Why veterans take to the seas to combat PTSD

Heather Anderson, 56, is an armed forces veteran and one of those who sails with Turn To Starboard. Picture: David George
Heather Anderson, 56, is an armed forces veteran and one of those who sails with Turn To Starboard. Picture: David George

THE world of someone living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be a frightening place.

Your senses are dialled up to 11, with every noise, sight or even tap on the shoulder having the potential to send your brain into overdrive.

The Turn To Starboard team on board their vessel in Haslar Marina. Picture: David George

The Turn To Starboard team on board their vessel in Haslar Marina. Picture: David George

That is how it has been described by veterans who are battling PTSD every day – who sometimes find themselves without a friendly face to turn to.

But thanks to a charity that was recently set up in Gosport, many armed forces veterans have found themselves with a new outlet to not only take their minds off what they are going through, but also to speak to others on a similar journey and put their efforts towards something productive.

Turn To Starboard is a charity that gets veterans off of their sofas and onto a sailing boat, helping them to meet like-minded people and move on from their traumatic pasts.

In July, the charity moved into a new base at Haslar Marina, where it has steadily attracted the attention of armed forces veterans in the surrounding area.

The Turn To Starboard crew on board their vessel in Haslar Marina, Gosport. Picture: David George

The Turn To Starboard crew on board their vessel in Haslar Marina, Gosport. Picture: David George

Most of those taking part have never done any sailing in the past – but are finding the new experience to be a positive one.

Army veteran John Shepard, 38, has committed himself to overcoming his PTSD problems – and will even be taking part in the Invictus Games as part of Team GB next month.

He said: ‘It’s an environment that anyone who spent time in the armed forces would be familiar with.

That camaraderie, the banter – it is something that makes you feel as though you’re right back in the military and I really think that goes a long way.

‘It is genuinely fantastic to have this here; everyone looks out for one another.

‘Being out on the water is incredibly calming and even when you’re racing other people it is a relaxing environment to be in.’

Heather Anderson, 56, was an RAF squadron leader, serving for 10 years.

She said: ‘I was in a couple of different incidents which caused the development of PTSD.

‘I was an emergency nurse and a midwife, so a lot of things that got to me were ambulance incidents.

‘As part of an emergency response team you really do see the worst of it all – but when I left the armed forces I thought I was fine.

‘I changed jobs, moved house and things were going really well, when it suddenly just hit me like a train.

‘Traditional therapy didn’t really help much either – they asked me to open up about my experiences as you would with other mental health issues, but with PTSD it doesn’t quite work like that.

‘What scares us is being reminded of those experiences – that’s where our problems with seeing civilian life as dangerous comes in, so it’s difficult to just open up about what you’ve experienced.’

However, with the company of the right people along her journey, Heather has been able to open up to other armed forces veterans about her troubles, as they share their experiences with her.

She said: ‘It has been brilliant to meet other people who think in the same way as I do.

‘That comradeship makes you more comfortable with speaking about your experiences, and you find yourself doing so quite candidly. Other people would probably mistake it for a dark sense of humour, but it really is a great environment for us.

‘All those barriers of rank and age are broken down and everyone instantly finds themselves blending in with the group – and to talk about things like that out at sea as well is great because nobody else can hear you.

‘If you get upset about it, that’s okay, and you’re in the best place with the best people to deal with it at your own pace.’

Heather has only been with Turn To Starboard for a few months, but says she has noticed a major change in herself.

She said: ‘I think it’s a much better solution than counselling because you are able to put your efforts towards something positive; sailing is peaceful and relaxing so it really helps us to get away from it all.

‘After what I experienced I will never be the same person again – but that just means I can now become whoever I want to be.’

But it’s not just casual sailing that the team goes out to do.

A hardcore group of sailors also head out to take part in sailing regattas throughout the south coast.

Instructor Dan Fielding says that the adrenaline of competition sparks a real fire in veterans.

He said: ‘We are doing even better than we had anticipated – everybody really enjoys it and the crew just keeps on improving.

‘There is a race this weekend that we’ll be doing from Cowes to Poole and back, so that will be good fun.

‘Every time they get together they are chatting to one another and getting a real adrenaline rush together – it’s something to look forward to and I know from experience how much that helps to keep you going.’

Dan says that one of the transformation he sees in people when they start sailing is remarkable to see.

He explained: ‘Above all, sailing shows these veterans that they can still do things and get into something exciting.

‘For these guys to see themselves do something positive like this really helps them to get back into the world.

‘But we couldn’t do it without the incredible volunteers who give up their time to help out fellow armed forces veterans. They are all on this journey together, and together they will all come out the other side.’