FACT History


In 1965, the inspiration for what was to become Fellowship Afloat grew out of a summer camp for a Harlow church youth group. The young leaders of that camp dreamed of creating a permanent venue for young people to enjoy the challenge and excitement of outdoor activities – especially sailing – while providing an introduction to the Christian faith, and the possibility of developing a friendship with God. 

Harlow youth group summer camp in 1965
The origins of Fellowship Afloat: a church youth group camping holiday which included sailing, at Salcombe in Devon.

The search began for something floating on which to start the venture, and a place from which to operate. This led the youth group leaders to the unique charms of the Blackwater estuary and to the purchase of the oyster smack William Emily, affectionately known as ’Odd Times‘ in Tollesbury. Quickly joined by local supporters, they took on the task of restoring her to glorious sail.

Smack William Emily sailing in Blackwater Estuary during the late 1960s
William Emily‘ sailing in the Blackwater Estuary, soon after conversion from an oyster smack by Fellowship Afloat volunteers.

The venture grew, but so did a need for a larger base, and the former Thames sailing barge Memory was to meet that need. In 1968 an anonymous donation enabled the group, by then established as a charitable trust, to purchase her. Moored alongside the old Gridiron Pier by Rickers Hard in Tollesbury’s saltmarshes, with accommodation for 22 and a cosy saloon, she became the weekend retreat for groups of young people who ventured into the estuary in sailing dinghies. Very quickly other groups from local authorities and probation offices discovered that a residential visit could challenge and benefit young offenders.

A youth group on board ‘Memory’ in the early 1970s


In 1970 a full-time warden was engaged and more and more volunteers from Tollesbury and the wider community began to support the sailing activities – which later became recognised by the Royal Yachting Association. Gradually, the staff team grew and other activities, such as art & craft and wildlife studies, became popular.

The 147-acre saltmarsh site surrounding Memory, historic yacht stores and boat yard came on the market in 1980. Fellowship Afloat needed a secure home but also had a dream that the area could provide the opportunity to broaden the scope of its work. By then, the trust had many friends and supporters, especially in the churches around Essex, who shared its vision and who were prepared to give, in many cases sacrificially, to support the work. With their help and that of a number of grant-making trusts, the site was purchased.

The yacht stores, boatyard and 150 acres of saltmarsh were purchased by the Trust in 1980. In this pic, a spring tide has covered most of the 150 acres!

The trust set up a company, Tollesbury Saltings Limited (TSL), to look after the running of the yacht berthing area, yacht stores and boat yard , and which would provide further support for the venture. The majority of the saltmarsh area, a site of international ecological importance, was set aside as a conservation area.

Pic of Trinity

The Spirit of Adventure Promo Video

Explore more of what we have to offer and take a look at our promotional video.

Widening the vision

At the time, unemployment was growing rapidly, and the trust was determined to do something about this locally. The Manpower Services Commission supported two Fellowship Afloat schemes: the first was the restoration of the four Edwardian yacht stores to their former glory, this enabled local unemployed adults to gain work experience and training. Upon completion in 1985, the project received a local design and conservation award. The second project was a boat building youth training scheme, which operated from the old engineering shed by the slipway and served over 60 local school leavers between 1983-87. This period created many new and valuable friendships and contacts in the local community.

The yacht stores following their refurbishment through a skills training and job creation scheme organised by Fellowship Afloat.

Groups continued to visit Memory and many primary school groups became regular users. It was realised that the old barge was in need of replacement. More accommodation was required and, though chemical toilets and paraffin lighting had given the centre a unique atmosphere since the early days, these facilities could not remain as they were. One thing was for sure, the new centre would have to float, so the search for a suitable craft ensued.

“I wish we could bottle the spirit of FACT and send it out to all!”
Secondary School Teacher.

Trinity arrives

In 1988, after looking at many different craft, a retired Trinity House lightvessel was inspected in Harwich Harbour. She was perfect: full of history, with potential to become a purpose-built activity centre – and in remarkable condition. Donations enabled the trust to buy ‘Lightvessel Number 15’ and, in the September of 1988, she was towed into the Gridiron berth where Memory had been previously moored. She was to dominate the saltmarsh skyline. Plans were drawn up to create visitors’ cabins for 36, with toilets and showers plumbed in to the local sewage works, and a galley and saloon to seat 50, with the existing crew’s accommodation being devoted to staff use. The trust was committed to preserving the original atmosphere and fit-out of the historic vessel.

