Cardiff character: Bob Jones

The Challenge Wales volunteer invites us on board

Winches onboard Challenge Wales

Watch your step – there are plenty of hazards on a round-the-world yacht

Penarth Marina is almost deserted on a bright November morning – not many people are prepared to be up and about before 9am on a Sunday. However, in one corner of the harbour, a small group of people in matching red salopettes are preparing to sail a very special boat.

With a mast that soars 95 feet above the water, the Challenge Wales yacht towers over all the other boats in the marina. 57-year-old crew volunteer Bob Jones is moving steadily across the deck, taking care to avoid the neat coils of rope and taught wires that seem specifically designed to trip up careless novices.

“I coach cycling on the velodrome in Newport during the week,” Bob explains. Challenge Wales gives him a chance to do something very different to his day job. “Quite extreme, yes – round and round on a bit of pine to bobbing up and down on the Bristol Channel!”

One of a team

Cardiff-based Bob started volunteering for the Challenge Wales charity fifteen months ago. Since then, he’s helped young people from across Wales get their first taste of sailing, taking small groups on voyages that can last up to several days.

Bob found out about the charity purely by chance: “The boat was parked on Mermaid Quay one weekend. My partner and I were there visiting a market of some sort. I saw the boat, collected a leaflet, and it said you can buy yourself a day on the boat. So I did.

“I enjoyed it, and talking to the people on the boat that day they explained what the charity was about and that they were always on the lookout for new volunteers,” he says. “So I volunteered.”

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing, despite the fact that Bob has always been used to an active lifestyle. “I did an awful lot of windsurfing in the past, but that was about as far as my sailing experience spread,” he says.

Bob Jones Challenge WalesMoving from the individual pursuit of windsurfing to the team environment of sailing was certainly a challenge to begin with, Bob says. “The loading and the stresses on all the rigging is enormous. And then there’s the teamwork involved, you know? Rather than being a single person thing, the boat needs a minimum of six and ideally twelve or more to operate it efficiently.”

Pastime for the privileged?

Some people still assume that sailing is only a pastime for the wealthy – a world of yacht club blazers and privileged access. Bob’s experience with Challenge Wales shows that needn’t be the case.

“If someone comes from a family background where money is tight,” he explains, “then the trustees can say, ‘well, we can offer a full bursary to that individual because we think they need that much help’. And then perhaps someone who’s a little bit more fortunate may be offered a bursary that’s 40% or 50%. Each individual’s looked at on that sort of basis.” 

Challenge Wales yacht

The boat is harboured in Penarth Marina near the Cardiff Bay barrage

Challenge Wales aims to provide sailing experience for anyone, regardless of who they are or how much they know. “I think the eldest person we’ve had on board is 82. The youngest we’ve had is 12, but pretty much they’re in the group from 13 to 17,” Bob says. 

“We take them from any experience, from complete novice even. Some don’t know the pointy end from the blunt end – no experience is necessary. Then we tailor activities according to their age, size and experience.” That, claims Bob, is what makes the charity so much fun to be involved with.

Navigating all conditions

With clear blue skies and unruffled seas, the prospect of sailing out of Cardiff Bay seems an enticing way to spend a weekend. The sun gleams off the yacht’s white hull; a cool breeze sets the rigging jangling.  However, with the charity running voyages all year round, conditions aren’t always this favourable.

“Fortunately I don’t suffer from motion sickness in any way, shape or form, but some people do,” says Bob. “Some people sail on the boat for a period of time and the motion sickness doesn’t bother them at all – and then it just happens to be one day, one motion, one particular sea, and it makes them poorly for that trip.

“But most people get over it with a bit of luck,” he adds wryly.

Of course, it isn’t every day that school children are able to get their hands on a boat that has sailed round the world twice. “For youngsters to have an opportunity to come on board a boat – that’s exciting in itself,” Bob says. “A boat this size? Doubly exciting.”

When there is a day’s sailing to look forward to, getting up early is more than worth it, says Bob. “It’s a real adventure: you’ve got to meet people, you’ve got to do stuff as a team – this boat just doesn’t work on individuals.”