by Gemma Handy
The country’s flourishing sailing industry now has 10 more newly qualified instructors set to hit the water and take the sector to new heights.
The latest batch of predominantly Antiguan and Barbudan graduates from the National Sailing Academy (NSA) once again tips the balance towards a new generation of locals at the helm of the industry.
Efforts in recent years to offer more local people a foothold in the lucrative field have seen a paradigm shift in its demographic makeup – proving that sailing in the twin island nation is no longer the reserve of foreigners.
The 10 youngsters, aged 16 to 20, all joined the academy through its schools programme and have spent the last two years training to become dinghy instructors.
Last week they received their official certification from the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) after a final week and a half course with coaches flown in from the UK.
The NSA stages the course every two years to help fill jobs everywhere from resorts to excursion companies, says Chief Instructor Sylvester Thomas.
“The qualification means a lot; it opens doors and is a really good foundation for the industry. Hotels are always looking for certified people. We have already employed a few at the academy and will try to get jobs for the others,” he explains.
An internationally recognised qualification, the RYA Dinghy Instructor course aims to give young sailors the tools to inspire and teach the next generation. The students must first complete certifications in powerboats and first aid at Ondeck Antigua which sponsors the cost of those courses.
Since joining the NSA in 2012, Thomas has seen around 20 of his protégés rise through the ranks to instructor level.
“I’ve worked with many of them since they were 14, 15, and they’re still with us and now they’re teaching themselves,” he says.
“It feels really good to see their progress; it’s a blessing.”
Key qualities to teach sailing include “patience, people skills and problem solving”, Thomas continues.
And while the industry now employs more local Antiguan and Barbudan people than ever before, there’s still some way to go, he thinks.
“We all depend on tourism, and sailing is a big part of what we do. In addition to the recreational aspect in the hotels, we have so many superyachts coming through here and so many other things going on within the industry.
“I don’t see any reason why one of our students can’t be the one docking a cruise ship in Heritage Quay or bringing a megayacht into English Harbour. Our children should be the ones taking over the industry – and it starts here, this is the foundation.
“Learning to sail can open the gates for you,” he says.
Thomas is living proof of that.
“I used to be a baker, but since I’ve been in sailing I have never been out of a job,” he grins.
It is now 24 years since the then 22-year-old quit his position at a bakery in Cedar Grove after his request for a pay rise resulted in a gruff quip.
“My boss told me to go outside, put some yeast in the flour and watch it rise – as that was the only rise I was gonna get,” he recalls.
On a whim, Thomas wandered down to a dinghy centre in Hodges Bay and asked for work.
“I knew absolutely nothing about sailing. When they asked if I could sail, I said no but I could learn – and here I am.
“I didn’t expect to still be sailing up to now but once I gravitated to the yachts and realised the benefits that came with it I didn’t want to do anything else,” he explains.
“I’d never even been on a plane until I started sailing – and the opportunities just kept on coming. I got more and more qualifications which took me places. You never stop learning when it comes to sailing.”
Thomas joined the NSA as he saw it as a chance to “give back”.
“I love teaching, opening doors for others. Seeing them progress puts a smile on my face,” he says.
Tajanica Thomas (no relation) joined the NSA as a third form student at the Irene B Williams Secondary School.
“It was the sense of competition that appealed to me,” she tells Observer. “It’s fun to be out on the water, especially when the wind is up.”
Tajanica seized the chance to participate in the instructor programme and has already secured a full-time position teaching at the academy.
Now the 20-year-old plans to take her training to the next level and work towards her day skipper qualification, enabling her to navigate and captain a small yacht.
“I think there are a lot more Antiguans that could get involved in sailing – they just need the push,” she says.
“Not only is it fun but you can turn your hobby into a job. It will make you money and give you the opportunity to travel the world.”
The National Sailing Academy was founded in 2010 and is largely funded by charitable donations. Visit www.nationalsailingacademy.org for more details.