Ex-Trinity House ‘Light Vessel No 15’ arrives in Tollesbury, September 1988

A devastating fire, which tore through (the empty) Memory on 24 January 1990 drove the lightvessel conversion on with renewed energy. On 31 July 1991, the lightvessel was renamed Trinity, and she began her second career as the trust’s new residential centre. The total cost of the venture was £360,000 – entirely funded from voluntary contributions.

Trinity’ dressed overall for her opening celebrations in July 1991

Trinity began to host over 80 groups each year, with children and young people coming from church youth groups, schools and care agencies, and a commitment to those with disabilities and disadvantage. Over the following 20 years group sizes increased and we added new activities, including team-building, climbing and archery. In 2014 we added a high ropes course.

Join our Gap Year Team

Every September FACT welcomes a new team of gap year staff. Typically these exciting posts are filled by students either before or after a degree, but are open to anyone who wants to apply. Full training is provided during the year, with lots of opportunity to develop a whole range of skills for life. If you interested in applying contact the office…

Trinity’s third age

Around the same time, we were aware that Trinity had further potential for expansion. A group of staff and volunteers started to investigate how she might be re-ordered and expanded to provide more guest accommodation (including ensuite cabins for adults and leaders), extra gathering spaces, better storage, and improved accessibility. An outline plan was developed in association with the architect who designed the original conversion. We named the project ‘Trinity3’, to mark the vessel’s third stage in life as a centre fit for the next 30 years of FACT’s service and ministry. To minimise disruption to groups and courses, work was carried out in annual winter phases, from 2017 – 2023.

Trinity’ extended: note the new upper saloon, the glazed light tower, and the whaleback’ on the foredeck – a store for kit and wet gear. Inside, the engine room was converted into new showers and toilets, accessible and ensuite cabins added, the galley extended, a new entrance and reception area built, and a new mooring to piles constructed.

Volunteers at FACT

Why not volunteer at FACT?

Volunteering at FACT is a great opportunity to make a difference! By working alongside our full time staff with our groups you will gain new skills and developing existing ones, you’ll have opportunities to serve others and make new friends. No previous experience is required- Only an enthusiastic and friendly attitude!

The people making FACT happen

Over the years, more than 150 staff have worked at the centre, and the wider fellowship comprises 2000 friends who support the work through prayer, volunteering and giving. A third of the centre’s income comes from their generosity, bringing adventure activities within reach of those not normally able to afford them.

Just a few of the staff, volunteers and supporters who over the years make up the vibrant Christian community which is Fellowship Afloat.

Currently, the trust employs seven full-time and part-time staff, supported by four volunteer ‘year out’ workers. Fellowship Afloat is incorporated as a limited company with charitable status, governed by nine directors, drawn from churches in Essex and London. Tollesbury Saltings Limited provides yacht berths for 120 customers and lets 12 yacht store units, it also has a thriving outboard motor agency and supporting boat yard facility. TSL has four permanent staff, working alongside a number of local self-employed tradesmen.

Local heroes!

Tollesbury has played an essential part in the growth and success of Fellowship Afloat. Right from the early days, it has benefited from the commitment and support of Tollesbury people and families. Many of our best sailors (no surprises here) have come from, and still come from, the village. We have been served wonderfully by the traders over the years (visitors are great fans of Tollesbury crusty bread). Most of all, the trust has reason to be grateful for Tollesbury’s forbearance with the many out-of-village ‘foreigners’ that come to Fellowship Afloat, a few of which have exhibited behaviour somewhat alien to village life.

Now, as then…

Fellowship Afloat sounds very established now – a far cry from those pioneering days in the 1960s. But now, as then, the trust is dependent entirely upon its volunteers who help run the courses, and on its wider fellowship of friends and supporters for their inspiration, skills, giving and prayers.

Want to know more?
If you would like to discuss any aspect of a visit onboard please do not hesitate to call us or email via our contact page.