Ocean Discoverability 2019 End of Season Report

This was the second season of running day trips for children with disabilities in Plymouth’s estuaries and the Sound under its new name, “Ocean Discoverability”. This year, to pre-empt anyone else deciding it was a good name, registering it and stopping us using it, we registered it as a trade mark. So this is the one and only, genuine Ocean Discoverability® 2019 annual report!

As word spread, more schools and organisations joined the programme, with 126 children sailing in Pegasus and Johanna Lucretia; JL, as she is known for short, a topsail schooner, the latest addition to The Island Trust fleet.

We celebrated Johanna Lucretia’s arrival with a visit by HRH The Princess Royal who met Jenny Ferret, a teacher from Cann Bridge School, who started bringing her students on these trips in Cornubia in 2010. Emily, one of her learners, who has been on several trips, presented Her Royal Highness with a posy.

Johanna Lucretia

Johanna Lucretia

Emily presented HRH Princess Anne with a posy.

If the weather allows, and the school has sufficient time, the day should go like this:

On arrival at Plymouth Yacht Haven the teachers and young people put their life-jackets on, and walk out to the boat. Right at the beginning of the day we ask them to rate how much they think they know about the sea and what lives in it, and the sea and what people do there on a scale of 1 to 9. We ask the same question at the end of the day to see if they think they have learnt something.

Before going on board they learn something about marine life, starting with the plant-like organisms that make up the phytoplankton. This is important for taking up carbon, putting oxygen into the ocean, and providing food for the zooplankton, which in turn fuels the marine food web. “And who eats fish?” We do, and we have these tiny organisms to thank for it. (Later in the day we will trawl for plankton and look at it under the microscope.) Some of the plankton stays there. Some of it settles on the seabed, or boats’ hulls, or other man-made structures such as the pontoon, and they get a chance to look at the algae and animals that live there, some of it so small it can only be appreciated using a microscope. Other animals in the plankton transform into swimming, creeping, crawling or burrowing creatures. These we can see using “crabcam,” a baited recoverable underwater video we put onto the seabed beneath the boat, with live video on a TV onboard. Perhaps the best spot on crabcam this year was a cuttlefish cruising past like something from a SciFi movie (see the “Best of” video compilation). One day we were lucky enough to see the whole marine food web, from primary producers to top predator, from the pontoon, when we were joined by a young grey seal chasing the fish just beneath our feet. Sadly, it was too fast for a photo.

Marine life on a settlement plate.

sea gherkin

A sea gherkin.

“Best of” video compilation

Once we’ve given them their spotters’ guides to the marine life and maritime activities in Plymouth Sound, and a safety brief, it’s off to sea.  We try to fit in both a trip up the Tamar to see the ships and out into the Sound to get the sails up, such as we did with Plymstock School in October – the track is taken from the RYA SafeTRX app. But we can adapt the route to take account of the weather, the time the school has (some of them come a long way and have transport problems) and what they want to do.  Oak Tree and Horizons were both keen to get some sailing in, and as Horizons had no travel problems they got plenty of it, including setting the topsail.

Route track.


Setting the topsail.

Activities during the day depend more in the abilities of the learners, and we consult the accompanying staff over what they should do. We want to challenge them, but not set them up to fail, and compromise is firmly in our dictionary. If the abilities of the individuals are reasonably equal there is a prize for the one getting most points in the spotters’ guide. That didn’t really fit with the ethos of the Eggbuckland primary school deaf education centre, so could they have the prize for the centre’s library, so everyone could have access to it, please?  Delighted, and maybe I could come to the school and give them an author’s reading.

Completing the guide.

Alfie accepting the prize on behalf of Eggbuckland Vale Primary School DEC.

Some can manage working out the sail areas, which involves calculating the areas of triangles and a bit of Pythagoras, for others just counting things is enough. Finding mystery objects is good for mobility, observation, communication and confidence. The word search is also popular.

Calculating sail areas.

How many of these can you find?

So that’s where it is!

Last winter we spent a day in the local Tesco superstore persuading shoppers to place their tokens in our box. It was not wasted, as we gratefully received an award from the Tesco Bags of Help scheme which funded updating the educational materials for Pegasus, and creating new ones for JL.

All who want to get a chance to steer (which is nearly everyone). All this activity works up an appetite. The schools bring their own lunches,  but we can do tea and coffee, and helping with that is good for communication, memory and organisation skills – “So we’ve got three with sugar and milk, three with just milk, one with neither and a coffee – who gets what?” And of course it all has to be washed up.

This is not so easy when you’re not as big as skipper Tom.

Lunch under sail.

“Perhaps we should have written names down as well!”

Washing up.

Towards the end of the day we trawl for plankton for microscope examination back alongside. One net trails behind the boat sampling the surface water. At certain times of the year this can be over-rich in phytoplankton which clogs the net up. We can avoid this with a vertical trawl. With the boat going as slowly as possible a net is dropped near the bows with a line attached, leading aft outside all the rigging to someone standing towards the stern. As they pass above the net, they quickly haul it in, and pass it back to the bows via a team of the rest of the young people who ensure it doesn’t get caught up in the rigging and other obstructions. After two drops, the dropper goes aft to replace the puller-in and everyone moves up a place, so everyone gets a go at everything. This is such a useful (and fun) activity that we do it even when not forced to by the spring phytoplankton bloom. And you never know, we might find something different.

Barnacle larvae.

Vertical plankton trawl.

