One Cork-based sailing club is helping those suffering with addiction and mental health issues on the road to recovery, writes Ciara McDonnell.
Two years ago, Dubliner Will Burgess, 45, was at his lowest point. Battling a drug addiction that had isolated him from family and friends, Burgess was remanded to Wheatfield Prison on a shoplifting offence.
Despite attempting to kick the habit several times before this, a link with Coolmine Therapeutic Community gave him the support he needed to engage a meaningful attempt at recovery, and start a journey towards regaining his life.
Last September, Burgess was released from prison, and began a residential programme at Coolmine. Three weeks later he found himself somewhere he never thought he’d be: On a boat, sailing from Howth to Kinsale.
Sailing Into Wellness is an organisation devoted to instilling confidence and self-esteem to those suffering with addiction and mental health issues, through the medium of sailing.
Founded by James Lyons, a well-known sailing professional, and Colin Healy from Mallow, who has battled his own addiction and mental health problems, the programme teaches clients to sail, through the medium of teamwork.
The main aim of Sailing into Wellness is empowering people to cope with a challenging natural environment, says Healy.
“I wanted to work with groups dealing with addiction and mental health recovery because I had gone through it myself,” explains Healy.
For Burgess, the first experience with Sailing Into Wellness was profound.
“I thought of every reason under the sun not to do it, because that’s the way I used to think. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do it, that I couldn’t handle the anxiety of meeting new people, but I pushed myself and went for it. It was the best decision I ever made.”
Sailing on open water, learning new skills, and engaging with new people, Burgess says the voyage was life-changing.
“I felt that once I was on the boat, there were no more worries. It was as though I left my addiction and all my worries on land. It was very therapeutic to feel part of a team that was sailing, having a laugh and a joke with the team.
"I felt as though I was being myself for the first time in so long, and to feel self-belief in the fact that I took a chance and it worked out.”
Sailing Into Wellness offers two kinds of experiences. The first is a four-day Start Sailing programme to develop basic skills and confidence at sea, giving people what Healy calls the soft skills.
Phase two is a five-day voyage and live-aboard experience meaning the clients live, eat, and sleep onboard, exploring Irish coastal waters. This journey is where the very deep work is done, says Healy.
“On the voyages, you are completely immersed in this environment; you learn how to interact with people in a different way. We work with groups who have already been working with each other, so it’s not a group of strangers meeting for the first time. It takes a while for some people to get it, but once they do, it’s priceless.”
Joy Harrington is 34, from Knocknaheeny on Cork’s northside. A former addict, Harrington has been in recovery since 2016, and says that challenging herself with programmes like Sailing Into Wellness have been key to her success. Sailing from Crosshaven, she has been surprised by how much she enjoys the teamwork involved.
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“I didn’t realise that there would be so much teamwork involved; everyone has a part to play and that’s a great thing. Before, I would have found it very hard to work with other people — you have to be able to ask for help and that’s what programmes like this teach you to do.”
Currently studying to become a gym instructor, Harrington is committed to her new way of living, and meeting fear head-on.
The biggest misconception about those of us who suffer with mental health and addiction, says Healy, is that it is an affliction rather than a health issue.
“Addiction and mental health are both inextricably linked and are both health issues. We need to start teaching people that these health issues can be dealt with in a more open way, without being under the guise of a health model.”
Sailing Into Wellness is not trying to reinvent the wheel, says the co-founder. They are seeking to provide a complementary service to traditional methods of recovery.
Healy knows the benefits of sailing, because he has experienced them himself. “I have been through the psychiatric services and I’ve been to a rehab.
As much as they helped to put me back on my feet, it’s so important to be able to feel part of society again and engaging. I wanted to give people the opportunity to gain ownership again, and being in a different environment. We call it stealth therapy, because they don’t know it’s happening to them.”
Last year the Sailing Into Wellness brand of therapy was recognised with an award of a €50,000 cash grant and a place on one of the only accelerator programmes designed specifically for social enterprises as part of Social Innovation Fund Ireland’s newest fund, the Social Enterprise Development Fund.
The success, says Healy, is only measurable by their participants. By the end of 2018, Sailing Into Wellness will have had over 600 people experience a journey with one of its teams in Cork and Dublin, and the future, says the co-founder, is bright.
“The normal rates for completing a recovery programme according to Coolmine’s figures, is 40%. The guys who were involved with us last year had 80%-85% completion rate.”
With a team of sailing professionals as empathetic as they are expert, Healy and Lyons have created a means of building confidence and self-esteem, while learning a new skill. Will Burgess is one of their great success stories.
Since starting to sail with the group, he has come on leaps and bounds and is now training to be a sailing instructor, as well as working part-time at Coolmine Therapy Centre.
His life is forever changed.
"Every opportunity that comes, I jump at it. I never thought of sailing or the therapeutic value of it, but I see what it’s done for me, and in conjunction with therapy or 12-step programmes it can transform your life.”
For more information on Sailing Into Wellness, check out the webite here.