Uncle on the High Seas

The wellbeing of our boys is supported by new approaches to community living as demonstrated by programs like the Uncle Project in Byron Bay.

Take one large sailing ship with six male crew, take 16 boys from nine to 15 years old who don’t see their dads much (if at all) add eight well intentioned men (fathers will do if they’re willing) mix well and simmer on a rolling ocean in varying wind strengths for four days.

Uncle Byron Bay is a charity dedicated to helping fill the gap in the lives of boys who do not have active fathers. Working at Uncle is a wonderful experience as the men that volunteer to be uncles come from an extraordinary range of backgrounds but all share the desire to put something back into the community at its most fundamental level. We know that the children of single parents generally do worse in life, more likely to drink, use drugs, smoke, and commit crime. They even have shorter life spans. This is not because single parents are bad but because in general they make up one of the poorest and most isolated parts of our population and poverty and isolation are the main predictors of poor life outcomes. As a society we have abandoned single parents and thus their children to the bottom of the social hierarchy as funding for pensions, public schooling, public health and public housing keeps shrinking. Uncle Byron Bay is a community funded and run, grass roots response to this slow motion disaster happening around us and is modelling itself for other communities as a new approach to helping solve these issues.

A year ago Ralph, a volunteer at Uncle, came up with the hair-brained idea of taking a bunch of boys and uncles on a sail training voyage. I told him to look into the possibilities while thinking ‘it’s probably completely out of our reach’. Then we heard about the Paul Neuman foundation and applied (on the last possible day) for a grant. We got that grant (Paul Neuman really does give all its profits to charities in the country of purchase) and after months of planning and effort to raise the other half of the money ourselves, spent four days of wonderful and transformative adventure on the 100-foot gaff rigged schooner The South Passage. This beautiful aluminium hulled vessel is a replica of an 1850s pilots cutter. It was built by Simon (the sail master on our journey) who then revived the Queensland Sail Training Association, which has sole use of the ship. He is still the treasurer and says The South Passage has achieved everything he hoped for. Our voyage was a great example of his vision being realised. The Queensland Sail Training Association was a perfect match for Uncle with very similar motivations.

Before the journey we divided into three watches of eight, attempting to honour friendships, dislikes, ‘uncle’/’nephew’ relationships and the two fathers who were able to come with their sons as well as maintaining a full age range in each group. We travelled to Southport by bus and after introductions to the captain, cook, sail master, and three volunteer watch leaders we were shown our new home and duties and given strict safety instructions. Then we motored out of the harbour and set sail in a brisk breeze on a rolling sea.

For at least half an hour all was excitement as we cut through the swell accompanied by dolphins and whales—and then the first boy vomited and then another and another and then one of the men and so on and so on. After two hours of exciting sailing, the majority of us were too sick to enjoy the trip and grateful to be back in the shelter of the harbour. At this point came the first really wonderful surprise. When I was young, if I vomited I expected adult pampering and I’d kick up a hell of a fuss if I didn’t get it (still do) and I know enough kids to know this is still true. However in response to the crew’s very matter of fact ways of dealing with seasickness, every one of the boys accepted without complaint that this was just part of the deal. As soon as they were able they were back up and helping with the various tasks on board. I am sure that many of their mothers would have been very surprised.

The next few days were spent sailing around Morton Island, going ashore, walking, swimming, snorkelling and fishing. We hoisted, belayed, lowered, tacked, jibed, scrubbed and all that other swarthy seadog stuff. It was all fantastic fun but it was not the main thing going on which was the relationships developing between boys, men and crew.

The boys started to get proud of the skills they were learning, I noticed older boys patiently explaining knots to younger ones. Boys started jumping in to help before they were asked. Humour was evident everywhere. The crew changed too, the captain started off as a hard unsmiling grumpy character. He lay down the law with a bellowing voice and serious threats. On the second day, our youngest boy Yoshi planted a huge hug and a kiss on him for letting him go fishing. The captain cracked, not only did he laugh, he was caught smiling and laughing often after that and retained a particularly fond regard for young Yoshi (even though he still had to yell at him a lot as he is incorrigibly cheeky).

After the trip Simon asked about Dan, an 18 year-old who had come along. We discussed how much Dan had gotten out of the adventure and how he was somewhat lost and directionless in his life. Simon then offered to sponsor Dan on a seven-day voyage from Brisbane to Sydney. It is from this generosity of spirit that community grows.

Shipboard life provided a clear social structure with clear rules (that had good reasons behind them) and it provided examples of different men’s approaches to exciting and dangerous challenges. Neil Young, president of Uncle Byron Bay (and renowned night helmsman) said, ‘It was a fantastic experience for all of us and it was amazing to watch how the boys responded so positively to the challenges of the voyage, we could see them changing into men right in front of our eyes. It’s the sort of thing most of these boys would never get a chance to do and it’s just what Uncle is all about.’ Confronted with a set of new and challenging tasks the boys automatically adopted the approach of the men around them and while still playful, cheeky and frequently naughty (as were the men) they behaved with maturity whenever it was required of them.

This adventure exemplified the goals of Uncle Byron Bay and clearly shows the importance of such experiences in the lives of boys approaching manhood. As the coordinator of Uncle and a youth worker I’ve rarely seen such a perfect example of positive mentoring. With the example of the crew and uncles, the boys quickly rose to the occasion and were generous and cooperative with each other. Their resilience and good humour under the pressure of seasickness, and the demands of crewing the ship, performing new and often hard physical tasks, was inspirational. The crew and uncles on the voyage provided a set of maps of manhood.

If you are a single mum worried about your son, look for opportunities to bring him into contact with such men, whether through adventure like this example, sport or simply your networks of friends. It builds networks, it builds community and it can transform a boy’s life. The men do not have to be perfect as long as their intention is good. Boys are smart, and able to accept or reject different aspects of the behaviour they see around them. But without any map at all, the path to manhood may be very hard indeed.

Uncle Byron Bay can be contacted on (02) 6680 8582 or visit

Published in byronchild/Kindred, Issue 3

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