"'l'm just giving back what I get out”

Claire Watson received the RYA Young Volunteer 2022 award for her work with Cove Sailing Club. The 22-year-old tells us how volunteering changed her life, and the lives of others. Set amid the Forth of Clyde, where S fingers of land dissolve into a web of silvery lochs stretching to the Isle of Arran, Cove Sailing Club has nurtured Claire Watson since childhood. Claire grew up locally in a boating family. Her stepdad was the club commodore and she started sailing aged seven, going on to teach others. She now volunteers with the charity Autism on the Water (AOTW), helping autistic people build confidence, problem-solve, and learn social skills. This work won her an RYA Young Volunteer award in November.

Why do you enjoy volunteering with Autism on the water?

My younger brother has Asperger's. I'm also a PE teacher and interested in learning how different people work and how I can help them. Autistic people can struggle in group settings and need access to the same opportunities as everyone else in an equitable, inclusive, and adaptable way. They can struggle to ask questions in public, and in noisy locations, so we adapt tasks for them.

How do people with autism benefit from sailing with the charity?

Sailing helps build confidence and skills. I took out a group of kids from my school, some of whom I'd never heard speak before. One boy was into birds and would just sit reading a bird book and give one-word responses. But when we got him out on the water, he'd say, 'Look, that's a cormorant, and here's how I can tell. . .' so then I was learning from him! Sailing helps the kids bond with similar people and enjoy new opportunities together.

Take us through a typical session with the charity.

We run open days where people can do multiple half-hour tasters on a powerboat, or go out on our Colvic Victor 34 cruiser or Hunter 707. We go through the basics: port and starboard, wind and points of sail. Autistic people tend to ask questions about the boat itself, such as how deep is the keel or the water? They enjoy working out knots and how they're used and putting the fenders out. They often like chart work too - plotting routes and navigation. So if sailing isn't for them, they can focus on that instead.

What does receiving the award mean to you?

I volunteered because my club gave me so many opportunities when I was younger. I don't really see it as volunteering, I'm just giving back what I get out of it. So, I was surprised to be nominated because everyone at the club mucks in. Last season I manned the safety boat at Loch Long Week. I was just helping out, but the organisers told me, 'You were actually the safety boat plus the first aider; you then came along in the evening, you served food…' I hadn't really noticed because we were all just helping out. But it made me realise that perhaps I'd made a positive impact on the club, which people had noticed and were grateful for.

What would you say to anyone who might be interested in volunteering?

Just do it -you'll get so much out of it. You get out on the water experiencing different things, talking to people that you wouldn't normally meet. It's so much fun! The more you put in the more you get out. I've learnt so much through volunteering and had so many opportunities open up from it - one activity then opens the door to another!

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