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A beneficial partnership for Sailing and for Veterans

The Soldier On pilot program sailors with  Sailability West Australia (Credit Grant Meldrum).

The Soldier On pilot program sailors with Sailability West Australia (Credit Grant Meldrum).

Royal Perth Yacht Club’s Sailability program has partnered with national charity Soldier On to deliver a sailing experience program for returning soldiers.

With Yachting Australia’s push to increase participation in sailing through its Discover Sailing initiative and boat owners crying out for more crew, there are obvious benefits of this partnership which could work for other clubs. And there is the underlying and no less important opportunity of helping a soldier in real need.

The last of Australia’s 25,000 military personnel are finally returning home from Afghanistan. With them has, sadly for many, come the blights of war; the injuries both physical and psychological.

The federal Minister for Veteran’s Affairs, The Hon. Michael Ronaldson, made a poignant comment in his speech of 10 December 2013 which is a reminder that war injuries are not just the ones that can be seen. He stated, “As you are aware, many of our current and former serving Australian Defence Force personnel suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We want to ensure that the highest level of support is available, and that the veteran community and their families know that help is available and that help can make a difference.

“What our statistics tell us is that as at September 2013 around 46,500 DVA clients were known to have a mental health condition, of these around 28,500 have a stress disorder (including PTSD).”

Then there are the soldiers who carry physical injuries.

Australia’s Solider On charity was established in April 2012. Its goal is about “Australians coming together to show their support for our physically and psychologically wounded – we will always have their backs. It’s about giving those who have served our country the dignity they deserve and the chance to do and be whatever they choose through; providing access to inspirational activities, supporting rehabilitation and providing opportunities that empower individuals.”

The charity is involved in a number of programs to assist the recovery of wounded soldiers including sending a team of Australians to participate in the 2013 Walking with the Wounded South Pole Allied Challenge and a partnership with Outward Bound Australia to run a program that includes several wounded Australians. The newest of their programs is sailing for soldiers with disabilities, conducted out of Royal Perth Yacht Club by Sailability West Australia.

The Soldier On / Sailability West Australia pilot program   members out on the water during their Competent Crew training course. (Credit Grant Meldrum).

The Soldier On / Sailability West Australia pilot program members out on the water during their Competent Crew training course. (Credit Grant Meldrum).

 

Under the management of Soldier On’s West Australia co-ordinator Grant Meldrum, Sailing Consultant Brad Blanchard and Sailability’s Graham White and Graeme Martin, the pilot program was held during November and December last year.

Blanchard explained some of the details of that program. “The people attending are sponsored to do the course and have incurred some sort of injury. The first course we did with five people was only for mental illness through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We haven’t included those with physical injuries as yet.

“The students attended for five weeks. It was on introduction to sailing and by the end of the training we tried to have them as competent for mainly cruising and around the cans racing initially. It really depends on the people who do the course and where they want to take it.

“We took them through a Yachting Australia Competent Crew course with the instructor from Sailability. They got to learn on various dinghies and right up to keel boats. We did the course on a Wednesday afternoon so it would lead into the club’s Wednesday afternoon sailing program so we could then take them onto a keel boat as well.

“Soldier On paid for the program participation and Silver Card.

“One of the biggest teething issues was that we wanted to run it like a military style course for the guys, but in sailing it is fairly difficult to do that. We had to make sure we made accommodation for learning a lot of the stuff practically rather than sitting in a classroom. We had a training agenda we wanted to teach them and we had a few key points we wanted them to learn, but it was a lot better to do a little bit of whiteboard at the start and get them out on the water quicker.

“We had to have this approach as soldiers are very institutionalised, so to get them into something they recognise and into a structured form of learning, makes them more comfortable.

“All five of them now have regular rides on twilight boats, if they want them. One of them has jumped in boots and all, and has done his first ocean race in early December. It was a 44 mile race around the back of Rottnest on a Marten 49 called Sue Sea. They have been looking for some regular crew for a while so they were receptive to the program. They want us to give them as many people who want to do ocean racing. That’s the way I want to steer the program is get people on a boat like that,” Blanchard said.

“Thanks to Hillary’s Yacht Club, WA for organising such a tremendous event and to the owner of Sue Sea for welcoming aboard a couple of wounded warriors (www.soldieron.org.au). We had a truly fantastic day and look forward to joining you again.”

His passion for the program has come from his own personal experience. He knows the hardships of the frontline having served in the SAS and being posted to several overseas conflicts. Before retiring from the military in 2012 Blanchard took a year off at the end of 2009, when he had just come back from Afghanistan. “I was quite high-strung and didn’t know what to do, where the next adventure was.

“I was introduced to sailing through by father-in-law and then used that year off to go sailing with friends on the Sunshine Coast. It gave me something to strive for. I decided early on I was going to the Hobart that year. It was a goal I set myself and achieved.

“I really enjoy the camaraderie of the sailing community offers. It was a replacement or surrogate to what I had enjoyed in the military.

“It’s ironic that the boat I raced on to Hobart, Southern Excellence, now called Spirit of Mateship, is run by a separate charity which is a fairly similar charity to us. They actually bought that boat and did the Hobart last year,” he said.

Brad Blanchard, sailing consultant for West Australia's Soldier On sailing program. (Credit Tracey Johnstone)

Brad Blanchard, sailing consultant for West Australia’s Soldier On sailing program. (Credit Tracey Johnstone)

 

The next Soldier On sailing program is due to start in February with candidates currently being sought. “Our biggest problem is finding a network to get in touch with soldiers with physical disabilities and more soldiers with PTSD type illnesses because people with those injuries often become quite introverted and not outgoing. So reaching out to them and finding them is probably our biggest problem at the moment.”

Blanchard wants to see the program also include physically disabled soldiers. The partnership with the Sailability will allow him to use that program’s knowledge and equipment to achieve this goal. It has also helped that both the fellows running the Royal Perth Yacht Club’s Sailability program, Graham White and Graeme Martin, are ex-armed forces personnel.

White has been pushing since early last year for this Soldier On sailing program to go ahead. As a Vietnam Veteran and over 30 years of military service he has an understanding of the challenges that face the returning soldier and of getting the general public to appreciate something about those challenges. He, like Blanchard, is also pushing for the program participants to be integrated into the mainstream sailing community.

The initial feedback from the West Australian sailing community has been very positive towards the program and this new source of crew.

For the soldiers, the program gives them a reason to get out of bed in the morning. “It’s something to do on a Wednesday which they can get excited about.

“The program gives them new experiences to get motivated and hopefully take it as far into sailing as I have.

“Most people in the military are fairly high achievers. So to give them access to a new sport that can offer the world if they want to take it – can do whatever they want, sail wherever they want, if they choose to.

“It’s also the therapy of being out on the water with some like-minded people,” Blanchard said.

For more information on Soldier On, go here.

For more information on Sailability West Australia, go here.

By Tracey Johnstone