Despite lockdown 1:0 and the subsequent wide-ranging restrictions across the country, some OnBoard clubs and centres were able to re-open and offer youngsters the chance to get back out on the water this year.

Along the path to re-starting activities there have been many hurdles to overcome, problems to be solved, solutions to be found and new strategies to be implemented.

Norfolk Schools Sailing Association (NSSA) is one such OnBoard centre which rose to the challenge and put in place appropriate measures to enable sailing activity to take place in a Covid-secure way. So how did they do this?

The NSSA is a sail training voluntary organisation and registered charity which teaches sailing to young people and adults at its training centre near Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. The 50 or so volunteers, many of them former NSSA trainees, help provide affordable, inclusive sailing courses to all. The membership price is just £50 for young people. There are no additional course fees for youngsters and a Bursary fund is also available. At the heart of the charity is Chief Instructor and Volunteer Coordinator, Sue Head: “Our whole ethos is about affordability, and our goal is to encourage youngsters into local clubs so they develop a lifetime sailing habit within a more traditional club setting.” said Sue.

Planning

To help understand how the regulations applied to the centre, Sue Head and Centre Principal Jeremy Mills, attended most of the RYA club development forums. Sue commented: “The RYA support has been phenomenal. We attended a variety of national, regional forums (with East RDO, Robbie Bell) and OnBoard forums (with East OnBoard SDO Jen Miller) and the advice from all of them has been invaluable. We learn so much from them in helping us change our operating procedures.”

First steps

Step one was to connect with people online. This helped the charity keep in contact with everyone and engaged with NSSA until they could offer courses again. Sue said: “Our volunteers used the RYA activities and had lots of fun running quizzes with our Optimist group.”

The centre had a trial run with volunteers before opening up for recreational sailing in July. The centre felt they needed to do a staggered return and initially only opened for adults who could sail independently.

Opening the gates for activities to start again  

On-site modifications

A socially distanced work party was held to get the site ready. Luckily some of the volunteers are skilled with electrics and plumbing so came in very useful for helping to alter the centre and put in new modifications to make the site covid-19 secure.

Instant hot water dispensers and an exterior sink were installed outside. Sue comments: “We are now able to wash our hands with hot water and antibacterial soap, in our outside picnic area, as soon as you come off the water without having to go into the toilets. I don’t know why didn’t put this in years ago!” 

The Centre also closed their changing rooms and pinned back doors so people could access the toilet. Sue considers this to be one of the hardest areas to address: “We, along from discussions with everyone in the forums, found the cleaning side of things to be a big concern to people.

“We also managed to get hold of an automatic gel dispenser so before people enter the building, they need to wash and gel hands, and then they can enter the toilet.

The centre also invested in antiviral cleaner, gloves and bags to dispose of items safely. The cubicle receives a thorough spray and clean at the end of the day as well as extra cleaning during the day too. Sue adds: “This made us all feel secure.”

Boats were split into Saturday and Sunday usage. Odd numbered boats are used on a Saturday and even boat numbers on a Sunday. This meant people automatically socially distanced in the dinghy park with every other boat in use. In addition, cleaning of the boats was not essential as the boats were not in use for the next seven days. The same arrangement applied to clothing, with Saturday and Sunday rails introduced.

On-site shelving was also built in the Oppi and Topper storage sheds. This enabled the group hubs to take their belongings to where they were going rather than putting them in the changing rooms.

Sue explains: “This new system of belongings being taken to where they are going from, rather than being put in the changing room, is a much better system. It enables groups to stay apart and the changing room to be simply used to change in.

Sue adds: “It proves with some planning, you can look at your centre and practically make it work - the rewards of doing it are great.”

Back to teaching

Sue believes that opening up conservatively to recreational sailing first, gave all the volunteers confidence that they could bring back youth and beginner sailing in the summer and autumn.

Sue comments: “People’s perception of risk is so varied, and this also depends on where you are in the country. We were lucky in Norfolk that we had one of the lowest areas of Covid which I think also helped give a lot of confidence.”

