Thomas Bruton’s Adventure Journey

On Tuesday 6 December, our friend Thomas Bruton will be presented with the President’s Award Gold Gaisce by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins – five years after learning about the Award from Duke of Edinburgh Award volunteer Alex Palmer at The Lighthouse Trust, Donaghadee, and working through the Bronze and Silver Gaice. Thomas had attended Sailability sessions with us before and decided to join our Halifax Foundation for Northern Ireland supported 2016 Summer Scheme at Carrickfergus last July for the Award’s Adventure Journey module. This is Thomas’s story. (Photos by Mike McNeice)

thomas-bruton-3 by Mike McNeice

Finding my Adventure Journey was not easy. I wanted to find something that I was able to do but was also a challenge. My sister, Liz, looked at cycling for the disabled in the Peak District in England, but I decided that I would not have to do much as most of the pedalling would have to done by a companion. Out of the blue, I was contacted by Belfast Lough Sailability in Carrickfergus. Sailability is an organisation which promotes sailing for people with disabilities. I had sailed with them for several years, but this summer they had received funding to organise a certified sailing course. The organiser, Geraldine Duggan, asked me if I would be interested and I said yes, immediately. The course was held in July over five days (Monday to Friday), mornings or afternoons. I chose afternoon, as I could do a stretching exercise programme to help me sit for the two and a half hours of the course.

I sailed on a Hawk 20 called Arica, another called Tamarind and on the Sea Rover. My mum came with me to take notes and also, when there was not special seating, to help me balance. I learnt what to do before setting sail:

  • Check the forecast, especially the wind strength.
  • Check the tides as the first three hours and last three hours are the strongest in a twelve hour period.
  • Check life jackets are working properly; know where the manual cord is: check all have gas cylinders: they have to be serviced every two years.
  • Check that clothing worn is appropriate: bring sun cream and water.

When on board before sailing, check the contents of the safety box. It should contain an emergency blanket, first aid, kill cord and flares.

When sailing with others, it is important to answer instructions by saying ‘ready’. At sea, we were told that we should consider the following:

  • Boat trim – look up and set sails according to the wind.
  • Sail trim – small movement to keep sails trim. Tell tales should be at right angles. Tell tales are ribbons on sails.
  • Boat balance – look down and check that boat is flat.
  • We learnt how to read the tides, winds and currents and to adjust the sails accordingly.

I was able to use my hearing (which is very good) to listen to the sound of the sea and be able to identify the currents and tides.  Sailors call ropes ‘sheets’. It is very important that there are no knots in them as then they would not run smoothly. Some sheets are used to unfurl the sails e.g. the jib sheet unfurls the jib sail. To make things simpler, each sheet is a different colour, but there is no standard so this can vary. Sheets are very important as you can’t raise a sail without one. My job was to check that the sheets had no knots. We learnt what the sails were for and how to set them, e.g. a jib is for turning and a main sail is for power. The main (large) sail is winched up by the halyard (a type of sheet) first, right up to the top of the mast to raise it up and then the jib (small) is unfurled and raised.

One day, I realised that I could sit independently for a short time because I could balance myself and correct my position, if necessary. I had not been able to do this before.

We were told easy ways to remember what to do, e.g:

  • “A floppy sail is not a happy sail.”
  • “Bring it in to make it grin.”

We sailed on Belfast Lough where we saw ferries and large ships. There is a special channel for them. Even though it was July and even though it was warmish on dry land, it could be quite cold at sea so we had to dress warmly. One day, it had rained in the morning and when I was winched into my seating position on the boat with my mum beside me, I realised that I was sitting in a pool of water. This got colder as the afternoon went on but I was having such fun that I did not mind. Joanne who was in the clubhouse always had a cup of tea for us when the session finished.

On one of my sessions, Mike McNeice came and took photos. I was delighted when I saw the photos as they showed what I did. Thanks, Mike. I am very grateful to Lex, Jenna and all the other instructors for their patience. I really learnt a lot and would love to do another course in 2017, if Sailability get funding.

On the last day, I was awarded a certificate. This was great! Thank you, everyone in Belfast Lough Sailability.

Thomas with Elizabeth and Barnaby by Mike McNeice

Thomas aboard the Hansa 303 Freedom with Elizabeth – and Barnaby. (Photo: Mike McNeice)


Thomas’s Adventure Journey is extracted from his full Gold Gaisce Award Portfolio, which is a must read. You can read and download it as a PDF file at the following link: gold-gaisce-award-portfolio-thomas-bruton-november-2016