Friendships sealed at sea
Safe Haven Ireland brings together young people from diverse backgrounds, including those living in direct provision centres, to learn to sail
A group of teenagers setting off from Dún Laoghaire for a week of sail training on board the Spirit of Oysterhaven. Pictured are Ciara Beatley; Kim Murphy; Alex Quinn; Dikhsha Ramsurn; Joan Osayande; Christina Byrne; Tina Thom; Balikis Falade and Guarav Ramsurn. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Like most young people, Samantha Ncube is obsessed with her mobile phone. She tweets, uses WhatsApp and texts throughout the day, and before this summer, she struggled to imagine daily life without constant access to her mobile device. However, a week on board a sail training yacht in August forced this young South African student to part from her smartphone and re-experience the world outside technology.
“I had the chance to discover myself away from phones and technology. It’s just you and nature,” says Ncube, who arrived in Ireland in 2014 seeking asylum. This summer, the 20-year-old, who lives alone in the Georgian Court direct provision centre in Dublin, was offered the chance to spend a week learning how to sail in waters off West Cork.
“I’d been on a ferry back in my country, but never been sailing before. We were being trained how to get the sails up, get the anchor up and down, how to take directions on the map while sailing and how to determine where to follow the wind. It was something I’d never have done on my own, but because of Safe Haven Ireland I got to experience something new.”
Safe Haven Ireland was set up last year as a not-for-profit that provides sail training opportunities for young people in their late teens and early 20s from all socio-economic backgrounds. The main aim of the project is to enhance integration among young people in Ireland.
Sailing is an activity that encourages relationship building and teamwork skills but is only enjoyed by a tiny proportion of the Irish population, explains SHI operations manger Samantha Arnold. “It was something mainstream Irish society wasn’t accessing,” she says, adding that many consider the sport exclusive and expensive.
Arnold and SHI co-founder Shauna Gillan, who have both worked in the area of refugee and asylum advocacy, had been searching for an avenue that would enable young people around Ireland to mix with teens from some of the State’s new communities, and decided sailing was the perfect activity.
“Sailing is so intense and you work on the boat around the clock, so it builds really strong relationships and can be quite therapeutic. The idea we had was that the relationships people form would follow them off the boat and stick in their communities. It was also about teaching young people a new skill and showing new communities that sailing is accessible and fun.”
Of course, sail training is an extremely demanding and exhausting sport. The first thing Jono O’Sullivan tells his inexperienced crew when they board his yacht is that they have not arrived for a holiday. As skipper of the sailboat, it’s O’Sullivan’s responsibility to make it clear to his young trainees that they have a challenging week of sea sickness, hard work and long hours ahead of them.
“We don’t tell them it’s easy – there are going to be challenges and it’s character building. But we also tell them if they pack up their bags and leave on the first day, they’re not giving it a chance. It’s not just sailing 24/7 for the whole week. It’s also about swimming, interaction, stand-up paddle boarding and so on.”
O’Sullivan, who has been involved with SHI since its first voyage back in early summer 2015, says the experience is a “massively valuable learning experience” for everyone involved.
“The beauty of sail training is that you have all these different backgrounds, but out at sea it doesn’t matter what colour or religion they are. They’re all the same and all have no experience in sailing. Everyone is starting from a base point. When you come on board, the barriers come down.”
Last year O’Sullivan and his first mate allowed crew members to use their mobile phones on board, but this year they decided to take the phones away. “On deck, safety wise, you can’t be distracted by your phone, so there was limited phone use anyway. But we’ve been taking the mobile phones off them this year and the difference in the interaction and craic they have is incredible.”
Ali Faizan from Pakistan, who lives in a direct provision centre in Galway, agrees that it was a good idea to learn to sail without phone access. It was the 18-year-old’s first time sailing and he suffered from sea-sickness at the beginning of the voyage. However, by day two he was enjoying every second.
“We lived like friends, shared stories and talked about our cultures. That really inspired me. I felt comfortable talking about myself. We spent so much time together, we became friends and developed a trust.”
Nathan Dunster heard about the sail training programme through his key worker at his Dublin hostel, which provides accommodation support for the homeless. Like his fellow crew members, Dunster had never sailed before. He took part in all the on board activities and tasks – cooking, cleaning, putting up sails, taking the helm – but had a particular interest in navigation.
“I like maths and numbers and navigation is mainly to do with numbers and to make sure the boat is on track. I asked a lot of questions and learned a good bit.”
Dunster enjoyed meeting new people and is hoping to do the programme again next year. “Every person has a different personality, everyone is different in their own way. If you don’t speak about yourself and let people know who you are then they won’t open up to you.”
Diego Castillo, who worked as a youth officer on board a voyage this summer, says many of the participants are very shy when they first board the ship and often want to give up after the first day.
“By the second or third day, they are so comfortable with each other that they just develop this natural group dynamic. It’s such a gruesome sport but rewarding too, in that it really tasks your resilience and makes you build up your skills.
“I know it sounds silly, but once you spend a week on board, you learn a lot about yourself. You’re constantly interacting with other people without anywhere else to go and forced to build relationships. It’s hard to get through sail training, but it’s really rewarding.”
Victor Springbok took part in one of the first SHI voyages last summer and returned this year as a watch leader on board the yacht. The 24-year-old, who lives in a direct provision centre in Cork, had never sailed before he got involved in Safe Haven Voyages.
Since last summer, Springbok has met President Micheal D Higgins and was named a youth councillor for the Sail Training Ireland, Ireland’s national sail training organisation. He recently joined a local rowing team and was also nominated funding officer for Sail Training Ireland.
“Sail training is about personal development. It’s important for young people to go out there and get out of their comfort zone. The more you do that, the more experience you gain and do things you never thought you would be able to do. Sail training helps young people see that there’s more to life.”
Arnold and Gillan will be kept busy in the coming months securing funding and sponsorship for summer 2017’s sail training. They have already been offered financial support by CallanTansey solicitors in Sligo for next year, but are in need of additional funding to grow and develop the scheme. The most important part of the project is ensuring the young crew are able to keep in touch once they’re back on dry land, says Arnold.
“A lot of the young people who were trainees last year came back as watch leaders this summer,” says Arnold. “We can also really see the links from year one with many keeping in touch through Facebook, making music together and creating relationships that have lasted. We want to be able to give them opportunities to keep in touch and bring them together after the sail season.”
Back in the bustle of her daily life in Dublin, Ncube still reflects on the excitement of the week she spent on board the yacht this summer in West Cork. Her favourite memory is the night all the crew sat below deck and spoke about their lives growing up.
“We shared a lot when we were having dinner, it was my favourite time. It was really interesting being with people from different backgrounds and countries, it almost felt like I was having a module on inter-cultural studies. I learned a lot about what other refugees were going through.
“We felt safe to talk about our stories and our lives back in our countries. That was really beautiful. It felt like I was not alone, that we understood each other.
“I normally would be tweeting or on WhatsApp and I admit I was kind of glad when the reception came back on my phone. But I discovered so much I wouldn’t have been able to discover with my phone in my hand. When you’re in direct provision you’re always staying indoors. This voyage gives you an outdoor experience. It brings life to you.”
For more information on Safe Haven Voyages visit www.safehavenireland.com/