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Autism on the Water: We speak to the charity's founder Murray MacDonald

by Mark Jardine 3 Nov 2022 14:10 UTC
Autism on the Water at the 2022 Southampton Boat Show © Mark Jardine

We spoke to Murray MacDonald, who runs the charity Autism on the Water, which is committed to raising awareness of the autistic spectrum through the sport of sailing and helping autistic people to access sailing.

They have been present at some of Scotland's top regattas, and now - with the sponsorship of GJW Direct - this summer they made the 600-mile trip to the Solent and took part in Round the Island Race and Cowes Week.

Mark Jardine: How did you start sailing in the first place?

Murray MacDonald: I grew up in Oban, on the west coast of Scotland. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all lifelong members of Oban Sailing Club. When I first started sailing I absolutely hated it, but family persuasion and gentle teaching from friends has made it a big part of my life.

Mark: What was it that made you initially dislike the sailing, and how did that turn around?

Murray: Well the shouting never helped! My father was a very competitive sailor and was a big shouter. Also the heeling over with the wind. I used to only like it when the spinnaker was up, because then the boat sat upright (until we broached). It was also the coldness and the waves. All the general things that many people would dislike.... but it got to the point where I realised it was going to be part of our family life, so... gotta learn to like it.

Mark: So you managed to make it through the difficult point of sailing, to get to the point where it's enjoyable. But I feel nowadays, with getting on the water, there are far better ways to enjoy it from the word go. Would you say overall you've seen that as more applicable than it was when you started sailing?

Murray: Yes. Over the years sailing has always been a popular sport, but in recent years there's been loads of chat about getting more diversity into the sport - women's sailing, blind sailing, sailability - plus all the damage we do to the ocean when we throw plastic into it. This has become a very important part of the culture that we live in.

Mark: So sailing has become more inclusive, more sustainable, and we are looking at how we can protect the oceans we sail in. You mentioned blindness, and we have classes like the Hansa which help remove physical barriers to sailing. But you have started Autism on the Water - what prompted you to do that?

Murray: When it started it was a random idea on a random Facebook page. There was no plan, there was no money, nothing at all. Just an idea to raise a bit of awareness of autism. I thought it would fade away in six months, but people took a massive interest in it, and I started to do a lot of research; there's Sailability, Blind Sailing, the Paralympics, all these wonderful charities, but there was nothing I could find specifically for autism in the UK. That's what prompted me to keep on doing the research, and trying to build what is now Autism on the Water. What drove me even more was, the very first time we took some autistic people sailing - and this was just an awareness campaign - one of the mums started crying, and I asked her what was wrong: "My seven-year old has never spoken (verbally) until we went sailing today."

Mark: That must have been quite a moment for you!

Murray: It was the moment I realised that, yep, I've started something pretty important here.

Mark: Autism can result in many sensory things in the world being very problematic, and sailing can provide an outlet - a sense of freedom - for a lot of people. Is this what you are finding with the experience of sailors in Autism on the Water?

Murray: I was very fortunate in that, apart from just my family, I was able to sail with very good friends that I met through the Oban Sailing Club, including Sir Boyd Tunnock (of teacake and wafer fame), and many different people gave me these opportunities. People with autism wouldn't easily have that, so as Autism on the Water grew, I wanted to repay the kindness of those sailors, and provide those on the spectrum with the chances that I got, for free. The awareness of autism is growing and growing, there's 700,000+ people with autism in the UK, and there's various different views about it. But sailing is a platform, it's a sport that's unique to them, and when they get out with us they get the chance to steer the boat or trim the sails (or even just sit on the deck with their iPad out) and enjoy the thrill of being away from life. When you're on the water you forget about the stresses of life, and you're in a whole new world.

Mark: You say it was random chance that this all started from a post on Facebook, so how has this grown?

