Stephen and Ryan’s Outdoor Careers

Stephen stands on a waterfront wearing a bag across his chest and has waterproof clothes and boots on.A Donegal man and his son are steering into new career paths in water sports after an exciting year of training as Outdoor Activity Instructors.


Stephen McNamee from Stranorlar and his son Ryan Cunningham both did an Outdoor Activity Instructor traineeship with Donegal Education and Training Board’s Further Education and Training (FET) Service at its Outdoor Education and Training Centre at Gartan from 2022-2023.


In that time, they gained qualifications to teach windsurfing, kayaking, mountaineering and more. They braved the elements, worked as a team and, on many days, took in the beauty of Donegal’s natural landscape and coast.


“It was good to experience the course as son and father,” Stephen said. “We were doing things we love to do and bonding.”


Ryan, 21, loves to surf and Stephen’s passion is in kayaking. On completing the course in October 2023, Ryan emigrated to New Zealand and now works part-time as a surf instructor.


For Stephen, learning alongside his son was an added bonus to an enjoyable year.


“It was really nice to experience it with Ryan before he went away,” he said.


Stephen had been working in construction all his life before making the switch to outdoor education.


“I was driving diggers and cranes for 20 years but I was always doing kayaking as a hobby. Sea kayaking is my main passion. I was always away in London and Dublin and I wanted to be home but I wanted to do something different,” he said.


“Because I left school at the young age of 15, I didn’t know where to go. Going back to a course after 25 years was a bit daunting.


“I kept putting it off for years, but one day my wife said, ‘I’m putting your name down for it, and if you get in, you get in’.”


Stephen’s only regret now is that he didn’t start the traineeship four years ago!


Alongside sports, the course covers essential skills such as first aid, child protection, sailing, river safety and rescue training.


“The instructors at Gartan are amazing,” Stephen said. “They are like a family, with decades of experience. Some people have been there over 40 years. You are never scared to ask a question.”


Stephen said his classmates too made the programme so enjoyable. Working outdoors in Donegal isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but the team developed a strong camaraderie.


“There are days you are freezing or rowing for hours in the winter, but we motivate each other to push on and keep going,” Stephen said.


“That was the true difference for me coming from a building site. In construction, you don’t complain, but at Gartan we all try and boost morale, I enjoyed all that. You get to know yourself more.”


Qualifications in outdoor activities can take you anywhere, with some of last year’s group travelling around the world on tall ships or as far as Hong Kong.


Stephen’s ideal career lies closer to home.


“Personally, down the line, I would love to buy five or six kayaks and do trips around the islands in Donegal. I would love that to be my job every day, visiting Owey Island and places that are so amazing they shock you.”


The course has allowed Stephen to brush up on navigation, wind conditions, currents and PPE to take groups out on the water. Every day of the traineeship was a different experience, he said.


“Every day is different because the water is different. The wind and the weather tells you what to do.”


Students are offered an eight week work placement, which Stephen did in Gartan to be closer to home.


“Gartan has an excellent crew, it’s very well run, it’s safe and it’s great to have experienced people to learn from. Everything is at your doorstep, from the Derryveagh mountains to the clean lake,” he said.


“You are meeting different people with different personalities and different disabilities. You get a lot from working with kids with disabilities. They really appreciate being able to do things with their friends. When a child in a wheelchair gets into the water with their classmates, everyone is equal in a sense. You can see that in their face and it’s a really nice thing to experience.


“I wish I did it four or five years ago. I loved it so much I wanted to do the second part of it.”


Stephen then went on to do an upskilling course to qualify in more advanced levels in Kayaking, as well as gain qualifications in Stand Up Paddleboarding and Mountain Biking (Trail Cycle Leader). He enjoyed the extra focus this course placed on the sea, navigation, and the islands. Training includes reading maps, finding point A to point B, navigating at night, using a compass and more.


After this year, Donegal visitors could soon be seeing Stephen promoting his bespoke tours around Donegal.


“I think every student who leaves school should have to do a year of something like this,” he said, “to go off and find themselves before making any big life decisions.”


“Even if you want to be a lawyer or doctor and go for a big career down the line, you might decide to travel first.


“My advice is that if you are stuck in life and don’t know what to do, training changes your thoughts and makes you look at yourself and evaluate what you do. If you enjoy something, you pick it up quickly.”


This traineeship is co-funded by the European Union through the European Social Fund Plus. 

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