Plain sailing: How one injured soldier is using the ocean to boost his confidence and career

12th March 2019

 

DSCN5598When former soldier Dave Williams was medically discharged from the Army in 2018 with severe Asperger’s syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder, his dreams were shattered.

The ex-Captain of the Adjutant General’s Corps was left traumatised by his experiences while on a tour of Afghanistan in 2010, and coupled with his Asperger’s diagnosis meant not only the loss of his career – but his confidence too.

“Although being discharged wasn’t completely unexpected it was a big hit to my confidence,” admits Dave. “Not a lot of people know that the symptoms of Asperger’s and PTSD are quite similar and there are instances where people have been misdiagnosed with the other. When you have both, it gets confusing and the conditions can amplify each other too.”

Asperger Syndrome, also known as Asperger’s, is a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people see the world and interact with others. It is often referred to as ‘mild autism’ – and affects around 700,000 people in the UK. The condition shares many traits with post-traumatic stress disorder, but the connection between has been largely overlooked until now.

It was while he was planning for his resettlement that Dave, 32, heard about a sailing charity supporting Armed Forces personnel with physical and mental injuries using the known therapeutic effects of the sea.

Based at Falmouth on Cornwall’s south coast, Turn to Starboard use sail training to help serving and retired service personnel and their families. The organisation offer participants the chance to take part in yacht sailing, family sailing trips, competitive racing and Tall Ship sailing, and the chance to complete Royal Yachting Association (RYA) courses to gain valuable qualifications. Launched in 2014, the charity has provided almost 2,500 sailing opportunities to injured veterans and their families, with many going on to start new careers in the marine industry.

Even though Dave had never set foot on a yacht, he took the plunge and booked on a week-long sailing course on board the charity’s 37-foot training yacht, ‘Bluster’.

“As with anything new, I was feeling a little apprehensive as you don’t want to make a fool of yourself,” he admits. “One big aspect of Asperger’s is social awkwardness and to spend time in other people’s company requires continual mental effort. However, as with everything in life you can either look at how it limits you, or just appreciate the options still available and concentrate on those instead.”

Dave spent five days literally learning the ropes along Cornwall’s picturesque coastline, and was lucky to be joined by some special visitors.

“The trip was brilliant and we enjoyed perfect sailing conditions,” he exclaims. “The skipper was an ex-navy guy called Steve who was great and helped us sail all the way from Falmouth to Fowey, before heading back along the coast. Each night we slept at a different port and one day we were lucky enough to be joined by a pod of around 50 dolphins. It was simply fantastic.”

 

“It was great to have five days in a row where everything went right.”

 

“By the end of that first week I felt much more confident on the water – and in myself. Having had a few ups and downs in life, it was great to have five days in a row where everything went right. It felt good and I enjoyed hanging out with the other guys on board.”

By the end of the week, Dave was awarded his Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Competent Crew certificate, acknowledging his skills as an active and useful crew member. He has since caught the sailing bug and continued to build up his seafaring skills and recently passed the RYA Day Skipper theory exam.  

For the future, Dave aims to qualify as a RYA Yachtmaster – the ultimate aim of most aspiring skippers. The highly respected qualification is recognised worldwide, proving  experience and competence as a skipper and opens doors to jobs such as a sailing instructor, charter skipper or professional yacht delivery. He hopes to secure the coveted qualification by this summer before applying for jobs in the superyacht industry.

“The army was my life for all those years,” he says. “It’s all you do and it’s all you enjoy, then it’s over. I’m now learning to sail because I want to gain new skills and work in the industry, I’m really looking forward to a new chapter in life.”

To find out more about sailing opportunities, visit turntostarboard.co.uk.

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