Conway Centres: Anglesey has enjoyed a successful summer having been determined to find a way.
If you’re a multisport provider, why would you run sailing?
Well, having got up to 66 sailors along to their new Tuesday evening Sailability sessions this summer, Conway Centres: Anglesey can state a pretty good case! Two years ago, however, they were asking that very question.
While working for the MoD, Conway’s now Senior Tutor, Jon Gamon, had seen first-hand the impact adaptive sailing had on wounded, injured and sick Armed Forces personnel through the Battle Back programme.
When he returned to the centre as RYA Chief Instructor almost five years ago, he thought it was ideal for Sailability; they had accessible pontoons and ramps, boats, and experience working with disabled youngsters through Whizz-Kidz. Convinced of its potential, the centre joined Sailability in 2016 and staff completed Disability Awareness Training. But funding is always a challenge.
“With the required ratios and safety considerations, it was just going to be too expensive for people to afford,” Jon recalls. “What was the point of being Sailability if no-one could come and make the most of it?”
Jon was determined to find a way, however. He enlisted the help of a local man Ian Roberts, an ex-outdoor education instructor and sailor who is now a wheelchair user, Rosie Hearn (the RYA’s North Wales Club Development Officer), and Gareth Roberts from Llandudno SC, and one rainy day in February 2017 they sat on the pontoon and asked ‘How can we make this work?’
“We needed to figure out the things that stopped it being affordable,” Jon continued. “So we ran a little off-the-programme pilot group for the whole summer. Loads of issues we hadn’t thought about came up, like what we’d do when the tides out, but it meant we could solve the problems.”
Their breakthrough came when Jon secured an agreement from the North Wales-based Outdoor Partnership to fund two Senior Instructors for 10 sessions in 2018. The floodgates were about to open.
The first sign of the demand came on 24 February when Conway hosted the RYA North Wales Sailability Forum, supported by Rosie and National Development Officer, Ruth Iliffe. They were expecting a small event, but 50+ people turned up to find out what they were planning.
An open day for the now renamed SEAS (Supporting Enabling Accessible Sailing) group then attracted 57 sailors in April. Word was getting out there, which gave Jon another problem. He couldn’t do this with just two staff and him volunteering!
“About 20 years ago there was a lot of Sailability in North Wales and all the local groups who remembered that got in touch saying they could bring groups; the Deaf Association, Leonard Cheshire, Mencap, loads of them.
“We had opened up a can of worms, but good worms! The funding only covered us for six people per session every other week, but it was obvious from the outset we could do so much more. We put a call out on Facebook for volunteers and 17 people came forward, so we trained them up.”
SEAS was now ready to roll. Despite howling wind and all-day rain, on Tuesday 24 April the first session went ahead – 33 people attended! And the numbers got bigger as the sessions ran every other week in line with the neap tide; 49, 45, 52, 66. Even when attendance dipped below 50 due to event clashes like the Down’s Syndrome Conference and Mencap disco, there would still be 20 new faces SEAS had never seen before.
By the end of the 10 weeks, 390 people had sailed at the Conway centre. Most participants had done at least three sessions, some had done all 10, and the centre is still getting new people contacting them about how they can get involved. Jon believes there have been a number of key ingredients that’s made it work.
“We’ve really brought the families, enablers and carers into everything. If they’re not involved the participants stop coming, so we’ve trained them and got them helping out. That’s been a massive thing.
“There’s also been incredible support from the local community. Volunteers have come down from the local sailing clubs. Matt Beaumont, the Operations Manager at Plas Menai, has got involved, and Ben Paget, the Earl of Uxbridge and son of the Marquess of Anglesey, and his wife Katherine, have really been hands-on too.
“We live in a stunning coastal environment, but it’s very difficult coastline to access, especially if you have a disability. So we’re also giving people access to something they might otherwise never get to enjoy. It really is a multifaceted success.”
Because of the level of volunteer support, not only were the sessions affordable, they were free. And the sessions didn’t stop after sailing, as everyone brought food along and the BBQ was fired up on the dockside, galvanizing the sense of social spirit and community camaraderie, which has underpinned SEAS.
The plan is to keep SEAS going over the winter by giving people the chance to help work on a 21ft keelboat that’s been donated to the group while one of the SIs, Kev Fear, ex-military himself, is running First Aid training for participants. Jon already has ideas about how to take SEAS forward, including developing Powerability at the centre. But for now he can reflect on one incredible summer.
“It’s all been a bit surreal,” he concludes. “And it feels like we’ve only just scratched the surface. It’s been a total community effort and the results are stunning. That’s why, as a multisport provider, we’re running sailing. You can make it work.”