Sailing and lifeboats
Sailing and lifeboats
It may seem a surprise to know that—to the best of our knowledge—there has never before been a sporting event between the United World Colleges. Perhaps the reason is something about a preference for collaboration rather than competition; possibly it is just the tyranny of distance. Regardless, it all changed this summer when four of the colleges came together for the inaugural UWC Sailing Regatta hosted in Wales at UWC Atlantic College (UWC AC). And whilst competition per se may not be deeply embedded in the educational tradition we inherit from Kurt Hahn, sailing certainly is.
At each of Kurt Hahn’s schools—Salem, Gordonstoun, and UWC AC—sailing and water activities have had a special place with students spending significant amounts of time learning to build, sail, row, repair and design watercraft. Hahn is reported to have said when at Gordonstoun that his “best schoolmaster was the Moray Firth”1 (Moray Firth being the stretch of water near the school where students went to sail). In the complex interplay of skills required to keep a boat afloat, Hahn recognised something essential to his vision of education.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the lifeboat program at UWC AC. The college is blessed or cursed (depending on whom you talk to) with a concrete slipway running down into the Bristol Channel. From early in its history, UWC AC provided a service through their own lifeboat, which was crewed and maintained by the students. During the 50 years of its operation, the UWC AC Lifeboat Station “launched on service 459 times and saved a total of 98 lives.”2 The contribution of the college to lifesaving goes way beyond the heroic actions of their lifeboat team, however.
Unhappy with the design of the original rescue craft, students and staff designed a new kind of lifeboat combining the stability of an inflatable raft with the speed and agility of a rigid powerboat hull: the Rigid-hulled Inflatable Lifeboat (RIB) was born. This design proved so successful that eventually the patent was sold for a token 1 pound to the RNLI and the RIB is now the standard craft for inshore rescue work right around the world with hundreds of thousands of RIBs to be found everywhere from surf beaches in Australia to leisure craft in the Mediterranean.
The Atlantic College Lifeboat was more than just a skill for students to learn; in its essential elements it was perhaps the most perfect distillation of all that Hahn valued in education. Through the programme, students were challenged to put the welfare of others before themselves; they were pushed to find reserves of courage and stamina they may not have known they had; they were given the opportunity to put their minds and imaginations to work through the design process; they were trained to work as a highly skilled team; and they had the opportunity to do all this in the spirit of adventure and trust which Hahn so valued.
At first glance, a modern sailing regatta may seem like a poor cousin to such a noble lineage. Modern sailboats are lightweight, rigged with lines and sails that seem to defy the laws of physics and require skills more akin to gymnastics than the brawn and bravado of many other sports. High performance boats take considerable time to rig and have to be nursed down the slipway like delicate fine-tuned race cars.
And here lies another problem: modern standards of safety regularly render the Atlantic College slipway unsuitable for the launch and retrieval of boats of this type. With regatta participants flying in from around the world for a three-day event, our Atlantic College hosts needed a much more reliable venue to minimise the likelihood of sailing being postponed or cancelled. An ideal venue was found two hours drive away at the Pembrokeshire Performance Sailing Academy (PPSA).3
At the PPSA, Sailing Instructor Taff Own and his staff designed a three-day sailing event that began on the Friday with an assessment of the sailing skills. One of the many challenges of matching the different UWCs against each other was that we all sail different boats. In Singapore, UWCSEA students sail single handed Laser Radials. The Mahindra UWC of India contingent sailed the two-handed 420. In Norway at UWC Red Cross Nordic they don’t sail anything because, as the students explained, for much of the year they have neither suitable conditions nor even daylight, but the four participants came with a range of experience from their lives pre-UWC. The two UWC Maastricht students both had experience on double handed boats.
Taff matched skills to boats and set a handicap system allowing for two days of racing on the Cleddau inlet. Challenging tides, fickle winds and passing tall ships each added to the experience. Three days and five races later and the 13 participants had built strong bonds of friendship and a sense of camaraderie and pleasure in their various achievements.
