Designed and built over 30 years ago, the James Cook has impacted on the lives of the countless crews that have sailed onboard. Over the years, the vessel has taken them on journeys, both metaphorical and physical, as part of a crew from all walks of life, with both difficult and non-sailing backgrounds. Named after the region’s most treasured explorer –Captain James Cook – the vessel has a lot to live up to.
What makes her so special is the versatility she offers. Catering for both young and old, and crews with disabilities – a ship without limits or boundaries – the James Cook represents an inclusive place where everyone can get involved, and offers both adventure and a challenge. Docked in North Shields as part of the Ocean Youth Trust North charity, the ship has a mission: focusing on the personal development of young people and adults through the unique medium of ocean sailing.
This July, the James Cook will sail from the Port of Sunderland, over three hundred nautical miles, to Esbjerg in Denmark, competing in The Tall Ships Race against over 80 other ships. On board will be with 12 young people, volunteers, mates and skipper Robin Baker on board. Steve Lennon, the Managing Director of Ocean Youth Trust North and previous long-standing skipper on the James Cook, will be a mate on this voyage and explains how his own life has been impacted by the ship. ‘I started off as a volunteer in 1999, never expecting to still be here now’, he says. ‘I then worked as a mate on the James Cook in 2002, taking over as skipper in 2003.
‘I was enthralled with sailing. I enjoyed it so much and loved working with young people, so I never went back to my previous career. I came to work for the Ocean Youth Trust and for years I worked on the boat – there was just no going back.’
James Cook, with her iconic yellow hull, has raced more or less in every Tall Ships event since she was built in 1987 – and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
‘We’ve done a fairly major, what we refer to as a “mid-life” refit, and have had major work done to her this year, with the view to set her up for at least another 20 years. We’ve calculated that in the last 30 years she has probably taken about 10,000 young people to sea, so hopefully we can do the same over the next 30.’
It’s exciting to think that up to 10,000 more lives in the North East could still be influenced by sailing onboard the James Cook in years to follow – joining a crew from all backgrounds, from simple school trips to those on drug rehabilitation programmes and visually-impaired or blind participants. So what kind of effect does sailing have on the youths that voyage out to sea on the vessel? ‘The big effect we can see is a growth in their self confidence when they leave the boat,’ says Steve.
‘We’re just embarking on a project with the University of Cumbria to get in touch with people that have sailed with us over the last 30 years, and also our volunteers and staff. We want to put our finger on exactly what the effect is and how long it lasts for.’
With countless success stories to tell over the years, it’s easy to imagine the positive effect sailing aboard the James Cook has had on young people in the region. ‘The last time we took part in The Tall Ships was when we raced from Norway to Hartlepool. One of our female crew said she felt lost without her Tall Ships family, and when she went to a subsequent job interview she wasn't sure what to say, until she was asked about her Tall Ships experience. She immediately began to talk about getting up in the middle of the night to go on watch, about when you're feeling a bit sick and when things get scary, and how she coped with that. She got the job and she's convinced that it was her Tall Ships experience that set her up for that win,’ says Steve.
‘The training and work onboard the ship is not easy. The kids are thrust right into it, with little time to think about anything else other than working as a team and the sailing of the ship. They get very little preparation, but we show them how the boat works. We do a lot of safety training with them and play games so they get to know each other. It's all suddenly put upon them that they're in a strange environment, they're living quite closely together, (James Cook is only 70ft long) and there are 18 people living on board in total, so you don't have a lot of personal space,’ says Steve.
‘They have to dig deep in the beginning. It's all a bit new and they're maybe feeling a little seasick, but once they start to get over that you can see them start to come into their own. The more they develop and gain confidence, the more they are able to do, and the staff can back off and let them take control and do more for themselves.’
On board the ship, we all quickly settle into a routine. The crew work a watch system and are split into watches of four – they’ll work for three hours on deck and then get three hours of sleep. After that, they get some time where they can rest, but they'll also have some jobs to do. They’ll cook, a meal for the people that are coming off watch or have a ‘happy hour’ of cleaning. ‘It's not happy but hey – it does only last an hour and it's got to be done!’ laughs Steve.
‘The young people that sail on the boat are responsible for doing everything: from cooking the meals and cleaning, to steering the boat and navigation, and really the point of our two professional staff on our boat is to facilitate the crew’s voyage and to keep them safe, but not to do it for them. It's not a holiday – it's very much a working experience.’
Sailing to Denmark will be Berwick Youth Project, who have had the boat booked for the best part of two years. They’re a youth scheme that take part in a range of outdoor activities and offer a sheltered housing scheme for young people. Following the race, James Cook will need to be taken to Stavanger in Norway, where 12 young people from Keswick School in Cumbria will take part in that leg of the journey.
Once in Stavanger, the ship will be prepared for a second race to Harlingen in the Netherlands – with youths from Durham Scouts on board who already have a heartwarming connection to the James Cook vessel. ‘The gentleman from Durham Scouts, who is organising the third voyage, sailed with me when he was 16, which would have been around 12 years ago. When the boat turned 30, we sent a postcard out to all of our alumni to celebrate their part in 30 years of sail training, and he got in touch and asked us to come speak to his county scout group. When I rolled up in the car to do the talk, he said “you were my skipper!”’ says Steve.
‘He remembered me from all that time ago and he recounted all these lovely stories from the voyage. When I went back to the office, I had a look through the old log books and there he was – all the stories he had told me were written there in the logbook. To see him bringing his scouts back on the same boat is such a great feeling.’
When it comes to winning, the James Cook crew have little expectations. Taking safety seriously, and with a full tank of diesel, plenty of drinking water and food for everyone on onboard, they’re slower than some of the other ships in their category. They generally come at the top end of the group, but they’re up against some fast competitors. The real prize here is the lasting impact the voyage has on those on board. ‘For us, it’s more about the taking part than the winning – it's just such a great experience.’
Ocean Youth Trust North