By Andrea Granahan
The sun shone but patches of Pacific fog were scattered over San Francisco Bay, sometimes obscuring parts of the Golden Gate Bridge, sometimes making sailboats fade away. A small marina at the farthest reach of Fort Baker sheltered a collection of boats, mostly sailboats.
Tim Blair, 58, from Sebastopol, and his volunteer crewmate from the Presidio Yacht Club, B Carpenter, unwrapped the sails and readied the 42 foot sloop, Amakua (“spirit” in Hawaiian) for an afternoon on the bay.
Blair is the director, and heart and soul of Transformational Sailing, a group that uses the healing power of wind, sea and sky to help veterans and cancer patients.
Blair is a former counselor who studied clinical bio-feedback and stress management in college and worked in the former Evergreen Institute in Seattle. He returned to his native California, did some graduate work in counseling, and interned in San Bruno. He left the field to restore boats, and work in green construction. He is now returning to his first career, currently re-entering graduate school, intending to use his work at Transformational Sailing in his thesis. He is a firm believer in Ecopsychology which stresses the importance of man’s relationship to nature as a basis for mental health.
Transformational Sailing is a project of the Marin Boating Council, a non-profit in San Francisco but TS works primarily with Vet Connect in Santa Rosa where Blair offers the sailing experience to any vet, and especially seeks to provide it for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
On this trip, no one is a wounded or especially stressed, and no one has cancer, but Blair makes sailing available to any vet.
Lou Charette, a retired Air Force veteran, Cristina Baggese, a recently discharged US Army veteran now attending college, and 83 year old Harold Goldman, former US Navy vet who is a regular volunteer on the vessel pitched in to help.
“I saw it was available when I went to Vet Connect,” said Baggese, who had been a US Army cook. She was a victim of abuse when she joined the Army. “I did it because it was a way to get away from home and to go to college. A lot of my colleagues ran into sexual abuse in the Army. I managed to steer clear.”
The first time she takes the helm she is clearly excited to realize she is able to control the Amakua.
Lou Charette, seemed to have a hard time getting around when he first boarded, but was determined to do his share on the boat. Maggie Fries who sits on the TS advisory board used to do fund raising for ocean conservation groups. She is a professional realtor. After meeting Blair, she decided she liked what he does. She began volunteering, running a TS table every week at Vet Connect in Santa Rosa. There she met many vets having problems getting their cases processed, struggling to pay medical bills while they waited, and not able to get their housing vouchers from the government even though they were entitled to it.
“It’s a shame the way we treat our veterans, who have served us to protect what we do. I love what Tim does for them. I wish we were all better at fundraising for this,” Fries said. She pointed to Harold. “I have seen him grow young right in front of me since he started sailing. We keep forgetting he is 83. He decided to volunteer and help other vets as well. He is working on improving the web site, and he can sail the boat.”
A friend of Blair’s who knows how to sail and can help, has joined the group with two more women who are novices.
We left the harbor under motor power, but the instant the motor was cut off, just past the breakwater, the only sounds were of water lapping against the hull, distant crying gulls, and the wind occasionally rustling the sails.
At this point, Blair is trying to get the word out to counselors dealing with vets’ issues so they can incorporate it into their coaching. He does not offer follow up counseling himself at this point. He provides the experience as often as a vet wants to utilize it.
Rob Giedl is a US Navy veteran who found Transformational Sailing, truly transformational in his life. “When I left the service things began spiraling down. I lost parents, friends, pets. My marriage broke up. Then I got very sick from a service related virus and I spent a year in hospitals. I became completely reclusive and didn’t talk to anybody.
“I was in counseling, but then I ran into Tim and a porthole opened up in my life. Sailing changed my life. I didn’t have a clue how much of ‘me’ had slipped away into some cold stoic place. If one forgets who they are (which I did) they can forget their worth as a human being. I don’t think I could have found better therapy.”
Geidl went out three times a month. “I began talking to people. Sailing was military but with forgiving civilians. I finally actually wanted a social life again. I have even taken up dancing. For those who can use it like me it is a godsend. For those who don’t it’s just a lot of fun.”
Blair began his love affair with the sea at 9, when he sailed his own dinghy on Long Island Sound.
