Sea-Change Sailing Trust is an educational charity based at Maldon in Essex and uses living and working together on a large traditional sailing vessel (a Thames sailing barge) to engage young people and vulnerable adults in positive shared endeavour. This is only possible by working together and has been affected like many by the restrictions required in combatting the Covid19 virus.
2020 is the first full season of operation for the Trust’s new sailing barge Blue Mermaid which replicates the original of the same name built in 1930 and lost in the Second World War and was planned to be a busy one. At the moment it is not clear when things will return to normal or indeed if there will be a new normal for some time affecting what we do.
The virus started to make an impression as we commenced fitting out in February and were joined by our new Shipshape Heritage Training Partnership trainee Ben and as the crew returned from the winter break. Initially it looked like we would be able to continue. Indeed, at a meeting of trustees on 11th March we discussed plans for a full season and only discussed the virus in terms of ensuring our terms and conditions were up to date. Eight days later we were writing to clients telling them the season was suspended until further notice as schools started to close and it was apparent some of us had been naïve in our assumptions. The only saving grace from that is how we were not the only ones being naive, despite clear signs since Christmas from the Far East this was coming. The retrospectroscope is a wonderful thing, but it is to be hoped the nation is better prepared next time, because if one thing is sure, there will be a next time.
So our current situation writing in the mid-April is that we have continued to fit out for the season and have taken the opportunity to do some jobs that might have been more rushed in normal circumstances. For example, the windlass has been completely serviced and painted and even if not sailing as planned the barge will look particularly spic and span. She will then be mothballed from the third week of the month ready with around a week’s notice to rig and start work or crew training when this becomes possible. The three employees will be furloughed and we will apply for the timely and generous help being offered by the government [see update below].
However, in other respects there is financial pressure because donations and grants to the charity are to support us in what we do once fitted out and sailing and cannot properly be spent on core costs that continue in enforced idleness. Some maintenance, insurance, berthing, administration and regulatory costs continue. To be furloughed and receiving help from the government retention scheme means people cannot do any work for their employer so this presents some challenges. Our umbrella trade body the Association of Sail Training Organisations is being magnificent in supporting its membership by adopting a flexible approach in using its bursary scheme that originally arose from a bequest by author Hammond Innes; and we are seeking help from those funders who do consider core costs like the ones mentioned above. Most funders support activity where they can see results, and this is absolutely fine in normal circumstances because the costs of discharging charitable work include the core costs that enable it. We do not seem to be eligible for the small grants via local authorities as we do not pay rates.
One advantage of the hiatus in our sailing activity is time to think about some strategic issues. For example, Blue Mermaid has been built to cargo ship rules and is awaiting a load line from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Apart from our usual established work the vision is to spend some of each year with a small crew of trainees carrying meaningful payloads of cargo with no carbon emissions. The original barge replicated used to carry 150 tons which is six articulated lorry loads and we hope to do something similar on the southeast coast.
We have thought about whether there is anything we can produce online to engage people without the sailing experience itself but to be honest this is not the case as what we do is all about working together in relatively close proximity. This does mean once we recommence sailing there may well need to be consideration as to whether we carry a smaller number of people than previously and thereby work with more distancing aboard the vessel. It will seem strange but could work. If this were to happen, it would be useful if there were some support to pay for the missing places, and also some public recognition by government of the benefits of our kind of outdoor activity to encourage people to use sail training.
UPDATE 2nd May 2020:
The Mate who started with us for the season on 2nd March was paid on 28th but did not qualify for the furlough scheme. This is because the date of eligibility for being on the payroll was changed to 19th March and this had not been published when I wrote the above piece. This is to stop fraud but means a weekly paid employee starting on the same date would qualify but a monthly paid one would not. This places an additional burden and could lead to redundancy if we cannot find a way to work around this.