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AHOY Centre continues rapid growth

Opened by the Princess Royal and perched on the south bank of the Thames in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, the AHOY Centre could easily be mistaken for one of those ‘well-to-do’ boating clubs that cling to priceless patches of waterside land along the capital’s great river, exuding a certain air of exclusivity.

Little could be further from the truth, however. Founded in 2003 by local lad-cum-property-developer Clive Ongley, the AHOY Centre’s aim has always been “to give something back to the deprived community he came from”, in the words of Ongley’s sister, Clair, a former Marks & Spencer executive who’s now the charity’s operations manager.

“Clive’s vision was to give local youngsters the benefits he’d had from his father, who was a mad keen sailor,” she says. “Clive was a persistent truant from school and always said he learnt more in the boat than the classroom. If it wasn’t for sailing he wouldn’t have been successful in business.”

But Clive was lucky. His dad’s enthusiasm gave him access to the river denied to most young south-east Londoners growing up in distinctly un-well-to-do areas of Thamesmead, Plumstead, Woolwich and Deptford.

“Greenwich is known as an affluent part of London – a royal borough of tourist sites and historic buildings – but it’s full of deprivation too,” says Clair. “There’s a lot of youth unemployment around here, lack of space and single parent families.

“Most local kids have never seen the river before and not even paddled in water or been close to it. That’s who the AHOY Centre is for. We’re not after the next Olympian, we use sailing subliminally to give young people an education, to increase confidence, self-esteem and employability.”

Young people like Lucy Read, for example, a 17-year-old from nearby Southwark who recently joined the AHOY’s Activity Leadership programme, one of two apprenticeship schemes started in 2013 to supplement the centre’s hugely successful ‘Shipmates’ programme for young trainee sailors, and other projects working with school children, disabled youngsters, ex-offenders and ‘at-risk’ youth – some 600 ‘beneficiaries’ each year.

“I was bullied at school and I’ve had anger management problems since I was young,  when I started hanging around with the wrong people and getting into trouble with the police,” admits Read, who left school at 15 with a couple of BTechs and a single GCSE.

“I didn’t like school teaching – they expect you to learn just from a board – but at AHOY the instructors use different, practical methods, which help me to learn better. At first I was really nervous but everyone was so friendly that after a couple of days I felt at home.”

Not all the new apprentices found it so easy to adapt, however, and half the early cohorts failed to complete the course due to what Clair calls ‘home-life issues’, and a lack of physical and mental space to concentrate on their work.

“There’s often no one at home encouraging them,” she says. “For many, their parents are absent or have addiction issues, some are looking after elderly relatives, or live in overcrowded homes. It’s hard for them after a long day here in the boatyard or out on the water, and they need help with English, maths and IT because their level of education is so shockingly low.

“They need space for respite, basically, a safe haven from home where they can complete the coursework and focus on employment skills.”

The AHOY Centre had grown so rapidly over the years that it already had two buildings on site. Yet Clair knew with the right funding they could create the vital extra space the trainees needed. And she knew who to ask.

The London Marathon Charitable Trust was set up as a registered charity in 1981 by Marathon founders Chris Brasher and John Disley, to house the company,  London Marathon Events Limited, which organises the race and distributes surplus funds “for the provision of recreational facilities” in London and other areas where the company holds events.  

According to Chief Grants Officer Sarah Ridley, the AHOY Centre is just the kind of project The Trust wants to support, one requiring capital funding but with a viable plan to use new facilities and resources to increase physical activity among inactive groups – “getting people off the sofa”, as she puts it.

The Trust had previously funded three of the charity’s dinghies and in 2015 it responded to Clair’s application with a Major Capital Grant of £100,000 towards the £273,000 cost of adding a third storey to the AHOY’s training building. This would be a flexible space designed specifically to meet the apprentices’ needs – with classroom, kitchen, accessible showers and toilet, plus 10 bunks and some collapsible camping beds so the young people could stay overnight.

“The Trust’s funding was crucial,” says Clair. “I was over the moon, especially with that amount because it was more than a third of what we needed. I didn’t expect it. It was our first secured grant so it was a huge help. Many other trusts didn’t come on board till we had 50 per cent of our target.”

The new facility opened in October last year and, although it’s early days, Clair anticipates a 15 per cent increase in participation, while the extra space makes planning for growth so much easier.

More importantly, the ‘safe haven’ it provides for troubled teenagers means more apprentices will qualify as activity leaders and gain the yachting,
boat building and instructor’s qualifications needed to gain employment in the sport.

This aim of getting more people to be more active in sport is just what The Trust is for. Over the years it has awarded more than £65.5 million via 1,170 grants, ranging from a few thousand pounds to hundreds of thousands.

In 2016 alone, it supported projects ranging from a new boxing ring and gym equipment in Brent to a riding arena at Mudchute Farm on the Isle of Dogs, an activity studio in Camden, a youth hub in Newham, and multi-use games areas in Ealing and Southwark. Cricket wickets, basketball courts, running tracks, changing rooms, floodlights, BMX tracks and parkour spaces have all been funded over the years.

A number of projects in south Northamptonshire, home of the adidas Silverstone Half Marathon, have also received funding, including a community centre in Greens Norton, a village hall in Eydon and a primary school playing field in Helmdon.

The Trustees receive more than 200 online applications a year on a rolling deadline and make awards at quarterly meetings. All successful applicants must have a realistic scheme, not just to rebuild facilities and replace equipment, but to increase participation among inactive groups.

This is what makes the Trust unique, according to Ridley.

“More than 30 per cent of adults in Greater London do less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a week and this has ongoing implications for physical and mental health,” she says.

“Our grants programmes are aimed at supporting projects that get people of all ages and abilities off the couch and participating in a wide range of sports and physical activities.”

For Lucy Read, being ‘off the couch’ and on the water is one of the joys of her new-found life.

“The AHOY Centre has really changed my life,” she says. “I’m so much calmer now and feel my anger is under control. It’s also made me realise I had to knuckle down to get a good job.”

Read has already passed her sailing assistant instructor’s qualification and is training to be a rowing instructor and coxswain. She’s an assistant safety boat officer too and now has experience of boat and engine maintenance, and of working with disabled young people – all thanks to AHOY.

Plus, she’s raced with the Royal Thames Yacht Club and spoken in front of an audience at the centre’s Christmas dinner.

“I want to carry on teaching and have a career in the watersports industry and possibly use my qualifications to travel and work abroad,” she says.
“I would love to stay at the AHOY too.

“I really like being on the Thames,” she adds. “Not many people are lucky enough to spend so much time on it. I’m always bragging about what I do. The other evening we were out on the water and the sunset was beautiful, and I thought, ‘Who wouldn’t want my job?’”