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How Two Organizations Are Using Sailboats and Yachts as Tools for Therapy

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If you own a boat, there’s a reasonable chance it’s called Therapy. That was near the top of the list of the most popular boat names in the US—along with Grace, Freedom and Serenity, according BoatUS’s annual ranking in 2019.  Most boaters understand that boats are indeed therapeutic, because they have experienced how being out on the water induces a state of calm and peacefulness, driven largely by the ability to get away from life’s everyday hassles.

Two organizations, one in the US and the other in Europe, are taking the therapy name and applying it to boating, but in a much more literal sense. Targeting very different audiences, the groups share a similar goal of using boats and the water as informal therapeutic tools to make their clients’ lives easier and more enjoyable.

“We got started in 2013 working with another military-adoptive sports program,” says Cory Kapes, program manager of Warrior Sailing, which teaches veterans how to sail. “We started out with track and field, archery and shooting—sports that would work for the Warrior Games. But then we saw sailing as something that offers a lifelong engagement for everyone, not just athletes. It also speaks to the teamwork and camaraderie you find in the service. It was a natural fit for the veterans.”

Two programs using yachts and sailboats employ therapeutic techniques

A group of veterans learning to sail for the first time.  Courtesy Warrior Sailing

The program initially started by working with paraplegic sailing groups, eventually offering two or three events each year. But now Warrior Sailing has multiple certification programs in different parts of the country, taught by expert sailors, including former America’s Cup skippers and transatlantic racers. About 435 vets have done the initial three-day basic training courses in St. Petersburg, Fla., Annapolis, Md., San Diego, Fla., and Charlevoix, Mich. Some veterans stop sailing at that point, but others continue to develop their skills by becoming long-distance cruisers or racers. “We have a team of three headed for the Chicago to Mackinaw Island race next summer,” says Kapes.

The veteran profiles have changed in the last seven years. “Early on, we saw more physical injuries,” says Kapes, “but now we’re serving people with ‘invisible injuries’ like PTSD. We’re also seeing people with diseases like cancer and vision impairment.” The programs, funded mostly through donations, have impacted participants in different ways.

“Many of the veterans have physical or mental injuries or things where they couldn’t necessarily compete in a marathon or a 5K race,” says one veteran on a video. “But when you get on that water, everyone has a valuable position on the boat, and they can contribute.”

Two programs using yachts and sailboats employ therapeutic techniques

A Sailing Warrior graduating class in 2019 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Some will continue to gain skills and get more deeply involved in the sport through cruising and racing.  Courtesy Warrior Sailing

“I’ve found that if you can get with groups who have a shared passion, it’s the closest thing to being in the military,” says another vet. Kapes says that “everyone gets something different” from learning to sail. “People usually see it as an outstanding experience,” he says. “We’ve had cases where a vet goes home and figures out a way to reconnect with his family with a sailboat. It can be very powerful stuff.”

Experiential Yachting takes a very different approach to therapy on the water. Founder Maria Alekseenko, who started a yacht-therapy program in 2016, focuses on individuals or families who want specific therapeutic modalities on either a chartered yacht or an owner’s personal vessel. The Monaco-based firm offers a tailored 3- to 7-day experience with the aim of improving the quality of life for people living with serious diseases. “Being at sea in general is far more meaningful to humans than just cruising from one destination to another,” Alekseenko told Robb Report. “The rolling motion of waves has a positive effect on our bodies, both physically and mentally.”

Programs have taken place in the Mediterranean aboard yachts ranging from 105 to 161 feet. Her clients have focused on different diagnoses, including sports rehab, recovering from chemotherapy, coping with Lou Gehrig’s disease and living with Type 2 diabetes. The therapy programs include two practices each day. These involve purposeful adventure and social impact experiences, such as learning alternative healing practices from indigenous communities. The programs also include art therapy on the sea and night swimming to an “underwater wheelchair experience” designed for clients who can’t normally do underwater activities because of mobility issues.

Two programs using yachts and sailboats employ therapeutic techniques

A few days on a superyacht can be remarkably therapeutic.  Courtesy Experiential Yachting

Alekseenko says the benefits include slowing down the progression of a disease, speeding up recovery, and activating self-healing. “Yacht therapy is not a medical therapy or treatment,” she says. “It’s an alternative complementary experience that helps manage disease and recovery. If a guest is diagnosed with cancer or motor neuron disease, for instance, I discuss our practices and activities with their doctor before the trip to ensure the patient receives the greatest benefit from the program.”

The programs may sound counterintuitive, says Alekseenko, since yachting is typically associated with vacation or adventure. “A yacht is one of the best platforms not only for exploration and fun, but for a holistic retreat, which helps by connecting to the water element–provided by nature,” she says.

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