Woolverstone Project celebrates 20 years of helping disabled people to sail

Competitors in the Seamark Nunn Challenge Cup in celebration of the 2oth anniversary of the Woolvers

Competitors in the Seamark Nunn Challenge Cup in celebration of the 2oth anniversary of the Woolverstone Project - Credit: Archant

On the face of it, sailing is something of a physical activity, requiring patience, dedication and a bracing pair of hardy sea-legs.

But the Woolverstone Project in Suffolk has spent the last 20 years dispelling that myth, with its extraordinary band of volunteers who have turned taking to the water into an opportunity of a lifetime for so many disabled people.

Formed in 1993, the Woolverstone project began life as a branch of the Royal Harwich Yacht Club. The brainchild of then commodore Margaret Howard, she was keen to provide the opportunity and facilities for any person, with any disability whatsoever to take up sailing.

But with the huge popularity the project received, it became its own registered charity in 1995 and now 20 years later, it is still a centrepiece hobby for hundreds of youngsters.

“When the people who started it dreamed it up, they didn’t know a thing about disabled sailing,” says senior instructor Peter Hibberd. “They got their initial experience through working with the Thomas Wolsey School, and we have grown with the help and experience of people like the Thomas Wolsey.”

Be it sensory difficulties or physical limitations, the project is proud to say that it has never turned anyone away, and as a chat with senior instructor Peter Hibberd reveals, there are no signs of work on the project letting up soon.

“We have a fleet of various specially designed boats allowing people to sail whatever their disability,” he says.

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“From 2012 to 2014 we saw a 45% growth, with 1,500 sailing opportunities from 237 sessions increasing to 2,178 opportunities from 264 sessions.

“We are proud of this because sailing is a great leveller. Our specialist boats allow sailors the freedom of sailing on the same basis as any able-bodied sailor.”

One of the schools to work with the Woolverstone Project regularly is Stone Lodge Academy in Ipswich, where staff have been impressed by how much the sailing tuition does for their pupils’ confidence.

Claire Hale, PE co-ordinator at the academy, said: “We have been coming every year for the last 10 years or so. We have got eight of our older children on six or seven week sailing courses and the instructors are fantastic because our children have moderate learning difficulties and they work with them so well.

“They can listen and learn from other adults, and the confidence they get is invaluable – last year one parent couldn’t believe her son had taken to the water and sailed by himself.”

Now for its 20th year as a charity, the Wheelyboat project has been launched to help the club acquire a new state-of-the-art craft that will transform the way they can help disabled people go sailing.

Allowing those with wheelchairs easier access, the Wheelyboat will complement improvements to the pontoon at Alton Water to get more people out on the water at a time, and join other recent acquisition Venture, which gets more people out on the water, and has greater stability to prevent capsizing.

Mr Hibberd added: “It’s a fantastic boat, and it extends the bounds and the variety of the sailing experience we provide.”

For a first taste of the new boat, the club appeared at the East Anglian Boat Show at Woolverstone Marina in June, where the Wheelyboat made an appearance.

And to kick off the 20th anniversary celebrations, a special event was held in May to launch the Friends of the Woolverstone Project, and included the Seamark Nunn Cup which saw teams from 10 local sailing clubs take part in a race to help raise money for the cause.

As part of the Friends, supporters will be helping to maintain boats and safety equipment and help the project develop new opportunities for young and adult sailors, while the Friends themselves can attend regular events, help provide assistance and keep up to date with the project’s work via a newsletter.

But it is clear how much the opportunity to sail means for many people who thought they may never have been able to take part in such activities. It’s a fact that is not lost on patron and TV personality Paul Heiney, pictured left.

“I have been lucky enough to sail for most of my life, so I know the deep sense of freedom that comes from being on the water, and the satisfaction it gives,” he said.

“I have seen people return from trips, and even though they might not be able to speak the words to express it, the look of triumph on their faces says it for them.”

Indeed, such is the project’s established place in the community, that in 2003, the cause received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee award for services to the community, and it is the community feel that Mr Hibberd feels is at the heart of what the project is all about.

He adds: “The way we all feel is that we all realise we are part of one big community – there’s no definition for someone to be a part of the community whether they are disabled or fully able. Equality is our watchword.”

But with the way the project has gone from strength to strength, they are always on the lookout for volunteers, regardless of their experience.

For anyone interested in volunteering, or to find out more about the project, visit woolverstoneproject.org.uk