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Shaun Pascoe: Sailing veterans to a brighter future

Shaun Pascoe: Sailing veterans to a brighter future

COVER STORY

11 Aug, 2019

Research has long found that the ocean has a calming effect on our minds. The sight and sound of water can put us into a mild meditative state, which helps to lower stress levels, improve mental clarity and give a boost to our health and well-being. One veteran who understands the healing power of the sea is veteran Shaun Pascoe. In this special feature for QUEST, Mark Hardaker describes how, upon leaving the RAF, Shaun used his resettlement fund to learn how to sail and went on to set up a charity to help other Service personnel affected by military operations.

Former Squadron Leader Shaun Pascoe commanded emergency medical evacuations around the globe during his 16 years in the RAF. He served on operational tours in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan, leading small groups of highly trained medics on board Chinook helicopters to rescue and treat medical emergencies. Shaun and his team helped save hundreds of lives while formulating new and innovative clinical practices that have now been adopted by the NHS.

Deeply moved by his ordeals and finding it difficult to adjust to normal life, Shaun, now 50, turned to sailing as a way to boost his physical and mental health, and within two weeks he felt in a better place. 

‘There is something really quite special about sailing,’ says Shaun. ‘It can provide a therapeutic and calming effect, and when you’re out at sea there is nothing to trigger the unwelcome memories that are associated with past traumatic experiences.’

After recognising the positive impact on his overall health, and unsure about his forthcoming transition to civilian life, Shaun decided to continue sailing while studying for a professional sailing qualification. 

‘As part of my resettlement from the RAF, and while I was going through medical discharge, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do so I decided to join a fast-track Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Yachtmaster programme,’ he explains. ‘Gaining that qualification had a huge positive effect on my life. I felt in a better place and it markedly improved my interaction with others, plus it gave me a new sense of purpose and value.’

Soon after, Shaun began to reach out to other veterans in the Armed Forces community who were struggling with PTSD, physical injuries or other mental traumas, to join him out on the water. ‘The initial impact of that was pretty special and I started to receive more and more enquiries from people wanting to sail,’ he continues. ‘Yet it was clear I needed to make that more resilient by offering more sailing opportunities while raising some money to do that too.’

Small team – big difference 

In August 2012, along with a small group of friends, Shaun set up the charity Turn to Starboard from his home in Truro, Cornwall. 

‘Although the initial idea was mine, I set up the charity with four other people, including my next door neighbour, from my living room at home,’ says Shaun. ‘We got together as a little committee and spread the workload under the theme of a small team making a big difference.’ 

Following a successful advertising campaign highlighting the charity’s sailing weeks for Help for Heroes’ Band of Brothers and Band of Sisters networks, Help for Heroes recognised the demand for Turn to Starboard’s services and injected funds, as did the Royal Air Force Association (RAFA). With an ever-increasing demand for the service, Shaun and his team took a huge step forward and set up a new office a few miles away at Falmouth Marina and started taking small groups of injured veterans on sailing trips along the picturesque Cornish coastline. 

‘Our initial intent was to provide gentle sailing experiences for veterans with a chance to help people switch off from their daily lives for a little while. We also offered courses where people could gain sailing qualifications, along with sailing holidays for Service families who had gone through difficult times. Initially we thought that just one of those activities would be most popular, yet they all were in high demand and had the same positive impact for everyone so we continued with them all.’ 

Sail forward seven years and Turn to Starboard has since provided more than 2,800 sailing opportunities to wounded, injured and sick Service men and women and their families. The not-for-profit charity has helped many participants to benefit from the therapeutic effect of the ocean and reintegrate into civilian life while opening doors to new careers in the marine industry. Turn to Starboard now employs 13 staff, seven of whom are ex-military, and runs several different programmes, from RYA-accredited courses for beginners to week-long family trips, as well as tall ship sailing, competitive racing and the extensive Zero to Hero Yachtmaster development programme, giving participants the necessary qualifications to begin a career in sailing.

Meet the fleet 

To deliver its service, Turn to Starboard operates two training boats, a Bavaria 32-foot yacht and a Swan 43 cruising vessel on long-term loan from a generous supporter. In 2014, the charity was given a further boost when it was gifted a 92-foot tall ship by the Prince’s Trust. The 96-tonne traditional pilot schooner has 18 berths for crew members and is used as a way to facilitate larger groups for sail training. In 2015 and 2016, the vessel was used to sail teams of wounded, injured and sick veterans on two round-Britain challenges, while helping to raise awareness of the trials veterans can face on leaving the military. Most of the participants on the 2,000-mile journey had little or no sailing experience and literally ‘learned the ropes’ from professional skippers and completed the epic journey in around two months. 

