Playing host to Sailing Week, the Superyacht Challenge and the Classic Yacht Regatta has earned Antigua a stellar reputation as an idyllic Caribbean hub for events and yachts of all sizes and budgets.
However, with island yachting largely dominated by ex-pat owners, captains and crew, Antigua itself seemed to be missing a trick in terms of producing home grown seafaring talent.
Enter Elizabeth Jordan, one-time Commodore of the Antigua Yacht Club, who set out five years ago to create the first generation of island sailors by establishing the National Sailing Academy, which offers free training for Antiguan born youngsters eager to pursue a career in the industry.
As she outlines the ups and downs of introducing yachting to a culture that is naturally suspicious of water despite its island setting, it’s clear that Elizabeth is a force of nature who doesn’t give up easily.
Take the story of how the 70-year-old Sussex businesswoman came to end up in Antigua. ‘The idea of sailing across an ocean came up one night after one bottle of wine too many with friends as we approached the Millennium,’ she recalls with a laugh as we chat over Skype from her English Harbour headquarters on the island. ‘We had been back and forth across the Channel exploring Brittany and Normandy but I wanted a bigger adventure.
‘I decided to sail across the Atlantic in 1999 in my own boat Archangel, a Swan 36, with my daughter and two girlfriends. Sailing was my hobby but I wasn’t planning to visit Antigua at that stage. I was going to St Lucia and planned to cruise around the Grenadines for three months before sailing back to the UK.
‘I decided to race during Sailing Week in Antigua and, as my kids now put it, I ran away to sea! I had a medical research company in the UK that I was on the point of selling, my daughter had gone to live in Hong Kong and my son was in the British army. I was single so I decided to start a new life here at the age of 55.’
Elizabeth quickly found her feet, joining the Antigua Yacht Club as a member before ‘climbing the greasy pole’ to become social director of the executive committee, vice Commodore and Commodore in 2008. ‘When I was Commodore, I realised we were teaching the children of the membership, which is largely the ex pat community, and there were not the opportunities to train local children,’ she says. ‘The very phrase Yacht Club is off putting, there is a snob value to it. I wanted to do something to help the local children.
‘Sailing is my passion but there weren’t a lot of kids getting a chance to try it. Unemployment is high here and we need something for school leavers to do and make a career of. Sailing also opens doors to scuba diving, commercial ferry driving and various other career avenues once kids are out on the water.’
Elizabeth formulated a plan to establish a training academy and presented it to the government, pledging to raise all the funding herself if they would officially endorse her project. They agreed and the National Sailing Academy was born in 2010. ‘We went around many of the schools on the island and it really took off - every school we visited wanted to take part,’ she recalls.
Funded primarily by generous donations from the international yachting community - sadly, donations from local businesses remain few and far between - the Academy operated for the first couple of years using Yacht Club instructors to teach local children to sail while also earning revenue through private tuition. Elizabeth retired as Commodore at the end of 2013 to concentrate her efforts full time on the National Sailing Academy and a move earlier this year to their new HQ at English Harbour, in the south of the island, has galvanised Elizabeth into putting all her energy into an impressive set of targets.
‘Sitting around is not my thing, I have a very low boredom threshold,’ she admits. ‘I work a 70 hour week and my five year plan is to be independent and have the funds to replace and maintain our boats. We were lucky to have all our boats sponsored by individual yachts and we blast their names out.
‘One of our major sponsors is Pete Townshend of The Who. He is a big sailor. He and his partner have a house here and he has been very supportive. He is my second biggest sponsor and came to the opening of our new premises last January. I’ve signed a 20 year lease here, which is frightening at my age, but I’m determined to make it work.
‘I hope eventually to have an Antiguan running the day to day operations. My staff is West Indian and I feel strongly that the Academy should be run by nationals and not ex-pats. I’d like to remain a director but not be at the desk all day every day.’
Elizabeth is heartened to see the fruits of her labours already paying off. The Academy has taught over 500 children to sail in the last five years and a number of her former students are now working on the water. ‘One works for a guy who does water eco-tours, and he got that job because he was into sailing,’ she says. ‘Two of our instructors here are a product of the sailing programme, they already have their RYA day skipper qualifications and will go on to be further qualified. There are huge opportunities for well-paid employment.’
While she currently receives no funding from the government, Elizabeth is hopeful that will change in the near future. ‘We had a general election in June and the opposition got into power,’ she adds. ‘They promised to help the Academy if I voted for them so I am on their case now! They said they will put something in the budget for next year, which is better news than the last government, who just said no.
‘Sailing is regarded as a new sport here and is still seen as a rich white man’s hobby. Very few Antiguans work on boats in anything other than a menial capacity. West Indians generally don’t have a lot to do with the water, they are scared of the sea and overcoming that cultural hurdle is hard and something we have tried to do in the last 10 years.
‘We are changing things gradually. Instead of one swim club, we now have four but we still don’t have a public swimming pool on the island and it’s very difficult to teach children to swim in the sea. We have a lot of surf, a lot of drop offs and we don’t want to terrify the kids.
‘The government has allocated an acre of land for a pool and we are thinking of installing an Endless pool, where you swim against a current, because it is smaller and cheaper to install than a traditional pool. It will cost $25,000 US and would give us the chance to get kids into the water in a safe environment.
‘Sailing is the only sport here where there might be a job at the end of it. It doesn’t matter how good you are at netball, there is no netball, volleyball or football industry here. But there is a yachting industry and learning to sail is a way into it.’
With a second smaller operation at Jolly Harbour as well as The Lodge, a seven bedroom guest house on the waterfront at English Harbour, Elizabeth is hoping to find someone to help with admin and manage the accommodation, adding: ‘I’d rather be out raising money instead of doing accounts.
‘It is quite a challenge and I have been very lucky with some major financial support, without which we wouldn’t be here, but I will be begging for a while yet. The only thing I hate is walking down the dock and seeing people go into hiding when they spot me approaching!
‘The superyachts that come here cost $10,000 a day to run. If every yacht gave us one day’s running costs, we would have enough to keep going for five more years. We have a beautiful setting and I’m hoping to hold social events, parties and open air movie nights to help bring in more revenue. This coming season will be a very good yardstick as to how we’re doing but I feel optimistic about the future.’