“My dad and two friends had a boat and were terrible sailors. Whenever my father didn’t know what he was doing, he’d start yelling at the family. He almost wrecked us once,” recalled Blair, but the family dynamic couldn’t kill of his love of sailing. “When I was alone it was a totally different experience.”
Blair never yells on his boat, and he is eager to let people have a turn at the helm to get a feel for the wind and the sails. He has found that traumatized people begin to feel empowered when they realize they can exercise control over the boat by working with the wind.
Jessica Piazza, who founded Military Stress and Recovery Project in Santa Rosa operating out of Vet Connect, and is familiar with veterans’ PTSD problems, said, “It’s like the work some do with the vets with horses – it’s a similar concept. PTSD vets get very isolated. That kind of experience builds security and trust. It helps them move through their blocks. So many vets are marginalized and are low income, some even homeless. Money and housing are problems. To be offered an opportunity to be on a boat, to directly experience nature, is a gift.”
Dr. Thomas Dogherty of Sustainable Self, a clinic in Portland, OR, specializes in ecopsychology. “This is part of a worldwide trend for dealing with veterans, especially combat veterans. High adrenaline outdoor activities reduce stress. The comraderie mimics that of combat but positively in a sfae environment. It is more acceptable to many male veterans than talk therapy which they can resist. They have used surfing with British vets, and white water rafting is also something that works well. After combat, which changes someone’s nervous system, life can seem flat, and a an emotional numbing sets in. Sailing, surfing, rafting requires that you be attuned to what’s going on, and you no longer focus on yourself.”
“Sailing is not a rich man’s sport,” Blair said. “There are lots of ways and programs to get on the water, like Call of Sea, a non-profit for youths or the Sea Scouts. Almost any yacht club has a way for people who can’t afford boats to get on the water. I once lived on this boat for two years. I am proof you don’t have to be rich to sail.”
Two years ago he made six trips over a few months with Concord Veterans Center and that’s when he realized the therapeutic affect it could have on veterans suffering from PTSD when the vets themselves began telling him about it. He formed TS in 2002, becoming dedicated to helping vets
“It takes them out of their shell. It allows them to get back into their bodies, to get with the here and now,” Blair said.
A trip with a friend who brought along a woman in Stage IV cancer made Blair realize how powerful the experience was for those facing life and death issues – another form of psychological trauma.
Blair’s friend called to tell him later that the cancer patient talked about her day on the water every day up until the day she died, recalling it with intense pleasure.
“At sea it is so basic. It is you and nature.
“It slows you down. You feel the motion of the boat. It’s a kinetic experience,” Blair explained. “Combined with peer counseling and support it is powerful because it is so life affirming to just be with the sea, the sky and the wind. It gives someone the desire to live fully again.”
Blair began getting referrals of cancer patients from Marin General Hospital through a friend who worked there with oncology patients, and through word of mouth.
“It was a one-man operation, and I was doing about one trip a month,” said Blair. Then he discovered Vet Connect in Santa Rosa. Now he tries to go out most weekends.
“Vet Connect is a great demonstration of the best of Sonoma County. People have great hearts and want to give back to the community. This last year I made 17 trips with veterans, including women veterans who had been sexually abused and were very traumatized,” he said.
The Amakua skimmed across the bay, past a boat with young people practicing a man overboard operation. They know Blair, wave to us all, then come up close to take a picture. We return the favor and Blair and the other captain promise to post them online.
“That’s the Blue Water Foundation that takes youngsters to sea. In the future, I’d like to work with an existing non-profit that helps high risk kids and give them the experience, too. Hands-on learning has so much greater an impact that books or digital learning. When a kid takes the helm it is very empowering. I’d love to combine that with trips with the vets. The kids could learn so much from them.”
Lou Charette definitely perked up on this trip and seemed to have become much more agile. He can’t stop grinning.
It is clearly a great passion for Blair to share sailing with people who could benefit from such a direct encounter with nature. Future plans for TS include extending sailing to first responders who often suffer from PTSD, and to other counselors so they can learn first-hand just how much powerful healing wind and sea can deliver.
His tanned and weather beaten face broke into a smile, “It’s amazing how getting on the water makes your senses come alive.”
You can learn more, see sailing videos with veterans, and make a donation at transformationalsailing.wordpress.com. TS is supported entirely by private donations. The vets are not charged anything. TS has a table at Vet Connect every Tuesday at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building from 9 a.m. to noon where vets can sign up for trips.