‘For most of the participants, leaving the military, particularly on medical discharge, sees them facing significant challenges, with some losing true comradeship and sense of purpose,’ says Shaun. ‘So, the aim of the round-Britain challenge was to help participants re-engage, reintegrate and gain new skills in the company of those who have experienced the same testing conditions. Since completing these challenges, 15 crew members have gone on to achieve Yachtmaster status or are close to gaining that coveted qualification. Our follow-up research also found that the experience had a positive impact on participants’ lives and many are now engaged in another form of activity or employed.’ 

No experience required 

Prior sailing experience is not required to embark on a sailing voyage with Turn to Starboard, with basic boat-handling skills, navigation and terminology taught by friendly, professional and experienced instructors. 

‘In many cases it’s better for people to have little or no sailing experience,’ says Shaun. ‘Those who do have often picked up bad habits by not having formal tuition under an RYA syllabus so we need to retrain any bad behaviours.’ 

Sailing trips usually take place for five days from the charity’s base at Falmouth Marina. Shaun admits it is common for individuals to be apprehensive before climbing aboard: ‘Our feedback shows that people who sail with us often have doubts before they get in touch, or during the days running up to a trip. They think, “I’ve never been on a yacht, I don’t know how to sail and I won’t be any good at it”, yet we aim to send the message that you don’t know until you try, it may be easier than you think, and to remember everything takes place in an incredibly relaxed, friendly and understanding environment.

‘We also remind people that they don’t have to get involved with studying for sailing qualifications and can just enjoy being out on the water. Hopefully some will have a moment of “Yes, I can do this”, and turning “I can’t” into “I can” is a really powerful thing. I’d say just come and experience the positive effect of the ocean with like-minded people and maybe learn something new.’

Sailing to success

In recognition of his achievements, earlier this year Shaun was presented with a prestigious award by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at the Endeavour Fund Awards in London. The Awards are held annually to celebrate the achievements of wounded, injured and sick Service men and women who have taken part in remarkable sporting and adventure challenges to help with their recovery and rehabilitation. Shaun was nominated for the Henry Worsley Award in recognition of the way in which he has inspired others with their recovery through sailing, following his own diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For the future, Shaun says his ultimate aim is for the charity to no longer be needed. ‘While most people would talk about the success of a business in terms of growth, that’s not how I believe this charity should measure its success. Our success is achieved when the charity is not required any more and we should all be striving for a day when no veteran needs help. However, the reality is that at the moment the need does exist, so we will do the best we can. Also, it could be said that if you grow too big you can lose the quality agenda, you can start chasing the buck and missing the focus of the individuals. Each day we strive to keep the charity at a level where everyone is focused on the core purpose of why we are here while knowing every veteran by name when they come through the door.’

With so many positive outcomes it’s clear to see how being on the water can help to restore the body and mind, as Shaun can attest: ‘Although sailing is different for everyone, the ocean offers calmness and a place where you can leave your worries on shore and detach from the stresses of everyday life. Standing at the helm, being pushed along by the wind and staring at the horizon, I can completely understand why.’ 

To find out more about the work of Turn to Starboard, or to make a donation, call 01326 314262 or visit www.turntostarboard.co.uk You can also follow Turn to Starboard on Twitter: twitter.com/turntostarboard and/or Facebook: facebook.com/turntostarboard

ABOUT TURN TO STARBOARD

  • Turn to Starboard is a Cobseo-registered charity (Registered Charity number 1148549) using RYA sailing courses to support Armed Forces personnel who have been affected by military operations. We support those who are serving or retired, and their families.
  • We help those retired from the Forces and those still serving to get perspective on past events and focus on a successful future. 
  • Beneficiaries gain tangible experiences, expert training and career-building opportunities including the chance to gain internationally recognised marine qualifications.

Jonny Slater

CASE STUDY: JOHNNY SLATER

When former soldier Johnny Slater stepped on an explosive device while on tour in Afghanistan, he suffered multiple fractures in both his legs. As well as living with the physical effects of the blast, he suffered from mental trauma – a hidden wound that impacted his recovery process. 

It was during a lengthy rehabilitation programme that Johnny heard about Turn to Starboard and the chance to enjoy the therapeutic effects of sailing and the sea. After enjoying his time on the trip, Johnny was encouraged to continue his sailing on the charity’s Zero to Hero course and later qualified as an RYA Yachtmaster.  

‘Sailing has had a massive positive impact on my recovery and made me feel useful again. Thanks to Turn to Starboard, I now hold a professional sailing qualification and can look forward to finding a new career in the marine industry.’ 

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