Feeling the wind in their sails at last

Skipper Danny Watson and the sail training yacht CatZero in Hull Marina
Skipper Danny Watson and the sail training yacht CatZero in Hull Marina
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Simon Bristow joins the crew of CatZero, a project which is using sailing to inspire a ‘lost generation’ of young people in Hull to rebuild their confidence and change their lives for the better.

IT’S 6.30am on a dark autumn morning at Hull Marina and a group of young people are nervously checking their life jackets as the stainless steel deck of the 72ft yacht CatZero rocks gently beneath their feet.

Their apprehension produces excited chatter which abruptly ends when they are sent fore and aft carrying the large plastic fenders that will be lowered over the side to protect the gleaming white hull when she slips her moorings and moves slowly through the lock gates into the murky brown waters of the Humber.

There, the problems of lives that have slipped off track will be partly forgotten as the rookie crew tackle the pressing demands of sailing – learning how to handle, change and adjust sails, practicing man-over-board procedures, and also enjoying the moment when they take the helm of the £500,000 yacht. They will also learn the equally challenging job of how to prepare and cook food in the small galley below deck on a boat that, when travelling at speed, heels so far over that the side of her deck is in water.

For these 13 young people, aged between 18 and 24, including one crew member, belong to what some fear is a lost generation; they are not in employment, education or training, and have therefore earned the unfortunate sobriquet “Neets”. It is a problem that has policy makers scratching their heads, and is particularly prevalent in Hull, where the rate of people falling into this category is a third higher than the national average.

But here at CatZero, which is also the name of the charity that runs this pioneering project, there is a firm belief that the cycle of despair can be broken if young people who are willing to accept the challenge are lifted out of their routines and literally shown new horizons, although the sailing element is just part of a wider programme.

Some would call it character-building, and although it’s not quite a boot camp at sea, there is no room for slackers as the twinkling lights of the marina disappear from view. However, the lessons they can learn in this floating classroom, from collective responsibility to self-reliance, will stand them in good stead in any walk of life.

The 45-tonne boat was a prototype for the Challenge series, designed to sail the “wrong way” across the Southern Ocean against the prevailing winds and is “perfect” for sail training according to skipper Danny Watson, a veteran of two circumnavigations of the globe during Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s Clipper race, most recently at the helm of Hull & Humber in 2009/10.

And it was deep in the Southern Ocean during the leg between Brazil and Africa that the idea was born when Danny was sailing with Jim Dick, the former global president of Smith and Nephew’s wound management division, who is now chairman of trustees at CatZero. He had helped secure berths for disadvantaged young people from the city through the One Hull partnership, and they wanted to secure a legacy from that. What followed was evidence of the can-do attitude at the charity’s core.

“We realised there were like minds here and it happened very quickly after that,” said Danny, who now works full-time for CatZero. “By the time I got to Singapore they were sending business plans. I got back in July, came up in August, funding was approved in November and we started in January; it was full on.”

The 42-year-old is as invaluable to the project as the yacht as he is both a gifted seaman and a fine teacher.

His pre-race briefing for the amateur crew of Hull & Humber as they prepared to leave Liverpool for the first-leg “sprint” to La Rochelle in France will live long in the memory. Unfortunately, opposing weather fronts were converging on the Mersey; there was a good chance of getting “smashed up a bit”, and worst of all, “there will be pukers”, he warned. Not might, it was noted, but will.

As a consequence, he decided that Hull & Humber would not race out of the Mersey but would instead merely aim to enter the Irish Sea without damage or injury, a feat largely achieved, bruises aside, although he was right about the pukers. It is vital to have faith in one’s leaders in moments like that and everyone aboard was in no doubt that they had a very good skipper.

He was so finely tuned into the boat that after disappearing below for his first sleep in more than 36 hours he was woken by a slight change in the sound of the sails and was quickly on deck calling the necessary changes that no-one else had noticed. But he also explained what had been missed and why.

