AS ONE of six boys in a family that liked to be on the water, the Revd Graham Sykes was almost bound to be a sailor. At the age of four, he nagged his father to take him out in a converted canoe; by the age of seven, he could sail single-handed.
Now, after a rich variety of ministries that have included 20 years as a parish priest in rural Herefordshire, and several as a hospice chaplain, he is CEO of the Morning Star Trust (MST), a Christian charity that has been taking young people to sea for the past 45 years. Sailing is a bit like being an artist, he suggests: “When you’re involved in it, you don’t have much capacity for your brain to go elsewhere; so you just enjoy it.”
It’s not just the physical benefits of being outdoors, or the joy of seeing the “bright, shiny faces” that come back after a voyage. It is also, he says, the intellectual challenge of navigating, keeping a crew safe, and making sure that the crew members function well together.
For 40 years, the trust operated a 68-foot sailing boat, Morning Star Revelation, a Tall Ship constructed by volunteers over a five-year period. It had done its time by 2019, at which point the expense of running such a ship, and the losses sustained if it had to be out of service, rendered it uneconomical.
Instead, the trustees opted for a small fleet, which currently comprises three sail training vessels: Bright Star, a purpose-built training and expedition yacht, used primarily for youth-training voyages and Royal Yacht Association (RYA) training courses; and Eastern Star and Guiding Star, primarily used for expeditions, group voyages, and larger events. All have been refitted and upgraded over the past three years. The ambition is to add a fourth boat.
The organisation’s Christian ethos has, in the past, embraced working with homeless people and those recovering from drug addiction. That may well be resumed in the future. But what Mr Sykes began to ponder was how the trust might best serve churches — in particular, how to help those that were under-resourced.
Ministering in rural parishes had made him very conscious of how isolated the often very small number of young people could be. “They’re isolated in terms of socialising and community as well, if you’re living in these areas,” he says. “If you want to get them together, you have to work with other people, you have to find ways to build cohesion.
“There’s no better way than taking them sailing. I’d seen small groups I’d taken sailing each year grow in faith and in numbers.”
The Morning Star Trust describes itself as “gently overtly Christian”. It’s ecumenical and doesn’t have a doctrinal statement: it welcomes everyone without judgement, Mr Sykes says. “We emphasise that the Christian faith is very broad, and what you need to do is find where you fit within it. We offer a safe space to explore the big questions of life. There’s nothing like a night watch for a discussion within the context of the awesomeness of God’s creation.”
ASTO/Max MudieYoung people crew a Morning Star Trust ship at the Cowes Small Ships race in October 2023
Christian ministry is most effective when it is in partnership with others, he says. “We exist for the love of people and the love of sailing. We provide the peak life experience of sailing offshore, and the Church offers the ongoing community in which faith can be nurtured: I think it’s really important to recognise that we are just one chapter — or maybe even a page — in the book of what happens.”
THE trust is a member of the Association of Sail Training Organisations (ASTO). It is licensed by the Maritime Coastal Agency and by the RYA, for which it delivers courses ranging from Competent Crew to Yachtmaster. It is also an accredited activity provider for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.
Thus it is well positioned to deliver a pilot scheme to bring together church youth groups or confirmation groups for weekends at sea. At present, the scheme is funded by one of MST’s grant-making trusts, and comes at no cost to the Church. When Mr Sykes, via the bishops, invited churches along the south coast to apply, more than 20 responded.
He originally had 30 places and a funding model to match, but took 70 in the end. “They were not coming from places where the people could have afforded to pay the £200 per head per weekend, which is what it actually costs,” he said. “We had to find the other £100 ourselves. But that’s historically what the MST has done. No young person should be excluded from sailing with us because of money. And there are people who can pay and are able to subsidise individuals who can’t.”
Trinity House supports MST, awarding bursaries to volunteers embarking on training, ranging from Day Skipper through to Master Instructor. Those bursaries are then spent with MST, and can be charged at full price — creating a surplus that enables the training of others. Other organisations, some Christian, some secular, support MST annually or biannually, or with one-off funding. “We’d like to get to a point where we can cover the boats’ mooring and insurance costs,” Mr Sykes says.
Participants come on board at 1800 hours on Friday, to be welcomed on board with the first meal together, taken on one boat. It is an evening of fellowship which includes talks on matters pertaining to trust; respect for people’s privacy; safety; and how to use the “heads” (lavatories). In the morning, they generally get up early, “do a bit of deck work so they know what they’re doing”, and then get out on the water. Within ten minutes, one of them will be steering the boat, Mr Sykes says.
“Our staff are trained to be as hands-off as is safe. So, we’ll put somebody on the steering of this 11-metre yacht, and have somebody sitting close to them who can intervene if necessary. From the very get-go, you’re teaching somebody how to steer a boat. Then, another bunch of us will be putting sails up, and, from then on, as far as possible, we get them to sail the boat under instructions.”
ASTO/Max MudieThree Morning Star Trust ships at the Cowes Small Ships race in October 2023
Contrary to popular belief, he says, you don’t need physical strength for putting up the sails: you just have to learn to use the winches. And there are ways of countering the seasickness that can afflict any sailor, Horatio Nelson included — not least, understanding the psychology of it (a confusion of the brain about seeing horizons); keeping eyes closed as much as you can when going below; taking medication; not getting dehydrated; and having a full stomach.
THERE can be spiritual experiences during trips: a dawn eucharist on one of the boats made a powerful impression. But transformation is visible in many ways, Mr Sykes suggests. He recalls a girl from a deprived area of the south coast who told him that she had many times looked at the boats over the marina wall, never imagining that she might get the chance to sail on one. “Now I’ve been to the Isle of Wight,” she told him, with shining eyes. “It makes you realise it was all worth while,” he says. “You have to be faithful to God’s calling, and then see these lovely surprises.”
Another arrived at reception on the Friday evening in tears of fright. On Monday, staff were able to report that she had “gone from being a tearful, anxious being to someone who was hauling on just about every rope”. She would benefit from going on one of the trust’s summer voyages, they said. Not only was that managed, but she will be helped to return and do the Day Skipper course, paying only for her food. “If we can build that kind of confidence in people, and open their horizons to the possibilities of where they go, a new life, then it’s a massive investment,” Mr Sykes says.
Safety is paramount: all the boats carry life rafts, and are equipped with the AIS beaconing system, which alerts every boat within two nautical miles if there is a “man overboard” — a drill practised early in every voyage. Families can have a live tracking of the whereabouts of the boats. Safeguarding, too — for which parents more than ever need reassurance — is appropriate to the confined environment, and is stringent. Sea staff sleep in separate cabins, curtained off rather than behind doors. “Risk-assessment policies are only part of it. You have to create a very, very robust culture,” Mr Sykes says.
Feedback suggests that MST gets a high percentage of returners. “For many of the young people who spoke at our conference last year, it was a very important spiritual journey. For others, it was a time of great personal growth,” he concludes. “We’ve watched them grow in confidence and self-worth. We have seen them growing from children to adults.”