Haringey schoolboy Montel Fagan-Jordan today won the YJA Young Sailor of the Year Award. The 17-year-old was one of the outstanding sailors who took part in the Fastnet on the Greig City Academy's vintage Frers yacht Scaramouche. We found out more about the programme

Montel Fagan-Jordan was awarded the prestigious Young Sailor of the Year trophy, which features names like Ben Ainslie and Hannah Mills, after a vote by Yachting Journalist Association members. Greig Academy teacher John Holt, who runs the sailing programme, commented online before the announcement: “A lot of people know about our project but few know that [Montel] did EVERY talk for fundraising (over 50) and took EVERY sailing opportunity possible which came our way.

“Many other students in the project have been committed but he has been an understated leader of it. Helming downwind on the way back from the Fastnet Rock was a highlight of a year in which he did the fundraising and motivation of the other crew members. Everyone nominated tomorrow deserves it but for a lad who has at 17 charmed sponsors, pitched to big sailing companies, sailed over 3000 miles and done masses behind the scenes at school for Project Scaramouche I think if it goes his way, it will reflect his commitment and effort!”

Earlier this year, we found out more about the Greig Academy Sailing programme:

Project Scaramouche

There is a lot of well-meaning talk in the sailing world about how to make the sport more accessible – to women, to young people, and to those from different socio-economic groups.

Rather than wait for the sailing clubs to open its doors to them, one inner-London school has taken a very different approach to actually making it happen.

The Greig City Academy in the London borough of Haringey sees over 70 percent of its pupils receive free school means, and there are over 50 different first languages spoken at the school. Around 73 percent of pupils are statistically classified as disadvantaged. The demographics of the pupil body are markedly different to that of a typical RORC crew, yet this summer eight of its boys completed the Rolex Fastnet Race on the school yacht Scaramouche, becoming the first state school to do so.

The school’s sailing programme is not based on taking pupils out on the yacht as a one-off experience, but on developing their skills and involvement to as high a level as possible. Jon Holt, head of sixth form, explains how they started in 2013:

“We’ve got a school that really believes in outdoor education, but it didn’t include any sailing because we thought it would be difficult to get large numbers of school children out. We’ve got to get a balance between providing for the whole school and also trying to improve individual performance.

“The only place we could go to that could provide sailing for 25 students at a time was in Poole Harbour. So we started dinghy sailing down there and effectively what happened is that 12 of the boys really enjoyed it and wanted to take it further. We tried to facilitate that, and initially we sort of made it up as went along.”

Holt found a dilapidated 22ft MacGregor yacht on eBay, which the school bought and restored, but the pupils had set their sights higher.

“We then decided that we wanted to enter races, but the only schools yacht race is the Arrow Trophy, and you have to be a fee paying school so we couldn’t do that one.” Holt says the Academy approached the Arrow Trophy organisers twice, and was ‘refused point blank’.

Undeterred, they decided to enter the association of sail training organisations regatta, the ASTO Small Ships race, with a plan to then do some RORC races. “But we didn’t have a boat that could do the Small Ships, and we didn’t have one that could do offshore racing.”

Famous Whitbread skipper Lawrie Smith was Holt’s childhood hero, and he began searching online for Smith’s old boats when he stumbled on Scaramouche for sale in Sweden.

Lawrie Smith coaching on Scaramouche

An impractical dream?

The Frers-designed 45ft Scaramouche was built in aluminium by Palmer Johnson and represented the USA in the Admiral’s Cup in 1981. She originally sported many IOR race yacht features, such as wire sheets and guys and a hydraulic main, and was later refitted as a training vessel for the US Navy.

Despite several subsequent owners beginning restoration projects, when Holt found her she had been on the hard for four years and in need of considerable work.

“The designer emailed me, to say: ‘That’s too big a project, it’s not a school boat,’,” recalls Holt, “but by then momentum had built so we put in an offer of £17,000 and we ended up with Scaramouche. So this is like our mini-Rothmans. Or mini-Intrum Justitia!”

Scaramouche is not the typical cruiser-racer used by sailing schools. It is unashamedly rough and ready down below, with a sagging headliner and bits of pipe lagging covering rough edges. At the end of the Fastnet it looked very much as you’d expect a 37-year-old yacht crewed by teenagers offshore to look – Haribo wrappers and headphones strewn around, damp socks and an overflowing galley sink. But none of that matters, the boys were not onboard for comfort, they were there for the challenge.

