Kate Oliver’s sailing experience had consisted of a day on Otley Tarn before she boarded a vessel in Poole for a four-day sea adventure.
An article in The Yorkshire Post and a strong desire to help young women had led to Mrs Oliver’s decision to volunteer as a mentor for the trip which pairs students and inspirational women leaders in the unusual setting of sail training.
The charity-run project, Leading Lights, run by national charity Ormiston Trust, aims, to inspire the next generation of female business leaders through sailing.
“I had been working extremely hard because the company had been through a challenging period of restructuring and I wanted to do something completely different,“ said Mrs Oliver, the Ilkley-based chief executive of national law costs draftsman John M Hayes.
After reading a plea for volunteers on the Leading Lights trip in The Yorkshire Post, Mrs Oliver said she rang the charity straight away for more information.
“I have four children and one stepson and the youngest has just turned 18. I know how challenging it is for people of that age now and I wanted to help. I’ve always adored the sea,” she said.
A few weeks later, Mrs Oliver joined three other mentors – female directors from Condé Nast, Bloomsbury and GlaxoSmithKline – plus eight female students, their teacher and the sailing crew on board training vessel Prolific which set sail from Poole Harbour.
Both students and professionals alike – many of which had never sailed before – were actively involved in every aspect of sailing the boat, from hoisting and lowering sails, steering, getting involved with navigation, anchoring, cooking and keeping watch.
Alongside sailing activities, the female executives spent time chatting with and mentoring the students, talking to them about their careers, providing advice and helping to build students’ confidence.
“These girls had a lot of potential but weren’t delivering for one reason or another,” said Mrs Oliver.
“The best part of the trip was just being in the presence of young people, listening to their hopes and thoughts about the future. I was able to chip in with my own experiences as a working mum. It’s not always been easy and I’ve faced my own personal challenges, which I could share.
“Shortly after the trip I received a note to say two of the girls had gone on to be head of their house at school, which wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t had that experience.”
The most challenging part of the trip was coping with the sea sickness on the first day. “Everyone was so sick that day and it was so personally challenging. It got to the point where I wanted to be helicoptered off. It was worse than childbirth,” she said.
But once it passed, she said the experience brought the women together. “I could have run away but I stayed and I was absolutely fine and I hope at some level that message was something that the girls took away from the experience.”