And he is a great advocate for sailing as it is what gave him the freedom and hands-on challenge he craved. Born in Reading but brought up in Kent he did not go sailing until he was 24. His sporting talent, however, had emerged by the time he reached his teens and he made the England junior squash squad at under-14 to 16s. His hopes of making it a career were dashed by injury, however, and at the age of 18 his wanderlust saw him travel around the world for seven months, when he “went away as a boy and came back as a man”. He got a degree in business and economics from Edinburgh University on his return but then took off again, including a period running a skiing chalet in France, where he made friends with someone who had a boat, and his passion for sailing began.

He then got what many would see as a plum job working as a broker in the City, but knew it was not for him. “I got in at 6.30am and left at 6pm and I thought there’s got to be more to life than this,” said Danny. He was then invited to join a sports management agency with Olympic Gold medal-winning swimmer Duncan Goodhew, a role he likens to that featured in the Tom Cruise film Jerry Maguire. He enjoyed it up to a point, but again felt he could find something more fulfilling.

“I was still a broker,” he said. “I had this guy on the books, Greg Owen, the golfer, we were in Malaga and I followed him around in practice and the first two rounds. He made the cut so I walked that course five times in five days and I never hit a golf ball. I thought I actually want to be doing this stuff myself.

“I said to Duncan ‘I think I’m going to do something different’. I told him I was going to do sailing and he said ‘Wow’ – he wasn’t negative, he saw it as positive and said go and do it. My thinking was if you are doing something you enjoy, you get good at it, and if you get good at it someone will eventually pay you. That was my business plan for myself.”

He added: “I just loved being offshore, being on the water, every aspect of it. I love the challenge of getting from A to B and using natural forces to do that. And I’m doing this now because I know that sailing can be used in such a positive way.”

And he is adept at maximising every opportunity to make sure that those who take part are changed by the experience. Recently, a meal of chilli had been cooked for all members of the crew, only for one of the trainees to announce that he “did not like chilli” when it was about to be served. Danny asked him which bits he didn’t like, to which he answered “beans”, and asked him to try eating everything else – which he did and enjoyed. “Nobody had probably ever challenged him about that food,” said Danny. “It’s the little victories that count,” adding that much of what he is trying to deliver, particularly among the younger ones, is about “attitudinal change”.

For others it is more a matter of raising self-esteem, something which Lorna Blake, 23, can vouch for. She studied performing arts at Hull College but lost her confidence when her friend died, although she is now making strides again. “We were kayaking and I capsized,” she said. “I was really scared, but the course has made me push myself again and I just did it. I feel sad just thinking about it ending.”

And even members of the Government can be taken aback when confronted with the success of CatZero. Last month, Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith was talking to CatZero graduates after being invited on a visit by its patron, the Hull MP Alan Johnson. He met Peter Shipley, 19, who now works on trawlers after spending every day for three months ringing fishing companies asking for a start after completing the course. “Wow, that’s tough,” said the Minister of his new career. “I always take my hat off to those guys, I really do.”

Out in the Humber the tip of the Spurn Point peninsula is drawing level on the port side. White-capped waves stretch across the horizon like a line in the sand, marking the point where the river gives way to the North Sea. For all on board, great challenges lie ahead.

Raise funds with your own sea adventure

CatZero runs a series of sailing adventures, open to all abilities, to raise funds to support the charity’s work.

Dutch Dash: A weekend sail from Hull to Amsterdam and back, July 26 to 29. Minimum donation: £600.

Fjords Voyage: A 10-day voyage to Norway over the summer solstice, June 13 to 23. Minimum donation: £1,950.

Round the Island Race: One-day yacht race around the Isle of Wight. Training sail is on May 30 with the race the following day. Minimum donation: £635.

Fastnet Race: The 608-mile race around the Fastnet Rock off the south west coast of Ireland is known as one of the most demanding offshore races. Those taking part will be required to do four to five days of training before the race, which starts of August 11. Minimum donation: £2,750.

Participants are encouraged to join its sponsored events, or organise their own, to raise a minimum donation for their place. All the Cat Zero events include food and equipment.

To book a place, or for further information, contact Danny Watson on 01482 333303 or e-mail info@catzero.org