By Michael Whitmarsh, former Head of Technology at Bolton School and Director of the Millennium Ketch project, October 2010.
The philosophy and funding of a large scale project may well start with a single idea in the head of a member of staff, but it has to involve a large number of people for it to culminate in a successful outcome. Firstly there is the concept which has to meet the needs of the school, secondly there has to be a structure in place to fund the project successfully, and finally the execution of the project has to be in line with the planning or the whole project will fail.
The concept for the third millennium ketch was to construct a usable offshore sail training vessel within the school curriculum, to give the pupils a completely different experience within their technology curriculum. Individual projects have always played a part in good educational systems and it has been well proven that large scale projects add a completely new dimension to that same system. Much like a team game develops a sense of belonging and community, a large project bonds people together and also enables pupils to work outside of their normal limitations. Much emphasis is placed on examination systems in education but what is it all for if not to improve and expand the knowledge and understanding of the world around young people. Sailing has for generations held its place in educating the whole child, and it will always be a means to developing self confidence and reliance upon others. The sea is in our blood as a nation and the fact that you live miles from the sea has never stopped anyone gaining from the excitement and experience of an adventure when eventually they have taken that step to go to sea.
I had no doubt of the value a sail training vessel would bring to the school. I also had no doubt that the process of building would also bring a great deal of value to the curriculum in itself. It would have been inconceivable to consider buying a sail training vessel in the years approaching the millennium, as the school at that time was dedicated to raising sponsorship for the bursary scheme following the loss of the assisted places scheme in the 80s. The prospect of building a boat over a long period of time, which would be inevitable by the scale of the project, gave the opportunity to find funding from completely different sources without encroaching on the area of the bursary funding. It was with this understanding that I was given the go ahead by the headmaster and governors to seek means of funding for the project. If I was successful it would be only then that I would be given the go ahead to proceed with the project.
The obvious large scale funding at that time was of course the lottery. I had this dream that they would snatch my hand off to sponsor such a worthwhile project, particularly as it was school based and would offer sailing opportunities for many years to come to pupils far and wide. One telephone call soon made me realise the difficulties of funding anything to do with an independent school, seen by many as the privileged elite who had all the money they needed to spend on a small percentage of the population. More phone calls to large funding bodies brought similar rejections and always accompanied by good wishes for success with the project. It was time to rethink my approach. I knew I could build the basic structure of the hull within the materials budget of the department as a ferro cement hull of 48ft could be constructed for less than £5000 in steel bar and mesh. Spread over three years this seemed more than possible. It would be the engine, rig and fittings that would be the most expensive part of the project. The fitting out of the hull could be completed with the supply of oak timber we already had in school but the systems would all have to be funded externally.
Our first stroke of luck came when I approached a governor who was a director of a structural engineering group. Her company very kindly donated a building framework for a five year period which provided the space in which to complete the project. Her offer included the erection of the building alongside our workshops and the removal of the building at the end of the project. I had already made a contact at my local sailing club - an ex parent who offered to draw up a suitable yacht design on computer and to let the school have the drawings free of charge and free from copyright. He had been an engineering designer all his life and mentioned a number of local firms who had contacts with the school mainly through sending their children to Bolton School. Since I had been Head of Technology, I had always kept a database of where Technology pupils went to university and their subsequent careers in the technology field. Perhaps I could twist a few arms to help the project get off the ground. It did not take long to restore my long lasting belief in the good will of most human beings. I soon had a core of people willing to undertake the manufacture of items we could not produce in school, even with our excellent Technology facilities. Further phone calls to old boys, parents, governors and friends of the school brought a huge response in support in so many ways. What was important was to make a personal contact and to talk the project through before asking how a contact may be able to help.
