Sails up, out on Lackford Lake in Suffolk, it was impossible to discern volunteer, sailor or sailor with a disability.
As part of BT “All Join In” week, David Moorcroft, Britain’s former 5,000m world record holder and now head of sport at Join In, took part in a volunteering session at WASH Sailability at St Edmundsbury Sailing & Canoeing Association.
Situated at a nature reserve near Bury St Edmunds, the club is one of many disability sports clubs that are thriving thanks to its volunteers. As Moorcroft stressed, clubs always need more helpers.
“There is still more that people can do to help disability sports clubs and I think people still find that a difficult area, so I came to see how big a difference volunteers can make. The range of things people can do to help out is huge – you don’t have to be qualified or skilled in any particular areas.”
Moorcroft had never sailed before. “Sailing isn’t a sport I know much about and I’ve never volunteered at a disability sports club but I found there was so much I could do just to help out.”
Join In, whose patron is the comedian, actor and writer Eddie Izzard, was created in the wake of London 2012 because some previous Olympic and Paralympic Games organisers had felt the chance to create a legacy feature had been lost.
It campaigns to get more people involved in volunteering to help grass-roots sport – in Moorcroft’s words, “to get people to turn up, take part and join in”.
WASH Sailability, which runs weekly sessions at Lackford for people with a wide range of disabilities, epitomises that ethos. The participants include amputees, a group with learning disabilities, a visually impaired group and three generations of a family who take to the water with their grandfather, who has recently suffered a stroke. They use boats with a water-filled keel, which makes them very stable, and steer from a fixed seat.
“In the year after the Games, and this year,” said Moorcroft, “there’s been much more emphasis on volunteering, much more emphasis on trying to maintain the spirit of Gamesmakers (the London 2012 volunteer helpers) because, for that period, something very special was created around volunteering.
“But if you trace it back, volunteers created formalised sport, clubs, events and ultimately the Olympics. Look at 1908 and 1948.”
As a volunteer at Lackford, Moorcroft sailed a dinghy with Cris Barlow. They came back to dry land having swapped life stories.
“I’m 69 on September 20. I’m from a village just outside Bury,” said Barlow, who lost a leg above the knee through an aneurysm 30 months ago. ‘‘I’m a chartered accountant practising in Colchester. It wasn’t possible to get to work once I lost my leg. I have about 10 clients that I keep in touch with. I have always played golf and squash and sailed.”
Sailing, he said, remains very important to him. “I said to Dave that I forget I only have one leg when I get out there. It’s lovely.
“This club is well-supported by volunteers. But I need help when I play golf,” he said. Barlow has played the sport for more than 50 years and has a 12 handicap. “I need someone in case I fall over. I go out with some old boys and they help me. I have the buggy behind me to grab if I fall over. My friends are brilliant. They’re effectively volunteers.”
Volunteer Rachel Warren, 22, is a recent English graduate from Lincoln University. “Once in the boat it doesn’t matter that the person is disabled. They are free. It’s very rewarding but I’ve become more active, too, and taken up climbing.’’
Martin Cable, 55, lost a leg and the use of an arm in a motorcycle accident five years ago. “It’s been great to have a reason to get out in the fresh air. I used to go off-road motorbike riding and this is a new challenge.” He started sailing with a volunteer, but now goes out alone.
There are about two million volunteers in British sport. “But there are probably a lot more who volunteer and don’t even know it,” added Moorcroft. “Some of the most enjoyable things I’ve done I wasn’t paid for. You feel rewarded by giving up your time.
“Things have moved on since the Paralympics, but there’s a lot further to go. It could be as basic as helping a friend play sport, like Cris’s golf buddies, or encouraging people close to where you live to be more physically active.
“This is about giving time, not money. It’s not just about thinking I need to give back. It’s life-enhancing and enjoyable. You’re part of a community and you’re sharing an experience. It’s not about sacrifice, it’s about doing something extremely enjoyable.
“If you put a price on that army of volunteers, sport wouldn’t exist. There is evidence that suggests people who volunteer are happier because they are giving. It is great that BT has put its tremendous support behind this. A lot of people who volunteer through Join In are not particularly bothered about sport. They’re bothered about their community.”