How a sailing holiday helped our autistic son overcome his fears

UKSA sailing holidays adventure family
UKSA sailing holidays adventure family

As we cruised slowly towards the pontoon, leaving behind the bustling harbour filled with boats of all persuasions, from modest dinghies to Bond-style yachts and huge ferries, the Beach Boys (my request) blasted out at full volume and I watched our 10-year-old son Eddie, who is autistic, lean over to touch the glistening waves. New experiences can be difficult for autistic children and we hadn’t got off to the best of starts on our trip to the UK Sailing Academy (UKSA) on the Isle of Wight.

The adventure began on our first boat of the weekend – the ferry from the historic port town of Lymington past the chalky outcrop of the Needles, rising like icebergs out of the sea. After a short drive across the island, past Cotswolds-esque villages, we arrived in Cowes. The main high street, with its quirky independent shops, cafés, pubs and village vibe, reminded me a little of a rustic Salcombe, with its bohemian bakeries, swanky yacht clubs and patrons sipping chilled rosé on harbour terraces.

Our first sailing attempt was on a keelboat, a small white yacht, which our kind and patient instructor, Alfie, reassured us could not capsize. Eddie was enthusiastic and helped to pull the halyard (rope) around the winch. When the sail went up, he declared it to be “awesome”. But as the wind picked up and the water became more choppy, Eddie became increasingly anxious. We happened to sail past another capsized boat, and that was it. It was game over for Eddie and we had to turn back, much to the disappointment of his siblings, 13-year-old Charlie and eight-year-old Jemima.

UKSA sailing family holidays autism
UKSA sailing family holidays autism

The staff at sailing charity UKSA took it all in their stride. Alfie, 18, has had his own troubles. He was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 12. As part of his rehabilitation, his mother signed him up to the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, where he quickly developed a love of sailing. After a few days on the water with my family, I could understand why.

I hadn’t been to the Isle of Wight since my teenage years, when I had once gone to the Cowes Week regatta with a friend from school and her family. I have fond memories of falling asleep to the sound of clinking masts, and remember being completely overawed by the glitz and glamour of it all, the huge yachts and people who looked like they had just stepped out of a Carly Simon music video in their deck shoes, jumpers insouciantly draped across their shoulders.

Lessons open for all

Being out on the water again brought it all back, but what we really liked about UKSA is that their lessons are open to all, despite this being a prime spot in one of the most prestigious harbours in the world.

UKSA focuses exclusively on children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and around 25 per cent of the 8,000 young people they host each year are on the free school meals scheme. The aim is to improve mental health through outdoor learning. Research, including a 2018 University of Winchester study, has found that the outdoors and sailing can help enhance children’s self-esteem and academic performance.

We were a little apprehensive when we ventured onto the water the next day after Eddie’s previous protestations but we need not have worried. Eddie was relaxed and content on a much smaller RIB, an inflatable dinghy, and more engaged than the previous day. Alfie had brought some nets for us all to go crabbing on the other side of the marina, and Eddie was delighted when my husband, Dom, caught a small fish in the net (although we soon put it back). Our eldest son, Charlie, loved pointing out the boat names in the harbour, including one called “the New Normal,” which made us shudder, recalling lockdown.

UKSA sailing holidays family
UKSA sailing holidays family

We know from previous travelling experiences and from our understanding of the autism spectrum, that Eddie takes time to adjust and settle into a new place or environment. But our final boat trip, to the other side of Cowes harbour, was a big success, partly due to Eddie finding a shop on the high street with an entire window of mini Lego figures in it. At the end of the holiday, it was apparent how far Eddie had come. His confidence was at a high, and he was happy and taking life in his stride.

“Being on the water can create a spark, which sees that person change their focus or goals moving forward,” said UKSA CEO Ben Willows, who hopes sailing will shift from being seen as an elitist sport to one everyone can enjoy and benefit from.

UKSA’s Sea.Change Programme will equip 400 children over 14 with basic maritime skills and introduce them to different sea-based activities, including raft building, dinghy sailing, kayaking, windsurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, keelboating and windsurfing. We hope we have laid the foundations for Eddie to try other holiday-based activities, but in the meantime sailing has broadened all our horizons.

Three active holidays for autistic children

Horse riding

horse riding children ASD - Getty
horse riding children ASD - Getty

Calvert Trust Exmoor offers outdoor adventures – including horse riding, carriage riding and cycling – for people with autism and sensory disabilities. The centre includes a large riding school and outdoor menage, a sensory room, a quiet TV room and a high-needs wet room.

Prices start from £275 per person for a weekend break (01598 763221; calvertexmoor.org.uk)

Skiing

Skiing4all, run by a British psychologist and ski instructor, provides skiing holidays aimed exclusively at children with autism and learning difficulties. The Austrian-based resort offers skiing, sledging, snowshoeing and a number of other outdoor activities. The courses are run on a one-to-one basis by trained and experienced professionals, as part of an individually-designed programme.

Prices start at £1,650 per family for a five-day ski course excluding accommodation (00 43 66 4582 2130; skiing4all.com)

Geodome glamping

glamping geodomes luxury travel
glamping geodomes luxury travel

WilderMe in Cornwall offers a number of autism-focused retreats in luxury geodomes overlooking the sea for families with autistic children and also adults who are on the autism spectrum. They can tailor their programmes to include nature walks, kayaking, sea safaris, foraging and a campfire singalong.

Family glamping starts at £49 per night (07786 689751; wilderme.com)

How to do it

UKSA (01983 294941; uksa.org) is based in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. It offers family fun days from £199 (including lunch and all equipment) for a family of four.

The Union Inn Hotel (01983 532444; unioninncowes.co.uk), on West Cowes high street, is close to the seafront, the sailing club and the Royal Yacht Squadron. It makes a perfect base from which to explore the island. Rooms from £79 per night.

Has a holiday activity helped your child's mental health? Share your experience in the comments section below