This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week centres around the theme of loneliness and how it can negatively impact people’s mental health and wellbeing.


We recently spoke to Vicky Williams, Business Development Manager for Challenge Wales, who explained how Sail Training can allow people to form better connections and how their Winter of Wellbeing voyages helped to improve young people’s mental health.


Q. Why do you think sailing and being out on the water is so beneficial for people’s mental health?


“Sail Training is beneficial for people’s mental health due to the ‘awayness’ from all known aspects of everyday life. When you are participating in what is a new activity for many, you are living the moment and focussing on the present. You don’t have anything to do except be involved in the activities and developing relationships with many, many of whom are of a very different mindset and approach to life than others.


On Challenge Wales we have an amazing crew who are positive role models, and sharing an experience like Sail Training with others can impact everyone’s aspirations in life, particularly young people. Challenge Wales volunteers have also benefited from our Sail Training activities as they are meeting new people and socialising more with their fellow crew.”


Q. What role do you think Sail Training has in helping young people to recover from the stress and anxiety induced by the pandemic?


“Sail Training with Challenge Wales and our innovative approach to outdoor learning is the ultimate outdoor activity for immersion and seeing distance in the open air after enclosure within four walls due to COVID lockdowns, so of course seems beneficial. Challenge Wales’ own independent evaluation showed that Sail Training activities at sea reduced anxiety and depression and improved mental health and wellbeing. 


Sail Training can help strengthen resilience, provide a safe space for reflection and conversations, can engage people with a new skill, and can be an environment for making new friends or strengthening friendships while of course having ‘boat-loads’ of fun!


Q. How do you think the skills that Sail Training provides young people with are able to help boost mental wellbeing? 


“When someone jumps onto a Sail Training voyage it is often stepping aboard the unknown. It can be challenging, and it can be daunting, but the positive role models of our crew support people to become more confident and help them step out of their comfort zone.  


As Sail Training is often new, it provides a focus. The blue space of the sea helps boost endorphins (the positive chemicals in the body that make people feel happier), we also get to see wildlife and see people connecting with nature which automatically seems to make people feel happier.”


Q. Have you noticed an increase in young people who are coming to you with problems relating to loneliness and feeling isolated as a result of the pandemic?


“We found that young people had stepped back from some of their social networks as COVID put a natural stop to that and the isolation made it difficult for some people to start going out again. Some parents have spoken to us about how their child is anxious and spending time in their bedroom because that is where they feel happiest. When we have asked people after a sailing activity how they are feeling we are seeing more responses about how people have been able to make new friends on the trip.”


“We are seeing more responses about how people have been able to make new friends on the trip.


Q. Have you noticed a shift in the types of outcomes that people are taking away from trips since the start of the pandemic?


“We have found that more people are saying they have made new friends and they have enjoyed being with their friends. Perhaps that was taken for granted before which is why we didn’t see as many of these comments pre-COVID.”


Q. Is there any special training that you or your sea staff have undergone to better understand or better help your service users who are struggling with their mental health?


“Our Youth Development Officer has been involved in national community & youth-based organisational sessions where we have met up with mental health workers and learnt about issues and the struggles our young users face with their mental health. She has then disseminated her learnings amongst our volunteer crew.


Our Youth Development Officer is currently on a 5-week online training course which focuses on Depression & Anxiety, Eating Disorders, Autism & ADHD, Substance Abuse and Anti-social Behaviour, Psychosis, and Resilience. This is to raise her awareness and provide suitable techniques to enable us to better understand service users’ issues.”


Q. The first step of the NHS and Mind’s Five Steps to Wellbeing advice is all about connecting with other people. What are some of the best ways that people are able to connect with others whilst on board one of your Sail Training voyage?


“Every task on our vessels; Challenge Wales and Adventure Wales, involves connecting with other people due to the size of our boats. Connection starts from the moment someone steps on board, being welcomed into the team and having the opportunity to introduce themselves. One of our tasks is hoisting the sails which needs a team of people to follow instructions and work together, we might be sitting down playing games together, tacking/turning the boat to change course for a new destination, lowering the sails at the end of the day and packing them away. It all needs people working together to make it happen.


For meal times we make sure everyone is together as one big family so we eat at similar times and that is a great time to share stories of the day, learn about people’s backgrounds and families (if they want to share that information), preparing food (oh, and of course washing up!) and sharing thoughts on what we want to do the following day on our trip. Our amazing volunteer crew encourage conversations and support people.”


Q. Can you tell us a bit about how your Winter of Wellbeing voyages and Ocean Literacy residentials work and how they can be used to boost mental wellbeing? 


“Our Winter of Wellbeing activities were a mixture of shore-based ‘Sea and Tell’ sessions which brought Sail Training to life for those young people that going out to sea wouldn’t be an option and Sail Training voyages. The voyages connected the young people together, got everyone physically active (regardless of their ability), helped young people learn a new skill and everyone was focussed on the present moment – a bit of a digital detox. 


Learning together and listening together with limited technology helped improve the young people’s mental health and is why we feel Sail Training is a great investment in the wellbeing of future generations. When measuring the journey that young people go on, we found that 82% of young people said their mental health and wellbeing had definitely improved during their time with us. 


Both our Wellbeing voyages and Ocean Literacy voyages bring people together and help them learn about the environment in a hands-on way, helping them to appreciate the outdoor world.”


Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?


“Many people may think jumping on a boat is not for them or is something that is going to cost them a lot of money, but that is not the case particularly when Challenge Wales fundraises to enable young people to jump on board. Our bursary fund enables young people to tap into funding that will contribute to their voyage making them accessible to anyone who is financially disadvantaged.”



Challenge Wales is the largest Sail Training provider in Wales. Over the course of three years, the charity was independently evaluated and the results showed how being at sea on one of their programmes improved mental health.


Young people were reporting less anxiety, less depression and in the longer term less use of mental health services. Benefits improved beyond the voyage with young people, with their new found confidence and social skills, contributing more in the community. In one young person’s case for every £1 invested it generated £7.43 of value. You can read the full case study here.


To find out more about the life-changing work that Challenge Wales does, click here.

If you would like to learn more about how Sail Training can boost young people’s mental health, click here to visit our #SailToWellbeing page.

For people working in Sail Training, you can find support and resources on how to manage your own health and wellbeing here.