Wirral Sea Angling Academy: One man’s journey from addict to community hero

“A few years ago I was a homeless heroin addict living in a tent in a train station car park in Birkenhead.”, Ben Koba told birkenhead.news. He knew he had to change something about his life or he was going to die.

“I had been into sea fishing as a youngster and decided to try it again.”, Ben continued. When pay-day came around, instead of buying drugs, he bought a rod and reel and got back into fishing. “It immediately gave me something to focus my energy on and I have never looked back.”, Ben explained.

Through despair and determination to turn his life around and from these humble beginnings, Ben started the ‘Wirral Sea Angling Academy.’

The word of Ben’s project got around and other addicts starting asking him to take them sea-fishing and teach them how to do it. “It just snowballed from there.”, Ben said. “Soon I had all kinds of people wanting to go sea-fishing, Veterans, the disabled, people with mental health problems and people who just wanted to try it out.”

The ‘Wirral Sea Angling Academy’ is a not-for-profit organisation and since starting it, Ben has held around 300 trips with over 200 different people taking part.

First catch of the day. Image: www.fotopiaimages.com

One of Ben’s fishing protégés is Adam Hoolahan, who is registered blind. On a chilly but sunny Sunday afternoon at a fishing pitch near to Seacombe Ferry, Adam was, along with two other blind fishermen and with Ben and his partner, Kristy, wrapped up warm ready to land a catch. On hearing that birkenhead.news was to publish an article about Ben’s venture, Adam became effusive with praise for the opportunity that Ben’s academy had provided. A few days later, he wrote the following:

“I first met Ben and quickly became friends with him last summer. After finding a lot of common ground and that we had roughly the same interests I started going to his house for my tea from time to time, and it was there that he asked me one day if I would like to try sea fishing.

“I had never fished before and I knew very little about what it entailed, but I found Ben’s passion for it electrifying, so how could I have said no? I like to give everything a go and as far as possible, not allow my lack of sight to be a barrier to trying new things.

“So, I took up sea fishing last August, with Ben giving me one-to-one tuition. What I loved was not only being out by the river which I found extremely calming and therapeutic but Ben’s knowledge of the river Mersey and the many species which call it home.

“Ben was very reassuring and patient, explaining what different parts of the rod, line and reels were used for and giving me hands-on demonstrations, making this a tactile experience for me. Catching my first fish felt exhilarating and I was incredibly proud of myself when I caught a baby cod and a flatfish in one four-hour session.

Adam Hoolahan, “Fishing had done a lot to help me to overcome stress and anxiety, much of this exacerbated by COVID restrictions”
Image credit: www.fotopiaimages.com

“For the past eighteen months, I have been involved with ‘Wirral Society of the Blind and Partially Sighted’ (WSBPS) in Birkenhead, a charity that has done a lot to help the lives of myself and other visually impaired people in the community.

“Because I had discovered that blindness is no barrier to activities like sea fishing, I asked Ben if he would be interested in working with visually impaired people (VIPs) as part of his new venture, Wirral Sea Angling Academy (WSAA), something which he readily embraced.

“For me, fishing had done a lot to help me to overcome stress and anxiety, much of this exacerbated by COVID restrictions, so I saw this as a great opportunity to introduce other visually impaired people to an outdoor activity where they could spend time with people safely, in accordance with COVID guidelines.

“From the January lockdown onwards, myself and other service users of WSBPS have been taking part in regular zoom meetings to keep in touch with one another and to plan what activities we wanted to do when lockdown was over. I invited Ben onto one of these meetings to talk to other visually impaired people about his experience of instructing me in sea fishing and to tell us about the tuition which he wanted to offer to other visually impaired people in the community.

“This was met with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm by the people on the call, but this was January, and we were unable to facilitate trips until the easing of restrictions in March, So in March, I invited Ben to speak to some people from WSBPS again, to let them know that he and his experienced team of volunteer instructors would soon be able to take people out on fishing trips.

“There was a much bigger turnout for this zoom meeting, about fifteen people. During the meeting, I remember one gentleman saying how fortunate we were as a community to be able to access activities like sea fishing which could be enjoyed by visually impaired people.

“During the past few weeks, Ben and I have spent a lot of time discussing how best to give visually impaired people verbal instructions which are concise and clear. Before Ben advertised to other visually impaired clients, he and I had some one-to-one sessions in which he would give me some instructions and hands-on demonstrations, and I would sometimes make suggestions as to how the instructions could be made easier to understand from a visually impaired person’s perspective.

“Handling a rod requires quite a lot of quick and exact movement, so spending some time with Ben talking about delivering instructions was extremely valuable.

“I am delighted to see that so far, quite a few service users of WSBPS have come on trips facilitated by Ben and his fantastic team of volunteers at WSAA, and I am getting extremely positive feedback both from service users and members of staff who are telling me that it is really helping them, particularly during these uncertain times.

“I would recommend sea-fishing to anyone, visually impaired or otherwise. You meet people, sometimes you catch, sometimes you don’t but I believe that is part of the excitement, and you get to remove yourself for a little while from the constraints and stresses of modern life.”

Ben closed by saying, “Fishing not only enriched my life, it completely turned it around! Which is why I do what I do! I believe it’s something that anyone and everyone can enjoy! If anyone would like to get involved or help, please feel free to contact me!”

You can either contact the ‘Wirral Sea Angling Academy’ through their Facebook group, or by contacting Ben Koba on Facebook directly.

Wirral Sea Angling Academy – https://www.facebook.com/groups/723392068274819

Wirral Society of the Blind and Partially Sighted – https://wirralsociety.org.uk/

Ben Koba, “Fishing not only enriched my life, it completely turned it around!”
Enjoying the fresh air at Seacombe.
First catch of the day. Small bells are attached to the rod, so that the anglers can tell when they’ve hooked a fish.
One of the sea anglers at Seacombe.
Ben is seen here rebaiting the rod for Adam.
Learning the casting technique.
Kristy enjoying a sunny April day!
Kristy removing the hook from the fish.

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