It was a great regatta, but as students relaxed over dinner afterwards, it didn’t seem to have quite the power of a lifeboat rescue. Given all the effort involved in organising the event, the resources involved in flying students from various parts of the world and the elitist nature of modern dinghy sailing, the question needs to be asked: does this event really fit with Kurt Hahn’s values?
Two particular elements make me believe it does.
Firstly, the event was initiated and partly organised by students from UWC Red Cross Nordic. From the deep dark of the Norwegian Fjords, Ossian Procope and Asbjorn Lauridsen gained the support of Tom Partridge, Head of Atlantic Outdoors at UWC AC, and then contacted each of the other 16 UWCs gauging interest in a sailing regatta. Without the professional support of Tom and his team and the financial support of UWC AC and their alumni, the event would not have been possible. But, critically, without the enthusiasm and engagement of students in initiating and co-organising the event, it would not have been nearly so meaningful. The competition was serious, but it was not the main point: what mattered most was the collaboration between students as they came together to enjoy a sport they collectively value.
The second reason I think the event fits powerfully in the Hahnian context was a surprise to me at the time. On the final day I was driving one of the students to the airport. I asked him what he valued the most about the event. His reply was that it was the four hours sitting in a bus each day travelling to and from the sailing centre. He explained that he had learned so much about the other students and the other UWCs during this time.
Digging deeper into this observation I found myself reflecting on my own experience of the bus trip. I sat in the front talking to Tom who was driving and we swapped stories about our schools, our families and our values and visions. UWC AC and UWCSEA have the same mission, heritage and values although we appear very different on the surface. Sometimes, daily realities can distort our view of underlying principles; what I found in these bus trips was a sense of perspective that helped me clarify what we have in common as a UWC movement. Hahn’s view was that if you took students from different backgrounds and educated them together they would come to value each other for their common humanity rather than being separated by their different cultures. He may not have had a Ford Transit van in mind when he pictured his ideal education vessel, but the principle seems to hold. When students arrive for the first time at a UWC, they bring with them all their many cultural identities. When they leave, they have a new identity as a member of a bigger human community. Coming together through the adventure of sailing, our different UWCs had this commonality reaffirmed and clarified.
UWC AC no longer has a permanent lifeboat crew. The precariousness of the slipway and the standards of modern crew accreditation mean that it’s no longer realistic to train students during the two years they spend at Atlantic College. Nearby lifeboats can launch faster and achieve rescues more reliably. The school and its students still play an incredible role in lifesaving and continue to design and build RIBs through their support of ‘Atlantic Pacific’.4 Students build RIBs that are transported around the world for rescue work from Japan to the Mediterranean. The school’s vision is increasingly global and systemic.
As students and teachers who have had the privilege of being involved in the first UWC Sailing Regatta, we now have a responsibility to explore and explain the meaning of the event. The enthusiasm is there to run the regatta again next year. We need to be asking questions like “How do we build on the relationships that are formed?” “How do we understand the event in relation to our UWC mission and history?” “How can we support UWCs where finances are a barrier to participation?” And a question that I am asking in this article: “how does the model of the Atlantic College Lifeboat programme guide us both in core values and in understanding a changing world?”
Early discussions are happening in many of these areas. The initial enthusiasm of Ossian, Asbjorn and Tom to bring UWC students together sailing has turned into something powerful; it will be fascinating to see how it grows next year.
Congratulations to the UWCSEA students who participated in this inaugural regatta:
- Aevar Arnason (1st)
- Elliot Cocks (1st)
- Chase Baldwin (2nd)
- Nikhil Shah
- Stefan Pereira
1 http://www.gordonstoun.org.uk/sail-training | 2 Plaque on the wall at Atlantic College replicating a letter from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution recognising the contribution of the college lifeboat station. | 3 https://www.ppsa.co.uk/
Photo provided by: Ian Tymms