How Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week is growing sailing beyond privilege

I mentioned Cowes Week to an acquaintance last week who remarked that the nearest she had been was watching the Friday night fireworks from the mainland “and thinking about all the rich people over there.”

Sailing’s elitist image persists stubbornly in the UK where, every summer, a certain English sensitivity to class gets a seasonal top-up courtesy of Cowes Week. The image may not be correct, or at least nowhere near the full picture of the ‘squeezed middle’ at play, but a mixture of glamorous yachts, investment fund sponsorship and the presence of the occasional royal visitor conspires to create an image of the rich besporting themselves.

Less well known and reported is the work done to raise money to help get new sailors, the young and less advantaged people out on the water.

One of Cowes Week’s charities this week is the UKSA, based at Cowes, which takes hundreds of children and beginners sailing every week – and sometimes every day – and will be using the funds from their Cowes Week activities to get schoolchildren on the Isle of Wight on the water.

For a suggested donation of just £5, the UKSA has, all day each day, been taking groups of five people from the age of 6 upwards out on one of their Colgate 26 keelboats for a full hour’s introduction and training. Jonny Michael, who has been running the programme at Cowes Marina, tells me: “They have a go at everything: steering and trimming and we’ll talk about all kinds of ways of getting afloat, like stand up paddling or kayaking.”

The try sailing scheme has been fully booked and by the end of Cowes Week, the UKSA estimate they will have taken 520 people sailing. “It’s a mixture of people. Most have sailed once or twice before, lots are complete beginners and some want to return to sailing. Yesterday we had a guy who used to sail a lot and had a stroke, and he wanted to try sailing again,” says Michael.

Together with another clever fundraising plan called ‘Boss up a Mast’, whereby which you hoist your boss 100ft up the mast of a UKSA Farr 65 and keep them there until they agree to give a donation, they have raised over £15,000 already this week. The target is £35,000, which is the sum needed to take every Year 6 child on the Isle of Wight sailing.

“You’d be surprised how many people on the island have never been sailing, or even out on the water or who can’t even swim,” says Jonny Michael.

The Cowes Week initiative has been a promotion for the UKSA, a charity which does some fantastic and seriously unsung work. They have some 50 instructors and on any given term time weekday will take around 250-300 people afloat, usually schoolchildren. Most of these are on residential courses, staying at the UKSA base in Cowes.

Besides these courses, the UKSA also run professional qualifications for the marine and superyacht industries, and youth development courses, taking those without jobs and classified as ‘not in education, employment or training’ sailing to build their confidence, or working with prisoners. “You can be talking to a superyacht captain over breakfast or someone really down on their luck,” says Jonny Michael. “There are not many places where that can happen.”