It’s a rare sunny and warm day in Melbourne and Springvale Park Special Development School arrive at Docklands Marina where SWD volunteers meet them and, together, they walk to the boat, students excitedly asking the volunteers questions about sailing and the ocean.
When they arrive at the boat and slip into their life jackets, a few of the students are noticeably quiet while listening to the Skipper’s instructions. Within minutes of motoring off, however, sun shining on them, wind in their hair and the Skipper telling pirate jokes, the quiet students crack a smile and the more outgoing students reach high, hands up, to be chosen to steer. Since Ninety Seven is a 47 foot racing yacht and Sydney Hobart Yacht Race winner, volunteering to steer is quite brave!
For the next two hours, quiet or outgoing, each student is coaxed out of their comfort zone and even the quiet ones have a go at steering or winding winches.
The SWD program gives students a huge boost in self-belief through the chance to get involved in a safe space outside their comfort zones, guided by caring SWD volunteers.
“It’s the ultimate confidence boost and far beyond anything most students who come on board have ever done before,” says Richard O’Hara, SWD’s Melbourne Coordinator. “For many, it’s their first time on a yacht and, for some, it may be their first time on a boat.”
SWD has run the Winds of Joy program for children with disabilities since late 2016, operating every Monday and Tuesday during school terms. SWD programs are fully volunteer-led and attract all types of volunteers, young and older, retired and working, from individuals who’ve sailed all their lives, through to beginner sailors who want to give something back to society while learning something new.
Beginner volunteer sailors often relate well with many of the first-time student sailors. They experience the same curiosity and hesitation as the students—they’re “in the same boat” metaphorically and literally (pun intended)—and they form a bond from the shared experience of overcoming nerves and fears together.
Eddy Borg is one such volunteer. Eddy had no experience on a yacht when he started volunteering with SWD.
“I felt intimidated to rock up at a sailing club as a novice volunteer sailor,” he said. “But volunteering enables me to learn a new skill and bringing joy to others is my main goal. The smiles and laughter I’ve seen on the students’ faces is priceless—that’s an acknowledgement that you’ve succeeded.”
Eddy explained that the beauty with SWD is that it’s about engaging with students; learning to sail is a bonus, but not the aim.
“Having said that,” Eddy says, “one of my realisations since joining SWD is that sailing is a skill that can be learned and enjoyed by anyone.”
Cruising down the Yarra River is a special experience for participants since much of the sailing in Melbourne occurs within Port Philip Bay at many of the local yacht clubs. The typical route starts at Docklands and heads down the Yarra until it meets the bay where it heads back towards the city.
On the boat, the crew assist and instruct on how to tack and navigate along the river as well as engage with students on a personal level.
Eddy says, “Depending on the students’ disabilities, sometimes it can be difficult but I’ve found that simply sitting beside them can be enough. Other times, we chat and I’ve had lots of fun especially at the front of the boat showing students how the bow works and how to keep a look out for ships and land.”
Whether you're a novice sailor or experienced, if you would like to get involved volunteering with SWD, we would love to hear from you.