Two recent graduates of the British Keelboat Academy (BKA) are urging young sailors from the RYA North East region to consider applying for this year’s intake.

The BKA is open to dinghy and yacht sailors aged between 18-24 and enables participants to take their keelboat racing to the next level, including professionally.

Ellie Clark and Henry Wilson from Yorkshire have shared their experiences in the hope of inspiring others to find out more about what the academy has to offer.

Developing keelboat skills

Henry Wilson sailed dinghies at Welton Waters Adventure Centre near Hull, where he completed his RYA Dinghy Instructor qualification at the age of 16, and learnt to race keelboats on a Dehler 32 at Scarborough Yacht Club.

Studying for an electronic engineering degree in Portsmouth, Henry is sponsored by the Royal Navy: he is maintenance manager for the RN’s J109 Jolly Jack Tar and plans to be onboard when it is back on the water in time for the J Cup in September, and is also co-skipper of the RN’s SB20.

Although the 20-year-old already had a background in yacht racing when he applied to the BKA, his year with the academy has been a great opportunity to develop his skills further and make new contacts in the world of keelboat sailing for the future.

Highlights for Henry were the chance to try different types of racing, including match racing which he would now like to do more of, and the wealth of world class expertise available to BKA recruits throughout the year on the water and on shore, and in 2020 online at home during lockdown, led by head coach Niall Myant-Best.

“The BKA has given me more experience and my knowledge and abilities have improved because you get to learn about new styles of racing and also look into the more technical side of things that you wouldn’t normally be able to do when you’re out on the racecourse,” says Henry. “It’s also a good way to get your name out and make contacts. The academy has people from all over the country and lots of sailing opportunities come through that.”

The BKA syllabus includes a chance to learn from professional sailors such as Hannah Diamond and Annie Lush, and from companies like North Sails. As Henry explains: “It’s invaluable because you don’t get that opportunity if you’re just out racing or even chatting post-race, it’s difficult to be able to go into so much depth.

"It’s also great to be able to use all the coaches that are available to glean information from them. Niall is fantastic. He’s an endless fount of knowledge and if doesn’t know, he knows someone who knows. I’d recommend the British Keelboat Academy to anyone.”

Henry Wilson helming a yacht with the British Keelboat Academy

Transitioning from dinghy sailing

For dinghy sailor Ellie Clark, the British Keelboat Academy provided a new challenge and a renewed enthusiasm for the sport. Ellie, who learned to sail at Ripon Sailing Club and is also a member of Overy Staithe SC on the east coast, started out in a National 12 and Mirror with her dad, then competed in RS Teras and Fevas as a junior followed by the 420 youth class.

She was inspired to apply for the BKA after taking part in the RYA Sailability Multiclass Regatta at Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy in 2019, volunteering her time as a competent crew on an Elliott keelboat. Her only other previous keelboat experience was an outing on a 707 but as Ellie explains, the BKA welcomes applications from dinghy as well as yacht sailors: “They’re just looking for well rounded sailors, so when you apply, be honest about what you’ve sailed and achieved and explain what you want to get out of it. I wanted to be able to sail bigger boats, get into a different kind of racing and broaden my experience.”

Ellie recognised a few familiar faces in the BKA from dinghy sailing and squads, and found it a hugely positive environment in which to learn, with all questions encouraged no matter how basic. “You get out what you put in and if you’re not sure about things you need to ask,” says Ellie. “I found it extremely daunting on the first weekend: getting on a First 40 with a group of people you don’t know, who you’re expected to sail this boat with. I literally said ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never sailed one of these!’ But everyone there was there to learn and the coaches and mentors were there to help.”

A highlight of the BKA year for Ellie was an offshore weekend with “amazing conditions” which allowed the teams to push the boats and work on sail changes: “In dinghies you get used to sailing with one person, so getting to sail with 11 people on one weekend, you learn things about yourself and how you work, and about other people and how they work. Getting experience of sailing with different people is what I found valuable, learning about myself and how I work in a team: moving your sail, working out a routine with another person, and getting your own job done to the best of your ability.”

Ellie, aged 18, now plans to study sport and exercise science with performance sailing at Chichester University while broadening her keelboat experience on the south coast alongside sailing a 707 as part of the Autism on the Water team up north. She also hopes to stay on with the BKA as a mentor for the next intake.

“Just being in the keelboat academy opens up doors and opportunities. I absolutely loved it. It gave sailing for me a freshness and a new lease of life. Doing something totally new that you’ve barely ever done before gives sailing a new challenge, a new appeal almost. And as a dinghy sailor you bring along from your experiences different skills. It’s all transferable so if you’re interested in applying just go for it!”

Ellie Clark offshore with the British Keelboat Academy 
BKA fact file

Members of the British Keelboat Academy receive world class coaching from a multitude of different experts across the sport, including input from marine leaders and industry professionals, gaining invaluable skills, experience and knowledge for keelboat racing.

  • The BKA offers in the region of 60 individuals a one to two year programme covering all aspects of racing, training, boat maintenance and personal preparation.  
  • Sailors get access to Crewsearch with opportunities to join top UK boats, and receive BKA uniform with discounted waterproofs, technical clothing and RYA courses.
  • On the water, academy sailors compete in a range of events and receive top class coaching on board from a variety of professional sailors.
  • Training on shore spans subjects including winching, meteorology, navigation, racing rules, rig tuning and sail trim.

The BKA programme aims to equip trainees with essential skills which will benefit them both in their future sailing careers and in the wider world; in addition to technical skills, competing aboard a top level racing yacht requires teamwork, leadership skills, project management, physical fitness and the ability to communicate clearly under pressure.

Many go on to compete and work in the yacht racing industry, including the 2008-9 Volvo Ocean Race, the America’s Cup, World Match Racing Tour and Artemis Offshore Academy.

“We are delighted to accept applications for the 2020/21 British Keelboat Academy intake,” says Jack Fenwick, RYA Keelboat Development Manager. “The BKA is a popular and proven environment for young sailors wanting to make the jump into keelboat racing, and we are looking forward to welcoming the next generation.”

British Keelboat Academy recruits group picture on shore

How to apply

Applications for the BKA are now open and up to 60 sailors will be invited to take part in a selection weekend,
7-8 November 2020, comprising a day on shore working with experts to learn about areas such as high-tech ropes, deck hardware and handling sails, followed by a day on the water with coaches and mentors providing a chance to try out various roles.

Those who demonstrate a strong desire to learn coupled with a strong work ethic and the ability to work well within a team will be among a group of around 40 who will be invited to become a member of the British Keelboat Academy 2020-21.

For more details about the academy and how to apply visit: www.britishkeelboatacademy.co.uk  The deadline for applications is 27th September 2020 at 23.59.