NORMAN Stephens will never forget the words of a teenager with Down syndrome after his first sail.

The boy said the experience at Otley Sailing Club, more than quarter of a century ago, was 'the first time in his life that he'd felt free'.

That phrase went on to inspire the name of the club's pioneering Sailfree programme for people with disabilities, which launched in 1993 - several years before the national Sailability scheme.

Senior instructor and trustee Mr Stephens was the driving force behind the move, which had been preceded by a Sailing for All initiative.

He has been running Sailfree ever since - and that dedication is the reason why the 78 year old has just been nominated, by his daughter Faye, for a Yorkshire Choice award.

He said: "I'm very pleased to have been nominated, it's amazing.

"I think one of the reasons Faye nominated me is that in July it will have been 50 years since I started at Otley Sailing Club, and I've been on the committee virtually the whole time.

"It was also more than 25 years ago that I started with a project called Sporting for All.

"We began Sailing For All and then, eventually, Sailfree.

"That name came from a youngster I had out at the club as part of a school trip, who had Down syndrome, who I got into a special dinghy and out on the water.

"Afterwards he said it was the first time he'd ever felt free - so Sailfree was born."

This July will also mark 25 years of Mr Stephens' involvement with Sailfree, which currently involves him working four days a week between Easter and October.

He will be scaling back his involvement after this summer, though he still intends to help as a volunteer.

Actually a Leeds resident, his relationship with Otley Sailing Club began when, half a century ago, a work colleague sold him a boat and he 'needed somewhere to sail it'.

After working for years in engineering, Mr Stephens changed career to work in education.

It was while teaching in Leeds that he first took a group of children with Down Syndrome on a sailing trip to Otley - and the rest is history.

He said: "It's so rewarding, words can't really explain.

"Eighteen months ago we started doing it for autistic children and now have three schools bringing their youngsters on a Tuesday.

"To see the look on those kids' faces is something else.

"Many of them find it hard to get off the bus or come through the clubhouse door but, 20 minutes later when you've got them out on a dinghy sailing solo on the lake - there's nothing can beat that.

"When you see that kind of reaction you don't need money."

The Yorkshire Choice award winners - Mr Stephens has been nominated in the Inspirational Individual category - will be announced at a ceremony on April 13.