If you think of sailing as an elitist, male-dominated sport, you may not be familiar with the Sail Boat Project, a workers’ co-op which aims open up the experience of life at sea.
The co-operative was set up three years ago by a group of enthusiasts and environmentalists who want to offer people the chance to explore the sea — which they view as an often uncharted and threatened wilderness.
Founder member Indra DonFrancesco says the co-op aims to give people “positive” experiences of the sea and get them “into the water to experience the wildlife of the water”.
She first got the sailing bug at the age of 14 on a school trip and has loved it ever since. She now sees it as the perfect means for people to learn more about the marine environment, the wildlife it supports, and the threat posed to it by human activity.
“I’d had some less than positive experiences of sailing,” she said, “but these were due to it being so macho, where everyone seemed to be part of an old boy’s club and where only a few people could afford to participate.
“I’m not rich, male or part of a traditional sort of network but I still love sailing and I know I can’t be the only one.”
She added: “For me the sea is unquantifiable and it’s both fascinating and frightening that something that happens in one body of water can effect everything that flows from it.
“Ocean acidification is a real problem at the moment — man-made problems causing damage to water wildlife.”
Already a member of a housing co-op, Indra set up the Sail Boat Project as a co-operative with the help of co-operative business advisers Jo Bird and Bob Cannell. “Co-ops are the way forward,” she said. “We couldn’t have done it any other way.”
Based in Brighton — but also sailing out of Chichester and Poole — the co-operative offers a wide range of services for experienced sailors and novices alike, including Royal Yachting Association courses for aspiring skippers and crew members.
Indra is now keen to encourage more women to step on board — her daughter Morgana is already a member — and the co-operative is keen to find a qualified female skipper.
Earlier this year, the Sail Boat Project ran a five-day course on the Helford River, near Falmouth. This covered a range of activities for people interested in learning, developing and sharing practical skills and knowledge connected with marine environments.
Sessions ranged from small boat handling — kayaks and dinghies — to coastal food foraging, practical marine biology, wild swimming and a study trip to the Falmouth National Maritime Museum. It also covered traditional boatbuilding techniques and tools, basic sea survival and understanding nautical charts.
For those interested in a slightly less intensive experience, the co-operative also offers sailing trips along and off the south coast, and cross-Channel trips to Dieppe which, at £30 one-way, offers a cheap and environmentally friendly route to mainland Europe.
In fact, all of the co-operative’s fees are deliberately affordable, with additional discounts for those on benefits, low incomes or members of housing and workers’ co-operatives. The co-operative has largely been funded by loan-stock investment from members.
The Sail Boat Project’s main boat is a 10m ketch named Karic, a two-masted yacht with berths for six people in three cabins. It has additional room for everyone to sit and enjoy the wholly vegan/vegetarian fare on offer — food which Indra says is a real selling point for many people. It all ties in with the founders’ vision of what they want their co-operative to be.
“We are committed to sustainable boating, using eco-friendly anti-foul paint, getting our epoxy resin as leftovers from bigger jobs, using a solar panel for our batteries and low-energy bulbs,” she said.
With its limited space, lack of hiding space and plenty of tasks to be shared around, a sailing trip has great potential for team bonding and the Sail Boat Project would happily welcome any co-operative on board. “We recently had a great trip with former members of a housing co-op who were getting together for a reunion and they loved it.”
The co-operative currently has four directors and a number of additional members who contribute different skills and receive sailing opportunities in return.
It is also involved in some European projects and next spring will be running a boat maintenance course for people on low incomes from countries including Sweden and the Netherlands.
• For more information, or to book classes or trips, visit www.sailboatproject.org