Elizabeth Jordan 1Come hell or high water

One woman’s determination to teach kids to sail – and benefit from Antigua’s thriving yacht industry – has taught hundreds of youngsters much more than just the ropes  

Anyone who’s ever tried to hold a child’s interest for longer than a round of Candy Crush Saga in something, well, altogether more wholesome, knows that maintaining a sense of unpredictability is key. Throw in the teensiest hint of danger and you’re already off to a flying start. Sailing has been described as many things. Liberating and exhilarating, certainly. Balancing, yes, and exhausting too. But boring? Rarely.

This may go some way then to explaining how an embryonic quest to introduce Antiguan schoolchildren to the thrill of the sport – and ultimately to benefit from the lucrative yachting industry – has resulted in more than 500 youngsters learning to sail in just four years.

When UK-born sailor Elizabeth Jordan first sought interest from schools across the island in September 2010, pint-sized potential Popeyes signed up quicker than you can tie a bowline, enticed by the idea of a racy new pastime that offered the all-important lure of a possible capsizing. The fact they would also gain valuable life skills like teamwork, discipline and level-headedness was a happy bonus.

Elizabeth, who arrived in Antigua in 1999 by boat – fittingly – after traversing the Atlantic at the helm of an all-female crew, was struck by the demographic homogeneity of the sailing community during her tenure as commodore of the Yacht Club. “It occurred to me that 95 per cent of the club was made up of white expats,” she says. “Many Antiguans don’t sail so why would they join a Yacht Club? I mean, you wouldn’t join a golf club if you didn’t play golf. Even the name sounds off-putting,” she adds as an after-thought, “sort of elitist.” The steep cost of sailing lessons available at the time was prohibitive for many families. Following some discussion with the government, Elizabeth offered to source funding to create an official academy for local kids to learn to sail and swim for free. In return, she had some stipulations.

Elizabeth with kidsweb“It had to be called the national academy so Antiguans had a sense of ownership. I also needed to bring in boats and equipment duty free, and school buses to be available to transport the children there.” In February 2010, the National Sailing Academy (NSA) was formed as a non-profit organisation, followed by a grand opening four months later. By then, Elizabeth had already raised an incredible US$50,000. “I went round the yachts begging,” she tells me unblinkingly when we meet. I suggest she must be pretty persuasive to hustle such a sum. “Persistent,” she corrects me, luminous blue eyes twinkling. The money was enough to pay for 12 aptly-named Optimist dinghies to kickstart operations.

“I still had no idea if the kids would even be interested,” Elizabeth continues. “When school opened in September I went round them to ask. By half-term we were full up; 150 children were coming to sail with us each week.” Tenacious ‘begging’ drew in more funds to pay instructors to teach the lessons. But it soon became apparent that entreating cash from benevolent yachties could not be a long-term strategy. “We needed our own premises to create our own revenue,” she says. A kind-hearted sponsor offered to pay the first year’s lease starting June 2013 on former restaurant grounds in Dockyard Drive. By February 2014 the necessary equipment was installed and the NSA was firing on all cylinders.

Run by a board of nine volunteers, today it has over 40 vessels ranging from small 10ft dinghies to high performance racing keelboats ideal for Antigua Sailing Week. To help meet the annual US$100,000 running costs, some income is raised through private lessons for adults, on-site budget holiday accommodation and cheap dockage. The large space means the academy can also stage various fundraising events such as open-air movie nights and live entertainment, even weddings, although it remains largely dependent on donations. In addition to sailing, the centre – certified as of August 2014 by the world’s leading authority, the Royal Yachting Association – has taught more than 700 children to swim. The change in the kids as they grow in confidence thanks to their new skills has been “dramatic”.

“There was some concern when we started out about whether they’d just see it as an excuse to hang out and present discipline problems,” Elizabeth continues, “but they’re so keen to sail it hasn’t been a problem at all. We’re trying to show them just how many opportunities there are in the yachting industry, whether it’s competitive, recreational or cruising. A basic deckhand can earn US$120 a week with no living expenses to worry about. From there you can work your way up to be a bosun, an engineer, a first mate, a captain. In Antigua, we have a huge and ever growing industry and the way into it is to learn to sail.”

Elizabeth’s passion is palpable in her rapport with the students. Her no-nonsense demeanour, with the tiniest suggestion of disciplinary action for non-compliance, is offset by a natural warmth. “The kids we can help the most are not necessarily the ones on the higher academic plane. The National Technical Training Centre pupils for example are practically minded and can benefit hugely from this. If a child is interested it comes easily and they work hard at it. Sailing is still largely male-dominated; out of maybe 100 boats at the boat show it’s a record if there are three female captains. I call it ‘the glass fibre ceiling’. I always encourage the girls. I tell them I’m a girl sailor and often girls are better; they think about it more and tend to work better as a team. Boys just want to go fast.”

AR1 0383webTogether with its Jolly Harbour satellite branch, the NSA can hold 90-minute classes for 200 youngsters each week. The addition of sailing and swimming onto the list of national sports allows them to be included in every school’s curriculum. Children can start as young as eight with most able to manage their own dinghy within a term. The use of life-jackets is mandatory and all instructors are qualified first-aiders. “The kids are taught the rules of the water, the need to concentrate at all times and not to panic. The wind can change in an instant and you’re upside down. Part of the training is to make them overturn their boats so they’re prepared when it happens.”

All Saints Secondary School pals Ryan Tong and Andrew Warner, both 13, have been sailing for three years. For Ryan, the buzz of hiking – leaning one’s weight over the side of the boat to balance it while travelling at speed – is the best part. “When I’m older I’d like to be a captain and sail to America and St Vincent,” he says. Andrew agrees, adding: “I tell my friends they should come and learn how to sail too.”

Of all the NSA’s proud achievements, the board had one more to celebrate last spring when it became the only training centre in the Caribbean accredited for the RYA’s ‘Sailability’ scheme for the disabled. This season they hope to help 30 mentally and physically handicapped people each week experience the exhilaration of the sport in specially-adapted non-capsizable vessels. “There are no other activities availably locally for disabled people,” Elizabeth says. “It’s impossible to overstate the delight sailing can bring to their lives. Many will eventually learn to sail the boats by themselves but even those who cannot will benefit from the pleasure of being out on the water and the sense of adventure that comes with it.”

AR1 0318webThese days Elizabeth spends more time confined to her desk in what used to be the Reef Garden restaurant’s kitchen than skimming the ocean waves. Flanked between folders of paperwork, gleaming trophies and displays of complicated-looking knots, she reveals her one definitive wish for the academy’s future. “To go beyond me, to be sustainable for generations to come. Within five years the plan is to have Antiguans running the whole thing. It’s the National academy after all,” she says, emphasising the capital N.

Before we finish our chat, I have one more question for her. “What do I love most about sailing? The freedom,” she states resolutely, running her fingers through her hair in subconscious tribute to the wind. “The feeling of being where you want, when you want, with who you want, with no cell phone or computer in front of you. And the challenge against the wind, sea and weather. It’s exciting. There’s nothing else like it.”

by Gemma Handy

Visit www.nationalsailingacademy.org for more information on the NSA’s activities or how you can help.