Three former Marines are getting their lives back on track with the help of a Cornish sailing charity which is supported by Help for Heroes.
“I only jumped from a height of around six foot, but I landed with straight legs and had around 40 pound of kit on my back. It didn’t end well.” Rich Birchall, 32, served in the Royal Marines for 14 years until he was medically discharged with a back injury in 2013. He thought his recovery would take a couple of months, yet after two years of physiotherapy he’s now awaiting surgery.
On top of his life-changing injury, Rich had to consider his future career and what that meant for him and his family.
“After the accident, I was at my lowest and having some pretty sinister thoughts about how to get out of this situation, but I had a wife and three kids I didn’t want to leave behind,” says Rich. “I initially tried an IT job, but sat in a windowless office typing on a computer after a lifetime outdoors, it simply didn’t suit me.”
Rich was soon introduced to Turn to Starboard, a charity that uses sailing courses to support Armed Forces personnel adjust to civilian life. The organisation help by providing a supportive community of like-minded people and qualifications to start a new career. Based in Falmouth, Cornwall, the charity assist those who may be struggling with physical injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental traumas and was created from the personal experiences of its founder, Squadron Leader (Rtd) Shaun Pascoe. Having spent 16 years in the RAF, Shaun served in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan where he commanded the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT).
MERT is a medical team that uses Chinook helicopters to retrieve those who are significantly injured and often under heavy enemy fire. The high-intensity nature of this work meant the transition on coming home became an increasing challenge for Shaun, who found it difficult adjusting to ‘normal’ life. Approaching his last year in service, Shaun decided to spend his resettlement time and money on a RYA Yacht master offshore course. Within two weeks of sailing he felt in a better place.
“There’s something really quite special about sailing,” says Shaun. “It can provide a therapeutic and calming affect and when you’re out at sea there is nothing to trigger the unwelcome memories that are associated with past experiences.”
Shaun soon began providing sailing opportunities for others in a similar position and started the charity in 2012. He has since amassed a significant following and is now one of a select few who are supported by both Help for Heroes and the Royal Air Forces Association.
“We provide skippered sailing trips to Armed Forces personnel and their families, for either a few hours or a few days, with trips to the Isles of Scilly and excursions along the Cornish coast. Training courses are also on offer for veterans to gain qualifications, which can help start new careers anywhere in the world,” says Shaun.
With help from the charity, Rich has made the smooth transition from 1 Assault group to full-time boson, overseeing deck operations, undertaking repairs and ensuring safety procedures are followed. Although a volunteer, he hopes that the charity will soon be able to secure funding to provide him with a salary. He is also undertaking a personalised training course to help him gain a Yacht masters qualification.
“Since becoming involved with the industry, I found out that people like sailing in the UK and they like sailing in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, but they don’t necessarily like sailing the journey in-between. For those with a Yacht master qualification, people pay you to take their boats from A to B before handing them over. It doesn’t sound like the worst job in the world to move onto,” says Rich.
Another former Marine who understands the pressures of returning to civilian life after an injury is Steve Brady.
Former 40 Commando member Steve, 36, was a medically discharged from the Marines in February 2014 due to a neck injury. With an engineering background, Steve initially found a job that suited his skill set – industrial refrigeration. After six months he found the work aggravated his condition. Steve decided to apply for other jobs, including an electronics engineer in the British Virgin Isles, but found that unless he held a Yacht master qualification, all doors were closed.
“After searching the internet, I came across the Turn to Starboard website and saw that they helped people like me gain Royal Yachting Association qualifications, so I got in touch. I had a little bit of sailing experience while serving with the Marines, and thought the charity may be able to help find me a new career.”
Steve began by helping out as a volunteer by leading the restoration and maintenance of a 92 foot replica Tall Ship – the Spirit of Falmouth – donated to the charity by The Princes Trust last year. In addition, he was also offered the chance to undergo a tailor-made training course to gain his Yacht Master qualification. The charity successfully applied for funding for Steve, and he now holds a full-time paid position as skipper, plus after intense training, gained the coveted qualification last month.
“Being skipper means I prepare and sail the boat with a crew on the sailing trips we provide, plus many other day-to-day tasks. It’s a total different way of life and I’m happy to be doing something I love which doesn’t feel like work at all. When you leave the Marines, you often leave your friends, so the charity also provides a great place to hang around with like minded people,” says Steve.
Band of Brothers
Another former Marine involved with the charity is Stephen Spear, who served in 42 Commando for14 years but was medically discharged in February this year. He heard of Turn to Starboard through a friend who has been involved with Band of Brothers network. Stephen, 46, offers his services as a volunteer and is also training to gain qualifications.
“I’ve been involved with the charity since May. It focuses on resettlement, reintegration and reinforces a sense of value, which for many of us can find difficult. The Yacht master programme has offered me a great sense of direction and is helping to shape my future after leaving the Royal Marines,” he says.
The charity is going from strength to strength, with backing from Help for Heroes and the Royal Air Forces Association. But for it to be able to continue helping veterans it needs continual funding, as the participants don’t pay anything to go out on the water.
Founder Shaun says, “We’re getting a significant demand for what we’re doing and it’s just escalating. It’s about making sure we don’t have to say no to any of these people – my concern is that we’ll come to a point where we can’t afford to help all the people coming forward.”
For further details visit www.turntostarboard.co.uk.
Published in The Globe and Laurel magazine – The official journal of the Royal Marines.