All the important bits – safety kit, rigging, sails – have all been thoroughly restored or replaced thanks to a vast amount of determination from the pupils, and a lot of good will from the industry.

“We did our first ASTO race and we got line honours in that, which we weren’t expecting,” recalls Holt, “and then they did a sequence of maybe 40-50 talks to sailing clubs and suppliers. The boys did all of it. All of the money for this, none of it comes from the school, it’s all money they’ve raised through talks.”

The school uses the talks to raise funds, and also support from industry suppliers – Ocean Yacht Systems has donated standing rigging, Marlow Ropes and English Braids gave the boat new running rigging, Spinlock supplied lifejackets free of charge. Lawrie Smith has become a valued mentor, coaching the crew and negotiating with suppliers for donations or reduced fees.

“It needs a huge amount of work, and also I have to prioritise safety,” says Holt. “I’ve got to be clear that the work’s done to a really high standard, so we’ve been using Hamble Yacht Serices refit and repair.

“Each time one of the invoices comes through, if we can’t afford it then we just go out and do more talks, we do more applications to trust funds, we ask Lawrie Smith to wade in on our behalf, which he does really effectively.

“We’ve found that the industry wants to help, it wants people to be involved.

But a lot of schools find reasons for not doing stuff. Like our head teacher says, they always ask, what if it goes wrong? And they never ask, what happens if it goes spectacularly well?”

Holt believes that, rather than adding complexities to the programme, using a vintage yacht like Scaramouche helps draw in support from the industry. “I don’t think the likes of Lawrie Smith would have been involved if we’d just bought a standard production yacht.

“Then the crew are unusual, and they know it themselves. Their ethnicities are not particularly well represented at the moment within sailing. But it’s not because sailing has barriers it’s the opposite, it’s because not enough people ask to do it.”

Eat, sleep, sail, revise

One factor Jon Holt doesn’t point out is that the Academy’s sailing programme demands a lot of extra work and sacrificed weekends by the Greig City Academy staff. The Scaramouche crew train on Southampton Water at the weekends, and took part in cross-Channel RORC races to qualify for the Rolex Fastnet Race – most of the team logging some 1,500 miles. Many took revision with them during the summer term, and Holt says all of them have seen the rewards of their commitment.

“The boys basically build resilience all the way through. They have coped with every kind of condition you could possibly deal with: rough weather, being becalmed for several hours, and they’ve gained lots of things. They’ve gained an understanding that you have to work hard to get what you want, so they’ve done through the talks.

“They’ve had to learn interpersonal skills because the crew were selected on ability rather than a friendship group, so some of them are in a watch with students they wouldn’t normally socialise with in school. And they’ve learnt how to manage themselves.

“The key thing they’ve learnt is resilience, and they are a resilient bunch of kids.

“Those boys just stuck at it. Four of them have got their Day Skipper qualification. What we found was that they found sailing qualifications really aspirational. My generation sometimes see them as a bit of a hassle, something you’ve got to get, whereas they were like see it as a really good exam pass.”

Besides the Fastnet, in which they finished 142nd overall out of the 368 boat fleet, a team raced at the invitational Getrude Cup in Etchells, where they finished an impressive 4th. The Academy also competed at Cowes Week with both girl and boy pupils onboard – safeguarding reasons mean that for the offshore race programme the crew had to be single sex. From taster sessions to competing at international events, over 1,000 pupils have gone sailing with the Greig City Acadmey since it began the programme.

Holt hopes to build on the success of the last season – he’s already planning a return to the Fastnet in 2019, and looking to take an Etchells crew to compete in Miami.

“I honestly thought there would be bits of the Fastnet that they really might not like. I was worried that they would do the race and find it so overwhelming that they might say, ok, it was a good experience but never again.

“It’s been the complete opposite. They were absolutely buzzing the whole way back from the Fastnet Rock. They coped well when it was hard. They enjoyed it when it was exhilarating. I will never forget Montel on the helm, surfing downwind in the middle of the Irish Sea with very big waves. The boat was on a knife edge between broaching and gybing, and he was holding it really well.

“And then as we were coming in, everybody’s asking ‘When’s the next race?’ So I think they’ve got the bug for it.”

In fact the bug has taken them to Miami, where they have represented the Cowes Etchells fleet at several international events. Who knows what next?