This year we experimented with a lobster pot. I have a pot, and a permit from Devon and Severn IFCA. The plan was to set it in the morning on the way out, pick it up on the way back, examine the catch and return it to the sea. During trials it was clear that putting a brick at the back of the pot didn’t work – the video camera inside the pot showed it sat vertical preventing anything getting at the bait. Until the last day we didn’t have enough time to set and recover the pot. At least we found that placing the weight in the middle meant that the pot sat on the seabed properly. But nothing showed any interest in entering our parlour, and all we caught was one tiny long-legged spider crab, which had accidentally clung to the bars of the pot (and was safely returned to sea). Back to the drawing board!

Inside the lobster pot.

long-legged spider crab

Long-legged spider crab.

Last year we went out every day. This year was different – the autumn was very windy, and we had to stay alongside for 3 days. We can do most of the programme without going out. We found a static vertical plankton trawl works. A RIB ride round the marina is a partial substitute for going to sea. Lying in JL’s bowsprit netting, which they couldn’t do in Pegasus, went down well with some of the young men from Mount Tamar School. Carol, a teaching assistant at Longcause School, said of their day in the marina, “I enjoyed the day, everyone was really helpful and informative. I learnt a lot.”.


Static vertical plankton trawl.


RIB ride.


Lounging in the bowsprit netting.

marine biology

Marine biology in The Mount Batten Centre.


Squabbling crabs.

With Woodside School we even managed a day without a boat alongside the pontoon; some joined a marine wildlife safari on the pontoon, while the others went for a walk along Mount Batten breakwater. We all met in The Mount Batten Centre where we set up the microscope and TV to look at barnacles and other creatures, and the video from crabcam.

Does it work?

Both learners and carers, on average felt they knew more about the ocean and what lives in it (marine), and what people do with it (maritime), after their voyage than they did before. These were this year’s average scores for the answers to the before and after questions mentioned above:

Knowledge (1-9) Marine – pre Maritime – pre Marine – post Maritime – post
Children 4.40 4.42 6.14 6.07
Adults 4.91 5.08 6.70 6.74

Satisfaction for the children was 98%, with 2 neutral or not completed, and none failed to enjoy their day. All the accompanying adults enjoyed their day.

Here are some of the things the young people said in response to the question “What did you get out of the day?”:

I learnt how to sail a ship, to pull up the sails and I collected plankton and saw it in a microscope.” (Adam, Mount Tamar)

It was best day in my life and I learnt everything I need to know.  Good stuff.”  (Paige, City College Plymouth)

I think it was BRILLIANT!” (Alfie, Eggbuckland Primary)

And their carers:

The Island Trust never fail in making our experience of the sea and sailing a complete pleasure and educational.  Enjoyed by the whole group.” (Karen, Doubletrees)  (Sadly Karen has left Doubletrees, having been quoted for many years in the annual reports, so this is the last opportunity for her to feature.)

A great day of fine, infectious enthusiasm from Hannah, Alice & John. Thank you all !!!” (James, a parent who accompanied the young people being home educated.)

If you have been following these annual reports for a while, you might be thinking, “Business as usual, then.”  However these Ocean Discoverability trips have become the launch pad for introducing Ocean Literacy into the wider sail training community.  The two appear to be natural bedfellows, but in spite of earlier attempts, and cogent academic articles, it seems only this project has succeeded in bringing them together in UK.

In January I was given a workshop slot at the Association of Sail Training Organisation’s annual conference to examine ways of making it work.  In March I spoke at the Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Your Shore Conference and in April at the South West Marine Ecosystem Conference hoping to recruit marine science specialists as “On Board Ocean Educators” (OBOEs).  One result from this was that Jean-Luc Solandt, a scientist with the Marine Conservation Society came on one of our trips to see what we did.  He liked it, and wrote a very nice blog about his day, so we must be getting it pretty well right.  In June I sailed in Pegasus for a week as the OBOE for a dedicated Ocean Literacy cruise, demonstrating that the concept works.

Studying marine life on the pontoon.

During the season I invited a number of marine scientists to join day trips, with a view to them becoming potential OBOEs and available to help not just The Island Trust, but other sail training organisations too. Efforts to recruit those with maritime knowledge included talking to the Nautical Institute in December.

Also in December I ran a two day course for sail trainers wanting to include Ocean Literacy in their programmes and those wishing to become OBOEs. There is now an OBOEs’ Facebook group, and the intention is to meet during the winter so that the group can learn from other members, ready for 2020.

fish market

Visiting Plymouth’s fish market.

Crabcam view of a grey seal.*

Other organisations are realising that adding Ocean Literacy to their offer is not just a worthy thing to do, it can be good for attracting customers and funders, too. I gave the team running Vigilance of Brixham (a sailing Brixham trawler) a demonstration (*the seal in the “Best of” video compilation comes from that) and they are keen to do more.

We have extended Ocean Discoverability beyond its original intended audience; children with disabilities. As well as running the Ocean Literacy cruise, which took young people in home education, we ran one of the day trips for a similar group, and even a group of adults for the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).

One of the MCS guests playing a hornpipe on JL’s bowsprit >

Ocean Discoverability would not have been possible without the generosity of a wide range of institutional and private funders to whom we are very grateful. Thanks are also due to organisations who have given advice, assistance and support, including help with identifying obscure sea creatures and plants, and giving talks to the course. Particular thanks are due to Plymouth Yacht Haven who are unfailingly patient and accommodating with the day sails and whose financial support made the course affordable.

John Hepburn, December 2019

Participating Organisations 2019

Brook Green Centre for Learning
Cann Bridge School
City College Plymouth
Doubletrees School
Eggbuckland Community College
Eggbuckland Vale Primary School
Horizons Childrens Sailing Charity
Launceston College
Longcause Community Special School
Mount Tamar School
Oaktree School
Pencalenick School
Plymstock School
Routeways Beckly Group
Woodlands School

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