The Sailfree programme at Otley Sailing Club is celebrating 25 years with founder Norman Stephens at its helm and looking forward to yet another packed season.
Norman recently announced his 'retirement' as the programme's organiser as he approaches his 80th birthday in July but is continuing to volunteer his time.
There has already been a pre-season training day for 77 club volunteers and staff from the various schools and organisations which benefit from Sailfree.
From small beginnings which pre-date and led the way for RYA Sailability, the programme last year ran 2,700 sessions for young people and adults with disabilities and complex learning difficulties thanks to its dedicated team of more than 30 volunteers.
The club runs Sailfree four days a week with a fleet of 11 specialist Access dinghies - eight doublehanded 303s and three singlehanded 2.4s. It has seven regular groups, and a queue.
The programme first started when Norman, an engineer, went back to night school to become a sixth form tutor for young people with complex learning problems, and started working at John Smeaton School in Leeds with young people with Down's Syndrome.
The head teacher, Phil Willis, who went on to become a local MP, was concerned that these students would stand and watch from the sidelines while their peers took part in sport, and Norman, who was an RYA Senior Instructor, suggested sailing.
"It grew from there," says Norman, "I took a 16-year-old lad in a wheelchair out sailing at the club, and he said: ‘Sir, that’s first time in my life I’ve been free.' And that's what Sailfree means and where it comes from. It grew quickly because then a friend asked to bring some students from Bradford College, and then another person at the club was at Hollybank Trust, and they started coming. That was three already on board by the time Sailability started in '95."
Otley Sailing Club joined Sailability a couple of years later and Norman, a member of the RYA North East regional committee, became the area coordinator for Sailability.
Having been well-known as a racing sailor on the Enterprise circuit, organiser of the Cock of the North event, and a committee member of the International Enterprise Class Association - which would see him making trips to London for meetings in Beecher Moore's office with fellow class association founders such as Bill Rhodes and Enterprise designer Jack Holt - Norman turned his attention to making sailing accessible for all.
"I’ve had so much out of sailing and had such a fantastic time," explains Norman. "I’ve been putting something back into what I’ve loved."
Norman has received many awards in recognition of his work with Sailfree and Sailability, including Otley Sports Council's Jack Simpson Award for Services to Sport, RYA Volunteer Awards in 2002 and 2007, Leeds Sports Awards for Outstanding Service in 2007 and for Volunteer of the Year in 2013, and a Sailability Lifetime Achievement award in 2018. He was also a Queen's baton bearer for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
But Norman says the accolades are really about recognising the programme, and all its volunteers and supporters, and that the biggest reward is to see one of Sailfree's participants enjoying the freedom of being on the water and having so much fun.
"Getting one of those kids to start laughing, it’s unbelievable," he says. "Some of the Hollybank youngsters can’t speak, don't normally make a noise or anything, and there's one of them, who as soon as he gets in a boat, he’s singing! Another one never speaks, she's fed and everything, but the minute we take her down to the hoist to lift her into a boat, you can't even keep her still, her wellies are flying off, her arms are going, she’s grinning, making noises. That is the satisfaction; you can’t get that anywhere else. And if you can sell that to people, you can get your volunteers, because they get hooked."
"If you will, they can."
The club was a finalist in the 2019 RYA / Yachts & Yachting Club of the Year Awards with special recognition for its 'inclusive and open to all' ethos. This year Sailfree has more volunteers than ever. Many are older but a more recent trend has seen employers allowing staff time out to support good causes.
Otley now has a committee to run Sailfree, with individuals allocated to run specific days. The club also trains up those who accompany Sailfree participants to be able to support the sessions. All of the staff who come from Hollybank Trust now have RYA sailing and powerboat certificates. In the past Norman has raised funds with after-dinner speaking around Rotary clubs.
His motto for the Sailfree programme is: "If you will, they can."
"If you give time, then they’ll come sailing. If you’ve got money but no time, give the money and we’ll buy the equipment. If you’ve just got skills but can’t do anything physical, we need people to do the paper work. If you will, they can. And we never ever turn anybody away. No matter what ability or disability, whatever the challenge, Sailfree will manage," says Norman.
For someone in a wheelchair unable to sit up without support, Sailfree would stuff cushions into black bin bags to pack around them so they could go sailing in an Access dinghy; then a Hollybank Trust staff member suggested using one of their bath supports. A person with autism, who always undoes zips, has his buoyancy aid put on back-to-front.
"There’s always a way,” says Norman.
Securing the future
Norman was a founding member of Otley Sailing Club when he and a gang of like-minded people physically built the clubhouse and secured the lease at Weston Water in the 1970s, having moved from the previous site at Knotford Nook.
The lease has now been extended to make the club secure up to its 100th birthday, and the future of Sailfree is also assured thanks to the foundations put in place by Norman.
As Commodore Magnus McDonald sums up: "What can you say about Norman? He is what the phrase 'broke the mould' was invented for. He is a founding member of Otley Sailing Club and 25 years ago founded Sailfree, at a time when hardly anyone was offering disabled sailing. In that sense he was a true pioneer, starting off in Wayfarers and working with local schools.
"Norman and his wife Marlene along with many volunteers, have brought the joy of sailing, the exhilaration and sense of freedom, to hundreds of local children and young people over the years. Children who might never have had this opportunity otherwise. It is a remarkable achievement.
"As for the future of Sailfree, the club is working hard to put in place arrangements that will secure its operation going forwards. There is a huge amount going on behind the scenes to ensure Norman can take a well-earned rest, although we all know he'll still be down there helping out. You can't keep him away. Norman you're a legend. See you down the club!"
Find out more
Otley Sailing Club is family-friendly club offering sailing for all ages and abilities, including a vibrant youth and junior programme, and has RYA Training Centre recognition enabling it to provide a full range of sailing and powerboat courses for everyone from absolute beginners to the highest level.
Visit RYA Sailability to discover more about how sailing can enable people of all ages with disabilities to enjoy freedom on the water, and for those who want a competitive sport, an opportunity to race. There is also lots of information available for those who would like to volunteer their time to make a difference, and club support for centres and clubs who wish to offer, or already do offer, inclusive sailing.