Sail to success: how one former soldier rebuilt his life after discovering the healing power of the ocean

26th June 2018

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Army veteran Johnny Slater suffered multiple fractures in both legs after stepping on an IED device in 2012. As well as living with the physical effects in the incident, he has since suffered with his mental health, a hidden wound which has impacted on his recovery process and the lives of his wife and three children who he lives with in Yorkshire.

“Although the physical pain is always there, you learn to cope with it,” he explains. “Yet I found that the medication I was on wasn’t great for my mental health, it brought mood swings, which didn’t help.”

Johnny, 47, was medically discharged in 2016 after regular visits to Headley Court, the MOD’s rehabilitation centre in Surrey. The former soldier would spend four weeks at a time with physio and occupational therapists, along with an exercise rehab instructor.

“I was in a wheelchair for first eight months of my treatment, and for the last four years I’ve had numerous operations on both legs. Going through each process was a major set-back each time as I had to re-learn to walk and use crutches again. Although I can walk now, it did reach a point where the only other thing they do was remove my foot, which I obviously wanted to avoid.”

It was at the Surrey centre that Johnny was introduced to mentoring charity Band of Brothers, who in turn suggested he contacted Turn to Starboard. The organisation has a national remit to work with veterans affected by operations, helping to get them back on track with their lives. They offer several programmes from Royal Yachting Association-accredited courses for beginners to week-long family trips, as well as an extensive Zero to Hero Yachtmaster development programme which gives participants the necessary qualifications to begin a career in sailing.

Johnny decided to book a 3-day sailing trip for himself and his family and travelled to Cornwall in the summer of 2014.

Pic 3“It was great because the weather was good and the trip allowed us to spend some quality time together without the kids being on their phones and no outside interference. When we first climbed aboard my wife felt out of her comfort zone but the skipper immediately put her at ease and she soon began to enjoy herself. It was also a good feeling to put my injury to one side and think about what I could do rather than what I couldn’t for a change.”

A few weeks later Johnny decided to return to the charity on his own for a week-long sailing trip. Although he had tried sailing while in the Army, he had never gained any sailing qualifications and was delighted to be awarded the practical element of his RYA Day Skipper at the end of the course. “Although with my restricted mobility it was a bit challenging, yet I was still able to find my way around the yacht. And getting the Day Skipper Practical felt great, it made me feel that I was still useful and didn’t have to resign myself to the scrapheap”.

Turn to Starboard’s CEO Shaun Pascoe has been through the rehabilitation process himself and so knows first-hand just how powerful being out on the water can be. “Learning new skills, achieving qualifications, forging new friendships and experiencing adventure, that’s what we offer and it’s incredibly powerful in aiding recovery,” he explains.  “We’ve had veterans complete our courses and saying they’ve found an increased sense of purpose and pride which ultimately boosts their self-esteem.”

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The former Squadron Leader set up the charity after spending 16 years in the RAF, operating in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones, as the Officer Commanding of the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT). MERT was tasked with flying into the battlefield, often under heavy enemy fire, to rescue injured service personnel. Deeply moved by his ordeals, Shaun turned to sailing as a way of readjusting back into civilian life. Amazed by the transformative effect sailing had, he vowed to use his experience to help others in a similar situation, founding Turn to Starboard.

The charity is going from strength to strength, with backing from organisations such as Help for Heroes and the RAF Association. For it to be able to continue helping people like Johnny, however, it needs additional funding, as the participants don’t pay to go out on the water.

Earlier this year Johnny became a skipper in his own right after gaining his coveted RYA Yachtmaster qualification. “Sailing has opened up a whole new perspective on life and helped me focus on what I can achieve rather than on what I can’t. The experience also made me realise that you don’t have to be in 9 to 5 job and there are career options like being a skipper of a chartered yacht, boat delivery work or sailing instruction abroad. Without a doubt it’s something I should have done years ago.”

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