Community groups learn how to 'sail into wellness'

JENNIFER HORGAN talks to people taking part in a sailing programme - who are marginalised in our communities
Community groups learn how to 'sail into wellness'

People enjoying the Sailing Into Wellness programme.

“ADDICTION and mental health problems create a huge amount of fear and vulnerability. They are all-consuming. Our programme offers people an opportunity to be vulnerable in a safe space and to build lifelong, transferable skills.”

So says Colin Healy, co-founder of not-for-profit social enterprise Sailing Into Wellness.

Sailing Into Wellness is literally about sailing. They work with various community groups, taking them out on boats, teaching them how to sail, to navigate the high seas and make it back to shore intact. But through the act of sailing, they also offer an opportunity to leave worries behind, to restore participants’ resilience, confidence and self-belief.

A Chance Discovery

Having suffered with both addiction and poor mental health himself, Colin Healy recognised the therapeutic benefits of sailing when he happened to join a friend making deliveries by boat in 2012.

“I was the least likely candidate to end up at sea. I’d never sailed in my life up until that point. I grew up in Mallow which isn’t exactly a nautical hub.”

He was quickly hooked on the therapy offered by time at sea and set up the programme in 2016 alongside experienced sailor James Lyons. They have gone from strength to strength and now operate in nine different locations nationwide. They were very recently honoured with an AONTAS STAR award in the Health and Wellbeing category of the Adult Learners’ Festival in Dublin.

Groups they work with vary, from young autistic people, to people in recovery, to marginalised members of the Traveller community.

Healy is passionate about showing people they have skills and something to offer the world. He sees how the experience boosts self-esteem and wellbeing.

Sailing into Wellness trainers Colin Healy and James Lyons
Sailing into Wellness trainers Colin Healy and James Lyons

“I worked with someone recently who had spent four or five years on the street. He is now training to be an instructor with us. That’s all part of it. We offer different progression courses so that people end up back working with us. This kind of personal development and the sense of achievement it fosters, it’s transformative for people.”

He witnesses first-hand how people are less likely to relapse when they are given real opportunities to change and develop and overcome surmountable challenges. Although there is a place for talk and therapy, he says it’s also important to build pro-social skills, to give people an outlet.

“The sea plays a huge role in our work as it has the power to calm people down and reduce anxiety but at its core, our programme is about people. This is why I visit groups first, before taking them out on the water. I believe in the power of connection and I see how important it is to build trust, to share my story, to be authentic and honest with people.”

His team also makes the work possible.

“Boats are boats, without our staff we’d be nothing. All of us have recently undergone training in trauma-informed care for instance. We are so disconnected in the world now; our work is about bringing people together and giving them real skills to change their self-image and ultimately to improve their lives.”

They use the Community Reinforcement Approach (CRA) in their work, a psychosocial intervention for individuals with alcohol and other drug use disorders. It has four pillars: team-work, resilience, community and leadership. “People realise they can’t pull all the ropes on their own. They need to build these skills together and they have to be brave enough to ask for help.”

Simon Community Participants

Pavels Saveljevs says the crew he met whilst doing the Sailing into Wellness programme were the nicest Irish people he has met in his 21 years in Ireland.

“I so appreciate what they do. I never knew anything like this existed before. It is really brilliant,” he said.

Originally from Latvia, he grew up very close to the sea and has always felt a connection with water. He had no real sailing experience however and found the adventure of it truly exhilarating.

“The first day there were four of us on the boat and it was all about working as a team. They build your skills day by day. I really didn’t have a clue on that first day but by day four I felt like a captain! I sailed on a bigger boat then with a bigger crew. It is wonderful to feel yourself controlling the sails; it takes a lot of power.”

Savelijevs enjoyed it so much that he recommended it to someone else only yesterday.

“In Kinsale, they let us go up high on a pole, maybe 25 metres up. The views were beautiful, but I only managed to go half-way up. I used to live on the tenth floor of an apartment block, but I couldn’t go any higher. It’s amazing to be far out at sea, going up and down on huge waves.”

Tammy Twomey did a four-week programme and describes it as the best thing she has ever done. She is looking forward to doing a three-day course in September.

“It will always stick with me. Being out on the water away from everything, it was just amazing. I didn’t think about anything else, just how to sail a boat.

“I wouldn’t have had much confidence before doing it, but I really felt good when people were telling me I was doing a good job. It was great to have something to achieve.”

Ms Twomey says she was the only person to suffer from sea-sickness on the day. She’d refused sea-sickness tablets, thinking she would be fine, but highlights that sailing a boat is not easy.

But that aside, she can’t wait to get stuck in again.

Mags Wiseman says it was not something she would have ever thought of doing, but she would recommend it to anyone because it was great fun and because the organisers are so nice.

She found that it helped her to communicate because they spent all their time talking to one another on the boat, listening to instructions.

“If you didn’t listen to what was being said, you could end up overboard which wouldn’t have been nice,” she joked.

“And it also meant that we were working as a team. We all had our jobs to do, everyone had their rope to pull or whatever, so we all had to work together.”

She admits to feeling very nervous when they first set off, particularly in the speedboat which felt very close to the water. But the experience gave her confidence. She began to feel that the water wouldn’t hurt her as long as she knew what she was doing.

“Being out on the water gets you away from everyday life and from the noise of the city. It gives you peace and a chance to think through whatever is on your mind.

“The scenery was beautiful too and you see things that you’d never see from the road or from inside a car. It was quiet and relaxing.”

For more see

People enjoying the Sailing Into Wellness programme. 
People enjoying the Sailing Into Wellness programme. 

Upcoming Fundraiser

The annual Marketing Institute Ireland’s Maritime Ball taking place in the Clayton Hotel on April 1 has chosen Sailing Into Wellness as its charity.

They promise to “literally push the boat out” with “a night of glitz and glam, music and entertainment,” while raising funds for this worthwhile and clearly very effective Cork wellness and mental health charity.

Tickets are on sale on for €150, or €1,400 for a table of ten, and all the proceeds from the raffle on the night go directly to Sailing Into Wellness.

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