Written by Bob Harper, Belfast Lough Sailability
Belfast Lough Sailability (BLS) is there for anyone with a disability who wants to go out on the water, and we are used by over 50 different ability groups across Northern Ireland as well. For people with disabilities, getting access to the water is very difficult. After winning People’s Millions in 2010, BLS used the grant of £50,000 to buy the Sea Rover, which is a specially adapted boat suitable for all abilities and totally accessible for wheelchair users, offering a great sense of being in control. The youngsters have the biggest grins on their faces you’ve ever seen. They’re just so happy.
We operate from Carrickfergus Marina and Harbour, where fixed hoist positions mean people can get in and out of our boats. But the Sea Rover has its own hoist. It also has a ramp at the front that drops down to allow wheelchair access to beaches, slipways and on to pontoons.
The Sea Rover opens up opportunities for those with a disability to go further afield in Belfast Lough – to Belfast, Bangor and Greenisland, straight up onto a beach and up to the rocks to see the seals. It means all with disabilities can participate, especially those dependent on their wheelchairs.
Sea Rover plus BLS volunteers had a ‘try a boat’ event in Lough Foyle recently where we had 200 people with disabilities using the boat in two days. That is the level of success that the People’s Millions has brought. The whole journey of Sailability has been an amazing experience but it just grows and grows – and the Sea Rover has allowed us to do that.
In terms of running the campaign, we did everything in our power to get the message out and people were very supportive. On the evening of the vote on UTV, all our young people were walking around Belfast urging people to make a phone call and vote for our project. And you couldn’t get out of a taxi in Carrickfergus without the driver asking you to ‘Vote for Belfast Lough Sailability’ on your mobile.
It was just an amazing campaign. Everybody worked very hard and put a lot of effort in.
On the morning after the vote, I got a phone call from Alison Fleming at UTV and she asked me how I felt about the campaign. I said it had been great, and that even if we didn’t win, all the publicity on UTV, in the Daily Mirror and in the local newspapers had been wonderful. And then she said, “Well, you have won Bob – go out and buy your boat!” It all became very emotional after that.
The whole People’s Millions experience was fantastic. It has transformed the lives of many people. One of the nicest things about the Sea Rover is that it allows Belfast Lough Sailability to make sailing a whole family affair. Not only can the disabled youngster get out on the water, but mum and dad and brothers and sisters can also come along for the ride. And that is really wonderful to see.
Interested in applying to this year’s People’s Millions competition? On Tuesday 1 April Big Lottery Fund will be holding a webinar to give you some information on how you can apply. Please visit the website to register. See the People’s Millions website for further details on the programme.