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Brit uses sailing to steer youth

John Norris is sailing a new, bigger boat back to England to continue his work with troubled kids

John Norris is sailing a new, bigger boat back to England to continue his work with troubled kids

Somewhere on the Atlantic, as this issue of Soundings hits the newsstand or lands in your mailbox, a small sloop is making its way home to Great Britain.

On board are duffle bags full of thrift store clothing, a shopping cart load of stuff from The Home Depot, and gobs of “dollar store” items that the skipper, John Norris, gathered during a three-week stay in Annapolis, Md. He’s being steered by a new windvane that he bought at the Annapolis sailboat show. And he’s carrying with him the blessings of a local charity, along with, he says, the future of some hard-case delinquents back in England.

Norris is, according to one schoolteacher back home, a self-propelled do-gooder, a “freelance social worker” who uses sailing to show troubled kids they have value. He bought the boat, named Labyrinth, from Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, an Annapolis organization that brings sailing to the disabled.

Labyrinth is a 1974 Camper & Nicholson 33 built in England and donated to CRAB last December. Norris, a native of SomersetCounty in southwestern England, where he used to teach sailing on a reservoir, paid CRAB $8,700 for the boat in September. Labyrinth is a racer. Sister ships twice have won England’s legendary Fastnet Race. This one is making its way across the Atlantic by a suit of 11 sails, including several high-tech, lightweight sails, that a prior owner bought in hopes of winning races. Norris describes his goal as a different sort of victory.

“A kid with a job, a steady relationship and an apartment is a success story,” he says.

Norris, who is the single parent of two daughters and a son, says he became involved with troubled youth after he volunteered to take in children who were living in Britain’s foster care system. Children from troubled homes, he says, are first placed in “protective custody” before they are farmed out to private homes.

His exposure to these children led him to work with youth involved in using alcohol and drugs, “a big problem with kids in the U.K,” Norris says. Using his 7.1 meter sloop moored in Plymouth, Norris says, he takes boys and girls offshore and, with no actual training, turns the steering and sail handling over to them to sort out.

“Quite often I do very little” to guide the youth, Norris says. He tries to get them “back on track, back in school” by letting them see aboard the boat that they are capable of doing things themselves, he says.

The teacher who knows Norris — and asked not to be named to safeguard confidentiality — says the sailor’s work with youth has had positive results “that would have been unheard of” without his intervention. The teacher tells of one young person who was “in danger of getting screwed up, but spent time with John, went on the boat, and is now applying for college.”

Norris says that when teens tell him he doesn’t understand their problems, they are mistaken. As a child, he says, he learned to sail with his father and had a passion for horses, as well. Then he was given a scholarship to a private boarding school. Before he was 15, Norris says, his mother told him that his father had died. (He later learned his father simply had left home.) Then he got the greater shock. Returning home for the winter holidays, he arrived at the bus station, where he expected to be met by his mother. She did not appear, so a cab driver took him home, where he was met at the door by a strange man. His mother had moved away without telling him, Norris says.

He says he stayed with a friend’s family and began working with horses. One of his customers offered him the use of a cottage on their estate, he says, and at the age of 15, he had his own truck and a blossoming business training horses.

Today, Norris says, he is a partner in a firm that converts truck chassis into vans for transporting horses and for other purposes. It was his partner in the firm who loaned him some of the money to complete the deal for Labyrinth, he says.

Thinking he could work with more youth if he had a larger boat, Norris had looked at an Internet auction site and found a suitable vessel in Norfolk, Va. The boat had a “buy now” price listed, so he contacted the seller. They spoke by phone, but by the time he returned to the Internet to place his bid, someone else had already purchased that boat, he says.

It was the seller in Norfolk who referred Norris to Don Backe, the executive director of CRAB. “I called Don, and he told me about the Nicholson,” Norris says. “This was on a Thursday in September.” By 6 o’clock that night, Backe had gone to the boat, taken digital photos, and e-mailed them to Norris. At 1 o’clock the following morning, Norris boarded a flight for Baltimore.

Labyrinth had been donated to CRAB by Keith Mayes, who raced the boat for three years out of HerringtonHarbor on the Chesapeake Bay’s WesternShore. There were a few nicks in the gelcoat, but Norris found it to be a solid, if Spartan, racer/cruiser.

“I arrived on Friday, looked at the boat on Saturday,” Norris says. Backe took Norris for a sail on another boat owned by CRAB, and before flying home on Monday, Norris had left a $3,000 deposit.

Two weeks later, Norris returned to Annapolis with the rest of the cash. Then he set about learning to navigate the city, hampered by a habit of driving on the left side of the road and by a language barrier that he had not expected. He says he kept seeing signs everywhere for a town called “Ped Xing.” And he was confused at first because a shopping cart was not called a “lorry.”

Amused or intrigued by Norris’ rural Britain accent, clerks from the Goodwill store to The Home Depot helped him negotiate their aisles. At the boat show, the salespeople for Hydrovane allowed him to buy their self-steering display model at the end of the show. He ordered a storm jib — the only essential sail not in the boat’s inventory — and then, on Oct. 16, he and his British crewman, Stuart Thompson, set sail north on the Chesapeake bound for the C&DCanal and ultimately the Atlantic.

CRAB’s Backe, a longtime sailor who was left a paraplegic after an automobile accident, said part of him went with Norris. “I felt incredible empathy, and I felt I was going with him — something I always wanted to do and couldn’t do,” says Backe.

“It’s great that it [Labyrinth] winds up in the hands of somebody who is trying to make a difference in the lives of others who are a little bit less fortunate or [are] at risk,” says Mayes. “I’m delighted.”