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Home > Editorials > Sailing against the wind; how a teenager from Tottenham became the young sailor of the year

Sailing against the wind; how a teenager from Tottenham became the young sailor of the year

A freezing wind bites through the morning air as Scaramouche, the forty-five-foot sailing yacht moves gently through the water as it manoeuvres out of the marina. On board is Montel Fagan-Jordan, who stands tall at the helm of the boat, steering slowly and gazing out at the hundreds of pristine white sailing yachts surrounding him.

He looks out at all the gorgeous pristine sail boats that surround him. Compared to the rest of the yachts, Scaramouche sits in the sea like a small sprout in a field of sunflowers.

He observes the crew on the boat opposite them, designer sunglasses like hairbands on their sun-bleached hair as they polish their carbon fibre rigging. Their sponsored uniforms are immaculate and they are joking and laughing while sipping coffee from their flasks.

Montel looks to his own crew, apart from his form tutor, Mr Holt, they are all teenagers between the age of fifteen and sixteen, all blankly staring ahead in frozen fear. They are a long way from their school, Greig City Academy in Hornsey, North London. A school where over 73% of students are deemed disadvantaged and 62% consider English as an additional language.

Of the 1,533 boats taking part in the race today, Scaramouche is the only boat registered to an inner-city state school, and if they are successful, they will become the first state school to complete a competitive sailing race in European history. All they have to do is sail fifty miles around the Isle of Wight, and make it back to the starting point in one piece.

Although they bought the boat some new rigging and a flashy paint job through sponsors and fundraisers, it’s only been about three years since the boat they are currently sailing was sat in a field being engulfed by weeds and other plants. While they had spent the past couple years training and preparing for the race none of the students on board had sailed in conditions as bad as these.

They begin the race strong but soon enough Scaramouche struggles to fight the waves as it weaves in between boats. Mr Holt’s instructions become sterner and more direct and Montel begins wrestling the wheel instead of steering it. They look ahead of them at the bright orange lifeboat attending to the unsubmerged half of an expensive looking racing yacht.

The adrenaline and fear of the situation is having differing effects on the pair. Mr Holt has put on a brave face, he’s panicking about keeping the kids safe. Montel on the other hand is using the adrenaline to push the limits of the boat, these are the strongest winds they have ever been out in and he wants to see how just how fast they can go.

After roughly five hours at sea Mr Holt spots a sailboat in front of them make a mistake. The sailboat is attempting to turn but it’s now caught in the head-on wind, in irons, with its sails flapping. He watches helplessly as the wind suddenly powers up the sails and launches the boat into the direction of Scaramouche.

The crew have seconds to react. Derek and Junior jump to the other side of the boat while Mr Holt kneels down in the cockpit. Montel grits his teeth as he attempts to steer the boat out of the way while shielding himself behind the wheel. They all stare in painful anticipation and brace for impact as the bow of the boat drops from the crest of the wave and onto the side of the Scaramouche.

As the boats collide the masts clash together ripping off Scaramouche’s radar and causing both boats to violently shake. The headsail of the colliding boat misses Montel’s head by inches and whizzes past the ear of the cameraman stood behind him.

Mr Holt frantically looks around grabbing the lifejackets of each student making sure everyone is safe. Everyone is okay. He checks around the boat to make sure there isn’t a leak and the boat isn’t sinking. It’s still intact.

At this point, they are exactly halfway through the race. They have to make a decision. Do they do what 300 other yachts have done and retire from the competition, or do they keep pushing forward with a damaged boat and attempt to make history as the first state school to ever complete the race.

Sheer willpower and grit overcame the shadow of fear and doubt that had cast itself over the crew. They decided to keep pushing forward and try to  make history.

They keep one eye on the sea and another on the mast as they career around the island and towards the finish line. The sea is still rough but they battle through, slowly but surely, and make their way round the headland. With the end in sight, they cruise to the finish line in Cowes with the wind on their backs.

Montel can’t help but chuckle, they lost the radar, damaged the outboard engine, banged up the side of the hull and the mast was still shaking. But every single weary and exhausted face on that boat had a smile that made the 10 hours of ruthless sailing all worth it. The crowd watched on as the youngest son of a carpenter and teaching assistant steered Scaramouche to the finish line.

As a teenager in London, the idea that Montel could enjoy the sport of sailing was out of the question, the idea that he would skipper a yacht in one of the most prestigious races in the world seemed almost nonsensical. Mr Holt was the driving force in proving the doubters wrong, he sold his house, ran into debt and worked tirelessly to realise his dream of giving a group of minority inner-city school kids a fighting chance in an unequal society.

But Montel’s achievements didn’t stop there, after returning to the school a hero he went on to sail the same boat in the Fastnet race just a year later. During the 605-mile race Montel navigated and steered for over four hours in the dark, helping them finish in a top 150 place out of 368 competitors.

After the Fastnet and Round the Island races Montel began to turn heads in the sailing community. In 2018 he was voted for by over 250 yachting journalists to win the prize for ‘The Young Sailor of the Year Award’, placing him directly in the footsteps of Ben Ainslie and Hannah Mills. He is also the first black man to ever win the award. His ability to charm sponsors, pitch to enormous sailing companies and go to endless lengths to help the Project Scaramouche sailing project is what made him stand out among the other candidates.

With over 3,000 nautical miles under his belt there was not much surprise when he got a phone call for an internship at Alex Thompson Sailing. Here, Montel was able to sail some of the most exciting seas in the world, including a trans-Atlantic to the Caribbean. His former teacher Mr Holt stated, “It is a bit emotional when I look at Montel, seeing him stood in that pristine white sailing outfit and mixing with all those professionals. A part of you feels a bit sad because he’s moved on, and he’s moved so far. The goal is to give these kids a fighting chance and help them succeed in life, and we use sailing as the framework in order to do that.”

Montel is currently at Portsmouth University looking to graduate with a first-class honour, his dream is to compete in a race around the world. While the Covid-19 restrictions meant he had to miss a few months of sailing, he has been staying fit at home rearing to get out on the sea again.

Project Scaramouche still runs at the core of Greig City Academy. They have a growing fleet of dinghies that they use for training purposes and are now beginning to send pupils to Portugal to be professionally trained by the Olympic sailing team. Between 160-200 students now take part in the outdoor education project with around 20 kids expected to follow in the footsteps of Montel.

Montel still helps to train the students currently involved in Project Scaramouche, ‘A lot of the students have now got really good facilities and support structures in order to really excel at sailing.’ A cheeky smile spreads across his face, ‘Some of them are even better than me, but I would never admit that to them.’

By Max J Stott