Sue continues: “The whole of this year, we wanted to give people the opportunity to do things but put no pressure on anyone to feel like they have to. We also assigned different roles to our volunteers so we were socially distanced as a team. So some would do the signing in, other volunteers stayed in the dinghy park to support with rigging, whilst someone also managed the slipway.”

The sailing programme was reorganised with teaching of small groups of six in line with government restrictions. The centre was able to run three courses over a day with typically 18 beginners out on the water, consisting of a beginner Topper and two beginner Oppi groups. Slightly shorter sessions, no lunch breaks and staggered start and finish times were introduced so groups arrived 10 minutes apart. NSSA achieved an impressive eight weekends of youth sailing activity.

Toppers on Filby Broad 

Safety boats were manned by family bubbles and additional instructors went out on the water in Lasers to give coaching and help. Parents were also encouraged to help youngsters with their kit.

Sue continues: “The children adapted really well too. We found that for the youngsters that did return to school, they were so well versed in the new routines there that they just took onboard our extra measures without any concern. Everyone – volunteers, children and adults alike - settled into our new routines really well.”

Sue adds: “It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve done; a real challenge. But parents have been so appreciative of our efforts. To have parents say to you (in July) that this is the first time that my teenager has been out of the house since March – it is all so worth it.

“The mental wellbeing of being outdoors, in the fresh air, in the sunshine, and being active has so much benefit. I believe that you can be part of a sailing group, have human contact and do all this safely. One parent told me ‘thank you for putting some joy into my daughter’s life’.”

Providing summer structure

After several months away from school, Norfolk County Council felt that some youngsters might struggle with a return to formal education. The Council wanted to help some of the most vulnerable young people, before they returned to school in September, by exposing them to some structure in the form of a summer camp.

Trinity, a local organisation which provides social work and education solutions, tendered to the Council to deliver this through sailing and summer holiday activities at the centre.

A joint partnership between NSSA and Trinity was formed. Trinity was responsible for the youngsters’ welfare and ran the summer camp but used the centre and its operating procedures. The 36 youngsters camped on site and experienced a structured schedule, similar to school, which operated on a 9am-3:30pm basis.

All the youngsters will receive an invitation to re-join next year, whilst some have already attended a follow up session in October. The company’s Social Work Director, who is also one of NSSA’s volunteer senior instructors, continues to support some of the youngsters and is getting them involved in a rookie fleet, to hopefully take part in next year’s National Schools Regatta.

Prof. Bill Lucas used questionnaires as part of his research into identifying which OnBoard character attributes learning to sail and windsurf help build. One of NSSA’s volunteers is studying Psychology at University and took the opportunity to use the questionnaire at beginning and end of each of the four week-long summer camps. The positive responses have been fed back to Prof. Bill Lucas.

Sue comments: “To give the youngsters some structure whilst also having lots of fun learning to sail was great. But it was about so much more. All the OnBoard character attributes such as confidence, communication and teamwork are just as important for these youngsters.”

The new ‘new’

With the recent positive news that vaccines may be introduced before the start of next year’s sailing season, it may be the case that some of the Covid-19 systems may not be needed next year.

However, the NSSA believes that some of these changes have improved the running of the venue, with or without restrictions in place. As Sue explains: “Even when the centre re-opens, it will still keep some of the things that we have changed. For example, we will continue to use the much better system of only using the changing rooms to simply change in, and belongings to be stored elsewhere. The staggered starts and slightly shorter sessions for the younger children will also stay.

“Even the way we do our admin will remain. We don’t have a lot of computer systems on site and normally we would just use the office and go to the files to get out kit lists, course programmes, certificate lists etc. This year we created course packs and put everything together in a plastic container with pens for each course, so that nothing was shared. That was brilliant and we will do this again. All our briefings were of course conducted outside and we may continue to do this too.”

“Normally we wouldn’t send anything out to members but after doing activities online this year, and seeing the benefit of keeping everyone in touch with each other, we will look to continue this. Possibly with activities around Christmas time and spring next year when renewals come out.”

Sue concludes: “It might not be quite like how you’d normally do it – but it’s so worth it - you can do it!”