Murray: It's grown through us doing events, from our first open day, trips on the Crinan Canal, to getting our first Hunter 707 which we have campaigned all round the country to raise awareness of the charity. It has also stretched further afield, to places like Hong Kong where I met David Witt [skipper in The Ocean Race]. It was another random chance, but during one his videos I saw he had taken one of our wristbands, and was talking about his nephew just being diagnosed with autism. That resulted in members of David's family getting in touch with me for advice. Since then, David and his wife have struck up a friendship with me, and they have been huge supporters of the charity. He's had me out on their 100 footer during Antigua Week - and giving an autistic person the chance to helm a 100ft Maxi in 25 knots is quite a thing! That is one of my lifetime memories! Also David saw an emotional post from me, where I said I'd never won a race on a yacht with Autism on the Water; he messaged me directly and said he would come over to Scotland, get us a new set of sails, bring some of his boys, and he'd help me get that first race win. He didn't help me get one race win... he helped me get four!

Mark: Sailors have proved, especially in recent years, that they are an incredibly inclusive bunch; your story about David Witt personifies it. Have you found good support from the industry and from sailors?

Murray: Absolutely! Even during the pandemic, we noticed that. Obviously David Witt has connections with worldwide sailors, then at the Scotland Boat Show and the Southampton Boat Show, that is the chance for the industry to see what we do. This past year, one of our big supporters has been GJW Direct, who have sponsored our whole South Coast campaign. The aim of that campaign was to see if there was enough interest to register a branch down here, and I'm pleased to confirm it has been a success; we intend to set up a branch on the South Coast.

Mark: You've met up with various similar groups - such as Oarsome Chance - is that an area where you can combine forces to make more opportunities available for autistic sailors?

Murray: Lottie Harland, who runs Oarsome Chance, is a good friend of mine, and was part of our original race crew on the Hunter 707 back in 2017. I've admired what Lottie has done, especially the whole Fastnet campaign; having an all-autistic team in one of the biggest yacht races is amazing. Even though they were not able to finish, for safety reasons, I take my hat off to them. Unfortunately Lottie and her partner are now extremely busy and are having to dissolve their charity, but their enthusiasm is still there and they want to join in with Autism on the Water. Our team will get bigger, and will then have people who are both autistic and very good at sailing, to help us provide the opportunities that we are trying to give.

Mark: Running a charity is not a small task, but you've already done that, so can other small-scale organisations now become a part of Autism on the Water?

Murray: Running a charity is not easy by any stretch; I can vouch for that, anywhere in the world. There's always a sense of achievement when you're part of it. A lot of people seem to think we just turn up and go sailing - it doesn't work like that! We've got to plan the volunteers, find the sponsorship (which is an every day process), make sure the boat is in safe condition... we've got to provide everything and make sure it is all by the book. It is a very challenging job, particularly for someone like me, who has never gone to university or college. That charity's not just about making achievements happen, it's about the life skills you learn from it, and we are learning a lot of life skills, particularly this last year in terms of sponsorship and money management, Healthy and Safety, and safeguarding policies. It's a huge learning curve, but a great learning curve. We overcome it each time and we emerge better people than we were before.

Mark: This brings me back to what we talked about right at the beginning. If you are the parent of an autistic child, or autistic yourself, what does sailing give to you?

Murray: Sailing has given me, a person with autism, confidence, problem solving skills, and social skills. Some of the most difficult skills a person with autism can struggle with on a daily basis. In a sport like sailing, whether cruising or racing, stuff has to be done that little bit quicker than normal; let's say for example you're cruising into a channel and have to tack very quickly to avoid a rock. A person with autism needs time to process how a tack is going to work, but in this situation there is not time, and we have to get in there straight away and let that jib go! The confidence they get from this, and the quick problem solving, is great - such as thinking "look at that winch, the handle needs to come off and go to the other side". Then the social skills, because they are working as part of a team, and meeting new people.

Mark: I've seen it first-hand and understand everything you're saying there. So, if people want to get in contact with you, either for themselves or for people close to them, or as a potential sponsor, what should they do?

Murray: We have a website and our email is, and of course we have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (with Facebook being our main base).

Mark: Thanks so much for your time.

Murray: Thank you!

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