There emerged a pattern to the support and it was the overall combination that made the project viable. The key to it seemed to be not to ask for money but to elicit ways that a variety of people could help. Manufacture of specific items when a company had a quiet period, technical advice over the telephone, training opportunity for an apprentice to work on an aspect of the construction, and volunteer labour, either skilled or unskilled, were the most common ways help was enlisted. Most companies contacted when we needed to purchase items such as resins, standard fittings and general boat chandlery, agreed to give us trade accounts or better. One governor, whose company supplied paint to the Admiralty, kindly covered the cost of the coating systems personally. A parent who was the head researcher at the Ferro Cement Research Establishment of a local university offered his services free on a consultancy basis, and also later carried out the official structural analysis tests for the surveyor to ensure the vessel complied with regulations. Without the surveyors approval we would not be able to operate as a commercial sailing vessel. Other contacts donated materials which we could use in the construction and a local firm donated the services of eight plasterers and fifteen labourers for a day, together with a site foreman to oversee the plastering of the armature. This was again through a parent of a pupil following technology to A Level before going to university to study mechanical engineering.
In the early stages of the design we hit a problem with the Lloyds Regulations having to submit specific data on the design as the yacht was not a current production boat. After spending many long nights trying to extract the figures from the computer design I enlisted the help of a former technology pupil who was still at Southampton University studying Yacht Design and Management. He, with the help of his tutor, completed the task in a fraction of the time it would have taken our team, providing vital construction details for the Yacht Design and Surveyors Association.
One key issue to the yacht was the choice of engine. We were determined to use a current production design engine which would always have spares available throughout the world. Our first choice was Volvo who complimented us on the project but turned us down due to their impending sponsorship of the Volvo Round the World Ocean Race. Perkins Sabre took a very different line and could not have been more helpful. They instantly donated us a bench tested engine used for the British Steel Round the World Challenge Yachts which Chay Blyth had set up. This was a tremendous offer to include a less than cost price engine and free technical advice. A parent contact then came up with the spares through the parent company of Caterpillar who had taken over Perkins Sabre. Sabre themselves presented us with a box of cooling system spares at the London Boat show.
Within a year I had managed to generate a great deal of enthusiasm for the project and more importantly the basic funding for the majority of the project at minimal cost to the school. We knew we would have to put money into the finishing stages but we had a number of years to source that funding. The governing body of the school agreed to help after we put forward a basic business plan for the building and running of the vessel. The expense would come in the final stages of the construction as we were building her to comply with shipping regulations to operate as a commercial vessel. Once complete she would easily earn her keep and, if required, operate as a source of income for the school if operated fully commercially. She would be the equivalent of a £450,000 yacht for a build cost of around £50,000.
On the one hand we wanted her to be there for the pupils of the school, both present and past, as much as possible but at the same time realised that she would have to earn more than her annual running costs of £10,000. Each week she would be sailing with a full complement she could earn £2,000 clear with a break even point of only half the berths full. This meant she could operate without being a drain on the resources of the school. We would be the only school in the country, other than Gordonstoun, running such a vessel. The design was created so that she could work all year round anywhere in the world yet we would keep her local to the school in the early years to maximise pupil contact and to build up staff experience. This in itself would limit the earning possibilities as it was always hoped to give the maximum number of pupils the experience of sailing offshore at an appropriate cost.
We are now approaching the end of our first full season, and are already planning the winter maintenance in readiness for next year. In this first season she has sailed over 2000nm in the Irish Sea taking pupils from the age of 12 to 18 to Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland and the North West Coast of England in all weathers. It is difficult to comprehend, when you see her sailing out of Glasson Dock, that we actually built her in school with pupils in Technology lessons, aided immensely by the volunteer parents, staff and friends of the school over a period of nine years. The experience of the project created opportunities for pupils, way beyond the normal curriculum of the school. Manufacturing a hull, cabins, fittings, systems and components gave a different dimension to Technology lessons where students could deal with problems and calculations in a real life situation, in the full knowledge that they were creating something which would benefit themselves and many others in the years ahead. It is very difficult to find a project which can offer so much to a school both in the construction and the sail training side of the venture.
There is no doubt that none of this would have taken place without the support and effort of so many people. From the volunteers to the donations of parts, advice, cheap deals and genuine enthusiasm we can only be eternally grateful as a school. One only has to read the letters from the parents of the 12 year old sailors to realise just what we have given these children. After a week sailing offshore, young lives are often changed forever. It is thanks to the vision of an exceptional Headmaster and the support of so many local businesses, and friends and family of the school, that Tenacity of Bolton will be taking Bolton School pupils and other children from the region on leadership and sail training courses for many years to come