a chance. They have the theory sessions and then they get sent out on the water, so it’s very real. Going through shipping lanes and sailing at night is hugely practical and requires great teamwork.

‘Having the RYA there is like having a reassuring big brother looking after you, to make sure things are being done right.’

Rona Sailing Project

The Rona Sailing Project, based in Southampton, is one of the oldest sail training organisations in the UK, established for over 50 years. This respected RYA training centre aims to provide opportunities for young people to acquire those attributes of a seaman – namely, a sense of responsibility, resourcefulness and teamwork – which will help them throughout their lives.

Brid Barrett, Project Director, explains: ‘We ensure that our crews come from a wide variety of social backgrounds: from the well adjusted, to those in the care of social and probation services, as well as those in between.

‘We’ve taken over 20,000 young people to sea and given them the experience of a lifetime, greater self-confidence and a new perspective on the world. Apart from a dedicated full-time team of just four, the project has 400 volunteers. Their active support enables us to touch the lives of a large and disparate group of people, all of whom, in their own way, significantly benefit from an experience at sea.’

‘We use the medium of the sea because it is an unforgiving natural environment that provides a sense of risk and adventure. We use large sailing vessels because they require hard physical work and cannot be sailed without teamwork, both on deck and down below.

‘All of this builds self-discipline, teamwork and tolerance. The “experience of a lifetime” can become a lifetime’s experience. We also give those with leadership potential the opportunity to gain qualifications to become watch leaders. From here if they want to continue sailing with us and give something back to society, they can become watch officers, then mates and ultimately skippers.’

Skills for life

Alongside all the practical work, the RYA OnBoard team has been working closely with leading educational expert Professor Bill Lucas, Director at the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester. Bill has looked closely at what sailing can provide for young people, and has identified six key areas: confidence, independence, creativity and determination, as well as the capacity for good teamwork and communication. These are all qualities that are vital at sea, but also important in every other walk of life.

RYA training centres:
RYA OnBoard programme:
Greig City Academy Sailing:
Rona Sailing project: