A News story by Ellena Schuster-Farrell 3 June 2019

This year, E-ACT pupils are embarking upon an amazing adventure with the UK Sailing Academy (UKSA). Over the next few months, every single one of our Year 5 pupils from all 16 of our primary academies will take part in UKSA’s residential water sports programme on the Isle of Wight, without charge to their families.

In celebration of this exciting initiative, we were thrilled to have the chance to talk all things sailing with UKSA Ambassador and double Olympic gold medallist, Shirley Robertson OBE.

In 2004, Shirley become the first British woman to win two Olympic gold medals at consecutive games, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004. Shirley was named Female World Sailor of the Year by the International Sailing Federation in 2000, and she has since become the face of CNN’s Mainsail. She has also presented on BBC South TV, BBC Scotland’s Sports Saturday programme and BBC Grandstand.

How would you describe the water sports programme for schools at UKSA?

Whenever I pop in when the school groups are there, there is just this amazing noise of fun. They’re playing games, they’re singing, they’re dancing, they’re jumping off the jetty… it makes me smile even just thinking about it. The instructors are fantastic and really know how to connect with the pupils. I really look forward to going there during the school season – the place feels alive, it’s just full of happy learning.

How do you think E-ACT pupils will react when they arrive?

It will be a great adventure for the children, even just crossing over to the island will be brilliant. I still get the sense when I’m going back and forth on the ferry, even though I do it quite often, that it is something special.

I went to UKSA myself when I was about 15. I can remember sailing out, down the river Medina, past all the ferries, and how exciting that was. It’s a really interesting place to be. There are ships and ferries and all sorts of boats going by, and to get to experience that in a safe environment will be wonderful for the children.

There will be people training in all sorts of exciting things when the children are onsite – people out sailing big yachts, kitesurfing, learning how to handle a motorboat. It’s a real hive of activity.

How can water sports help our children in their development?

Fundamentally, pupils will gain confidence and a sense of independence. I know from my own children that in daily life, you can be a bit reluctant to give them that freedom – reluctant to let them go alone on a public bus, or to cycle too far down the road… but on the water, with a few basic rules, they can be quite independent and that is fabulous.

My son was one of those children that was safety first, always weighing up the risks. Sailing was way too risky for him, he was overwhelmed thinking about the things that could go wrong. But he spent a week at UKSA and grew in confidence in a safe environment.

There could be children who go on this trip and discover a real passion for water and water sports, and that is a fantastic gift that can last a lifetime. There is an amazing network of clubs across the country, and it doesn’t have to cost the earth. It’s great to have those experiences and to develop a hobby that takes you outdoors, whatever it is.

How did you get involved with UKSA?

My life has been built around sailing, and in our industry, everyone has been involved with UKSA in some way. It’s an internationally respected place – there are people like Dee Caffari, who sailed around the world, who honed her skills at UKSA.  It has a great reputation and it’s a real centre of excellence, right from showing young children the ropes, to teaching someone how to captain a 300 gross ton superyacht.

I have also lived on the Isle of Wight for the past 20 years, and UKSA is a big part of our community. I have two children who are now 12, and they’ve learned to sail there and have gone on school trips there.

What are your earliest memories of sailing?

I’ve always been a big fan of water sports and messing about on boats. I can remember being nine or 10 and being so happy to be able to sail on my own or canoe on my own…  although most of the time there was a rope attached to the end of the boat for my parents to pull me back! The sense of independence and freedom was special. I still remember that, and I still get it myself. If I go on an adventure in a sailing boat, even at my age, I get such a sense of accomplishment from having navigated my way there and back again by myself.

What’s special about being out on the water?

Going on the water is so different from most people’s normal environment: you have to concentrate and learn, but not in a normal classroom setting. Quite often, even the children that might not usually be engaged in a classroom will be transformed on the water.

I feel that being around water can be good for mental health. I had a hard week at work last week and went for a paddleboard at the weekend and I just felt like I could breathe out and start again. There is certainly something special and unique about a day out on, or in, the water. It’s good for the soul.