Practical Boat Owner - Special Feature

In Margaret's own words 'You will see how I got involved with Hengistbury 30 years ago (by accident really!) but it completely changed my life giving me a second career as a sailing instructor and a job I loved. I was still teaching at the age of 72 when the Centre was closed but I am still heavily involved in HH Sailing Club as their secretary and organiser of some of their sailing sessions.'


Thank you Margaret!



Sailing Gave Me Back My Confidence - Margaret Norris

Practical Boat Owner

Hengistbury Head Outdoor Education Centre has been sitting quietly on Christchurch Harbour since 1964, so quietly in fact that, until a sign was placed at the road entrance, even some locals didn’t know it was there. Who would know that thousands of people of all ages have passed through its doors learning to sail? Who would know that one of those people was me.

I was working as a lab technician at Highcliffe School in the late 1980s and one of the teachers asked if I’d help him on a regular basis with his group of pupils that he was teaching to sail at Hengistbury. I thought he was mad, as I was from landlocked Manchester and had hardly ever been in a boat. I certainly couldn’t sail but I agreed anyway. I stood near the ramp and listened to all the instructions as, one by one, the students sailed off in their Toppers. But then he pulled a Topper over to me and told me to get in. I wasn’t wearing a buoyancy aid (a big no no, of course) and predictably I capsized, so I came home rather wet but feeling very pleased with myself for trying something new and actually enjoying it. From then on I was hooked. 

I was going through a divorce at the time with my confidence and self-esteem at rock bottom, but this experience on the water gradually gave me my confidence back. I proved to myself that I wasn’t worthless after all. I could learn a new skill and the instructors who taught me those skills will probably never know how much they influenced me. Sally Davison must have despaired that I would ever get the hang of rudderless sailing until the day the lightbulb moment happened and it all fell into place. Alan Ruck always made a point of sitting down with us having tea and biscuits at the end of the session, so we could talk over the day’s events. Phil Emmel was always larger than life and the wonderful guy who asked me to help with those students. 

And then of course there was God, Ian Martindale! He could make a boat do anything and make you do anything. He was not to be disobeyed. I was there the day he was leading his six Toppers back to the centre when the boy at the back kept capsizing. Ian shouted for him to get the boat upright and follow him home. The boy kept trying to say something but gave up and did as he was told. It was only later when they were tying up near the ramp that Ian realised he now had seven boats, not six. The boy was not one of his group at all! Better to come back with one more than one less I suppose...

So over the years I tried to emulate these good people, only now to realise that one of my bad habits is to shout instructions, whether from the shore or powerboat, a trait I learned from Ian Martindale. His voice was so loud that the people on holiday in the Black House on Mudeford Spit would phone the centre to complain that he was waking them up in the morning!

So everything was going swimmingly until the council which ran the centre decided it couldn’t afford to run it any more. It would be raised to the ground and returned to nature and the locals could go to Poole for their watersports. Well that was like a red rag to a bull. How dare they even think the unthinkable, taking a wonderful resource away from the local people. Fortunately hundreds of others thought so too and the campaign to save the centre meant the council had to rethink its plans.

I’m very glad to say the centre’s still here to this day, 55 years later. It may be like me with a few wrinkles and in need of a facelift but it’s still providing valuable life changing experiences to other generations of people. I credit it and the people in it with saving my life when I badly needed it and it certainly changed my life for the better. 

Questions box - taken from RYA website 

How did you feel the first time you got in a Topper? 

I froze. It was at a time in my life when things had fallen apart. I was leaving work through stress. I found I had taken on more and more in my role and hadn’t realised how much it was impacting my life. My marriage had ended and my confidence was rock bottom. I looked at the boat and thought “I’ll never cope with this”. But I had no choice but to get in. Somehow circumstances came together that day and I discovered it was great fun. It was the start of something special.

What has sailing brought to your life? 

Finding sailing has made me the person I am today. At 42 I came to it late in life and worked my way through the RYA Dinghy courses, which were fantastic building blocks to my second career. When I was training to be an Instructor I was with lots of youngsters straight out of college. It was the hardest week, mentally and physically challenging and I nearly gave up. I began doing lots and lots of voluntary work which allowed me to enjoy sailing for sailing’s sake. I didn’t have the responsibility of teaching but I was learning all the time and this helped me take the leap to become an instructor. I found that my life experience got me through.

What have you got personally and professionally from your role? 

It’s made me the person I am today and I am so lucky to be in a position to see that happen for others too when they come to our centre to learn – extraordinary things happen to ordinary people when they discover sailing. It gives people so much confidence.

Who are you teaching at the moment? 

Until lockdown I was privately teaching an 80 year old. He’s fantastic – he’s just done his RYA Dinghy Level 1, 2 and now 3.

Is age a barrier to sailing and to teaching?

Age is never a barrier, it’s just a physical state. As long as you can move across the boat there’s no reason why you can’t learn how to sail. I think it’s the most amazing thing to do and I’m still learning.

Thanks to the RYA for these questions and answers



Article, text and Photos republished with the kind permission of Practical Boat Owner Magazine. First published c.2020

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