Friday, 29 May 2015

Meeting Felicity by Julia Jones

Meeting Felicity

Felicity at the Tall Ships event last year
Felicity Lees is the Operations Manager for Pioneer Sailing Trust. She's 31 and has already worked for five years at Harker's Yard. Looking back, however, one could argue that Felicity has been in training for this post since the age of 9 when her parents sent her together with her twin sister and her brother on a week's activity holiday with Fellowship Afloat. Fellowship Afloat ( is based on the lightship Trinity moored in the  Tollesbury saltings. This was already a familiar area as Felicity's parents had a yacht on the saltings. She was mainly used as a weekend base, a floating caravan and the family rarely took her out. Felicity's first week on Trinity was life-changing. She learned to sail, to have fun and adventure, to socialise. The memory that has stayed with her most strongly over the years was being offered the helm of a Sou’wester and told to aim at some distant sea mark. After a few moments the skipper moved forward to collect his jumper, or some such, and she realised that she was being given real responsibility, was being trusted. 

Felicity and her twin sister talked and talked about the events of that first holiday. Then, with their brother, they were given a Mirror dinghy and the adventures began. She described how she loved the Arthur Ransome 'Swallows and Amazons' series and demanding that her mother read them to her again and again.
“Why didn't you read them yourself?” I asked her.
“I don't know. I simply loved the way that my mother read them to us, sitting on the deck of our own boat, in those magical Tollesbury saltings.”
Felicity and her brother and sister set out to create their own Ransomesque adventures – sailing their Mirror dinghy across to Bradwell, lighting fires, catching crabs, finding hiding places and making stinging nettle soup. Back on the saltings they would follow the board-walks for long distances up towards the Old Hall marshes and then set themselves the challenge to return without touching any wood. This would involve creek-jumping, wading, swimming and getting covered in mud which they could then wash off in the Tollesbury salt-water swimming pool. They explored wrecks and made up ghost stories.

Her parents were loving, caring, concerned but busy –  both of them in full time jobs (her mother was a midwife) – and perhaps they hadn't realised Felicity was not doing well at school. Middle school was a painful memory as some teachers made her feel a failure. This left her at the time with a personal lack of confidence. But that experience now gives her an immediate empathy with other people whose schooling has left them convinced that they “can't learn”.
Directing the "swamp test" needed to help develop safety 
Earlier in our meeting she was describing how she had battled a local school to convince them to allow a student to join Harker's Yard on work experience one day a week.
“The way they were talking made me so angry. Everything they were saying was negative,” she said.
Personally if I was a school, or a community group or a funding body I would give Felicity  whatever she wanted. She is so determined, thoughtful and clear.

Man Over Board drills with primary schools 
Whether or not her teachers noticed, the week at Fellowship Afloat and Felicity's passion for sailing  gradually transformed her level of achievement. She was still a dreamer, still obsessed by sailing but now that she knew she wanted to spend more and more time at Fellowship Afloat she realised that she was going to need to get her school work done so that her parents would let her go. She got involved with the RYA qualifications scheme and passed her level 2 at the age of 11 - at the same time as her  Key Stage Two SATs. She began to love this different sort of learning. She also noticed from the slightly older youngsters, who were volunteer instructors and role models on board Trinity that she wanted to be better at school. So she pushed her self to do better. One type of learning reinforced the other. As she struggled to calculate tidal heights, for instance, she discovered that maths generally was becoming easier. Finally she began achieving at school as well as outside and made it to Essex University, not just for her undergraduate degree but for a Masters in English Literature with Professor Marina Warner, no less. (And for those of you who don't know, at this point you bow your head in intellectual acknowledgement – or, at the very least you smother a reverential gasp).

Felicity had a gap year before she went to university and spent it working with Fellowship Afloat. This was the point at which she really began to understand how fortunate she'd been in her own childhood and how tough life was for many other people. She met children who had been physically deformed by the Chernobyl disaster, for instance. At Fellowship Afloat she went sailing every day, whatever the weather. She became hardy but she also learned that sailing by itself wasn't enough for her, it was the people that mattered. This is the attitude that informs her work at Pioneer. The essence of the job is to use sailing, the environment, the yard, Pioneer herself to make a beneficial difference to people's lives.

A  sailing trip to Holland with the apprentices to visit other boat yards
Operations Manager is a varied job. Felicity has responsibility for the sail training groups on Pioneer as well as for aspects of the management of the apprentices in Harkers Yard. She also liaises with local community groups, other charities, volunteers and funders. It would probably take a whole new blogpost to do justice to the range of activities she undertakes and the variety of people she meets as she works. I think I'll return to the influences of her childhood and the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons analogy. I asked her which character she would have liked to be, expecting the answer Titty, the imaginative, thoughtful story-teller – Felicity had described herself as 'dreamy'. But no. “Who was the tough one?” That was Nancy.
“Yes, as a child I'd like to have been Nancy.” Then she paused and we both felt united in our appreciation of the confident resourceful Amazon pirate who has captured so many Ransome readers' hearts. “Except now in my job I'm Susan,” she added.

Felicity talking to Penny on launch day of HLF clothing project
Susan, for those who don't know was the child who took care of warmth and safety and making sure that fires stayed alight and there were regular meals. Few children would ever have admitted to wanting to be Susan. The combination however of Nancy;'s adventurous resourcefulness, with Susan's practicality plus a goodly dollop of Titty's qualities of imagination and empathy seems to me to be exactly what's required of the operations manager at Harker's Yard. I hope they phrased it that way on the job spec.