On this day in 2010

John Hepburn, who runs our Ocean Discoverability® programme, reflects on the 10 years since the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter Trust started sailing with disabled children.

On 5 August 2010 the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter Trust (BCPCT) took four disabled young people and two carers from the Beckly Centre sailing in the Pilot Cutter, Cornubia, in Plymouth Sound and Estuaries. The young people were a mixed age, capacity and ability group whose specific conditions covered a range of needs. Tony Winter, trustee of the trust and owner of Cornubia was skipper and I was the mate. Those who could and wanted to, helped work the ship alongside the crew, heaving up the anchor, hoisting and trimming the sails and steering the boat. They motored up to the Tamar Bridges, sailed to Cawsand Bay and anchored, and they looked at marine wildlife using a Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle (ROV), and plankton net and microscope thanks to volunteers from the Marine Biological Association and the National Marine Aquarium. They also learnt about local maritime activities past and present from our specially written booklet, rather like the “I Spy” Guides.

Tamar Bridges

Motoring under the Tamar Bridges


Seabed in Cawsand Bay via the ROV

Our specially written booklet

Beckly Centre was the first of over 150 groups to sail in Cornubia. In the next 7 years of operation over 650 children experienced the challenges, education experiences and fun that our trips provided. They came with many disabilities which increased in number and complexity as the providing organisations gained in confidence in our ability to cope (thanks mainly to their help and advice). So in 2016, Cornubia‘s last year in the role, they included autism, ADHD, learning difficulties, dyslexia, cerebral palsy, eplipsy, scoliosis, tourettes, dyspraxia, hearing loss, global development delay, and many other lesser known problems with abilities ranging from fully ambulant to wheelchair use.

There were changes during that time, but they were in the main incremental – we got it about right from the start. We introduced a vertical trawl for plankton with the aim of avoiding the spring bloom clogging up the net. This involved dropping the net into the water at the bows with the boat going very slowly ahead, and pulling it up near the stern with the line already tied on there. The young people would then pass it hand to hand around all the obstructions lining the deck before repeating the process. After two drops the dropper moved aft and became the puller up and everyone moved up a place. When everyone had had a go we extracted the plankton. Serendipitously this turned out to be good for communication skills, team working and mobility, as well as turning up the occasional unusual life form. Identifying mystery objects on board from photos taken from unusual angles was more than just a time filler; that improved confidence and mobility and unexpectedly prompted cooperation between two autistic boys. The guide book got thicker with the addition of things like “Then and Now” pictures, national flags, and space to record things beginning with all the letters of the alphabet. Calculating the sail area showed that maths had real life uses beyond the classroom. The ROV was replaced by a Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV). After much experimentation we devised a simple system to measure outcomes and satisfaction, and provide feedback which helped justify funding bids.


Vertical plankton trawl

The major change was in crewing. To do the number of days we wanted and with children and carers not necessarily able to help we needed a regular team with more seamanship skills, so instead of our marine scientist volunteers we had second mates, and in addition to being first mate I took on the marine science.

Although all good things come to an end and at the end of 2016, Tony Winter, owner and skipper moved to the East Coast and took Cornubia with him, it was not before he had persuaded Dick Lloyd of The Island Trust to continue the programme.

Sail areas

Beckly Centre first again look at plankton on board Tectona

Salcombe, Squabbling crabs

The Island Trust team took it on with enthusiasm, and as “Cornubia Legacy” project manager I was made to feel very welcome. All the schools that had sailed in Cornubia continued to sail in Tectona and Pegasus, and many of the funders allowed their grants to transfer between the charities and continue to help. No longer sailing as the mate I had more time to devote to the educational elements of the day, and discuss ways of doing things better with the accompanying school staff. Ocean Literacy (OL) became more overtly central to the purpose of the day, reflected in a change in name in 2018 to “Ocean Discoverability”, now registered as a trade mark. As The Island Trust is very definitely a sail training organisation (in Cornubia we hadn’t seen ourselves as such) and OL was gaining in profile, we were in a good position to champion OL in Sail Training. We ran a workshop on the topic at the 2019 ASTO (Association of Sail Training Organisations) conference, a dedicated OL cruise in Pegasus with me as On Board Ocean Educator (OBOE), and in December we held a two day course in Plymouth attended by sail trainers and potential OBOEs.

2020 should have seen us helping other organisations embrace OL, developing our corps of OBOEs, and celebrating the 10th anniversary of Tony Winter making his vision a reality, but we’ve had to content ourselves with virtual activities. In September we plan live streaming “Life Beneath the Keel” in Plymouth Yacht Haven through the Ocean Institute Maritime Festival, Dana Point, Ca, USA.

If we are to continue this mission in 2021, without any income from 2020, we will need help. We always value the support we receive, great and small. If you currently feel able to make a donation please click the button below to go to our donate page.

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