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Through Closure, a Legacy Lives On: TWSC Closes [Video]

Words by Traci O’Dea, video by Dan O’Connor

There are few things more joyful than a youth Christmas regatta in the British Virgin Islands; it has a guaranteed formula for happiness: kids, racing, Christmas, trophies, candy, sun, wind, and sailboats. This year’s Christmas Regatta at the BVI Watersports Centre in Manuel Reef contained all those elements but also a few tears as the regatta represented the last event to be held at the BVI Watersports Centre.

Since Princess Anne opened the RYA-recognised sailing centre in 2005, it has been a vital part of the BVI boating community, teaching kids and adults of all ages and abilities how to swim, sail and drive powerboats. Additionally, the Centre functioned as the home of BVI Special Olympics team, with the Centre’s Principal, Alison Knights Bramble, serving as the National Director and coach who led the team to win gold and silver medals in 2011.

Youth sailors sit patiently during the opening of the TWSC. Photo provided.

I first interviewed Alison Knights Bramble in the September 2009 issue of BVI Yacht Guide. At that time, I witnessed her passion for sailing and for teaching the sport to students at every level. During the interview, I learned of her strong belief in integrating students with special needs alongside other sailors.

Shortly after interviewing Alison, I was approached by her husband, Colin Bramble, the Managing Director of the Centre, who notified me of the transatlantic crossing of quadriplegic sailor Geoff Holt whose paralyzing injury had occurred in Cane Garden Bay 25 years prior. Over the next few months, I interviewed Geoff, tracked his journey online, cheered as his catamaran arrived in the BVI, and spent time with the sailor, his family, and Alison and Colin during his stay in the territory. This internationally reported event promoted the British Virgin Islands and the concept of sailing for all—two great loves of the BVI Watersports Centre.

 Alison (right) and Traci (centre-right) share a happy moment with youth sailors. Photo by Dan O’Connor.

A few months later, Alison contacted me about an article I’d written that mentioned my fear of sailing. The seasoned instructor suggested I try capsizing in order to dispel my fear. Shortly afterward, she put me in a dinghy and taught me to sail with the other students then had them flip me over. In the photos from this session, I’m beaming as I grope through the water towards my capsized dinghy.

Some of the sailors that I sailed with during my dinghy instruction sessions at the Watersports Centre went on to represent the BVI in the Special Olympics World Summer Games 2011. Alison took six sailors to compete in the event in Athens, and the Watersports Centre’s commitment to treating all sailors equally paid off when the team picked up two gold, two silver, and two fifth-place medals.

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I next witnessed the Watersports Centre’s commitment to sailing, Special Olympics, children, and literacy when I worked with Colin and Alison to publish Alison’s novel The Eye of the Storm through aLookingGlass Books. Alison had written this adventure novel on her own time and dedicated 100% of the sales from the book to Special Olympics BVI. aLookingGlass Books procured sponsors to pay for the cost of publication in order to ensure that all profits would go to charity. The engrossing tale recounts the Caribbean adventures of a group of teenagers as they explore the islands by land and sea.

Princess Anne and BVI officials meet the kids during the 2005 opening of the Centre. Photo provided.

Alison’s story was inspired by her years of teaching sailors and boaters of all ages and abilities who have taken lessons from Manuel Reef, including the first BVIslanders to hold the Royal Yachting Association Dinghy Instructor’s qualification, Elsa and Eben Meyers. Elsa and Eben, along with Daniel Petrovic and Abby Maddox, have been fixtures at the Watersports Centre over the years. At the Christmas Regatta prize giving, Alison honoured these four sailors, among others, for their commitment to the Centre and to sailing for all.

My last experience at the Watersports Centre was serving as part of the race committee for the Youth Christmas Regatta. I watched the enthusiasm of the kids, from the “Baby Greens” class all the way up to the Laser sailors, as they navigated the race courses. Fellow race committee member and BVI Watersports Centre Trustee Kay Reddy expressed her regret at the Centre’s closure. “They were the first organization to cater to the special needs kids,” she said. Several parents conveyed similar sentiments. Janet Oliver, Director of the Charter Yacht Society of the British Virgin Islands said, “It’s a loss to the community. So many kids started with [the Watersports Centre] then they went on to race to represent the BVI internationally…[the Centre] reached out to all walks of the community, to give them the opportunity to experience the thrill of sailing, and that’s where the loss comes.”

When I asked Alison and Colin about their future plans, they assured me that Special Olympics BVI will continue, despite the Centre’s closure, due to their strong belief in the cause. Ross Munro, Chair of Special Olympics BVI reinforced this fact. The team’s training location is yet to be confirmed. Additionally, Alison will continue to teach Royal Yachting Association powerboat courses. She is also working on a sequel to The Eye of the Storm, chronicling the ongoing adventures of her young characters, and she continues to promote the first book to continue to raise funds for Special Olympics BVI.

After the Christmas Regatta prize giving, the kids and parents seemed hesitant to leave, knowing this was going to be the last event at the Watersports Centre. Alison expressed her pride in what the Watersports Centre accomplished, especially in watching junior sailors grow up on these waters and “develop into special young people, athletes and instructors” including those who “have left school and are currently working and pursuing careers in the marine industry both here and abroad,” all of whom “will never lose the lifeskills and experiences gained through an RYA Training Centre.”

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