Setting sail for a new perspective on life

The distinctive yellow yacht has become a familiar North Tyneside sight. Proudly cutting through the water, this boat has had a life-changing effect on hundreds of youngsters across the region.

The James Cook is owned by the Ocean Youth Trust,  a charity that helps young, disadvantaged and disabled people build their confidence and give them a sense of belonging while exploring the seas, new places and even new countries. The charity regularly sets sail from its mooring in North Shields marina to countries such as Iceland, Denmark and Russia, on voyages that can last up to three weeks at a time. And for the youngsters who clamber aboard and find their sea legs, it can be a life-changing experience.

Just ask Sophie Halpin, 16, who took part in a three-week adventure to Norway last year. The Gateshead teenager admits it was one of the best experiences of her life to date.

 “It has completely changed my life,” explains the former pupil of St Joseph’s Comprehensive School in Hebburn, who first heard about the charity through her father, Michael. Dad got an email about the trip through work, I just thought it was this massive posh thing but it was completely unreal.

“My favourite part of the trip was when we entered Kristiansand port in Norway, it was just beautiful. I also loved looking up at the stars in the darkness of night, it was different to looking out of the window, they looked almost fake.”

On board Sophie, who is currently doing an apprenticeship as a lab technician, enjoyed food such as spaghetti, baked potatoes and roast ham.
“There wasn’t one bad meal,” she says. Alcohol is forbidden on the boat, but Sophie believes this just made the whole experience better.
“It doesn’t make a difference, you don’t always need to drink to have fun, it is better without. Forging new friendships with people she met on the voyage made the trip even better for the teenager, although she admits it was hard adjusting to life back on dry land. I made such close friends with some of the people I met on the boat, so coming home was quite sad in many ways. I was a bit lost without my boat family. I remember coming home and my mum was watching EastEnders and I didn’t know what to do with myself. The trip has opened my eyes to travelling and I want to do even more now.”

The difference in her confidence and outlook on life was notable the moment she returned home, her father Michael, a team leader at Nissan, recalls.
“Sophie now has higher aspirations and more confidence. It really has been a complete catalyst for her. After the voyage, she had the confidence to go and work as a waitress in Ireland. It is such a worthwhile experience, I would love to do it myself.”
The charity has the potential to take 650 youngsters on board each year, with most voyages taking 18 people at a time, which includes volunteers.

Among these is Georgie Hind, a mother of two from Whitley Bay who has become a regular volunteer with the charity.
Georgie believes its success rests on the hands-on approach that the young people have to take when out at sea. During their time on board, the crew learn a variety of valuable interpersonal and transferable skills.

“The kids are encouraged to do everything themselves, they don’t have a choice. They have to hoist the sail, tie knots, clean, cook together and of course work as a team.”

And she is a firm believer in the importance of the boat’s family atmosphere, because many of the youngsters have come from broken families.
“We sing songs together, get to know each other. Regardless of our ages or lives, we are all on the boat together. The boat is like a cocoon.”
Groups including The Cyrenians, Rotary Clubs and Guide Dogs for the Blind have all recently worked with the Trust, and Georgie is hoping to take a group of children from Woodlawn School in North Tyneside out on the boat in the Easter holidays.

Steve Lennon, general manager of Ocean Youth Trust, North East, says: “We are committed to continuing to widen our support and user groups in 2011 and will be announcing a number of new key relationships and accreditations over the coming year. More people than ever will have the chance to experience the Ocean Youth Trust effect and use the experience to realise their ambitions. Some youngsters come on a voyage having never sat at a table to eat before, that alone is worthwhile. It really does shape them into better citizens and that gives me a great buzz.”

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