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Jan 31

Healing on the water

Posted on January 31, 2017 at 12:56 PM by Ben Schorzman

Veterans Sailing
Members of the OCCAM work during the Harvest Regatta on Fern Ridge Reservoir. The group was a part of City of Eugene's Recreation veterans sailing program. (John Franklin/Submitted photo)

For City of Eugene Recreation
I participated in the Veteran Sailing Program offered by the City of Eugene Recreation in the summer of 2016. Before I signed up for this program, I’d never done anything in the veteran community. I’d never participated in anything the Eugene Rec offered.

These kinds of activities weren’t even on my radar. I’m not on social media and I’d never gone looking for them. I signed up for sailing for the simple reason a fellow Marine asked me to come out and try it.
I think the reason I’d never done anything like this is because I felt like I didn’t deserve it. I wasn’t wounded in combat. I came home in one piece. Whenever I would hear about free programs for veterans, I immediately thought about the people on the Wounded Warriors calendars. In my mind, those were the people who earned it.

The other reason I was apprehensive was I didn’t like the idea of bobbing around on a boat with a few other veterans talking about the war and complaining about the VA. I’ve never particularly liked the idea of group therapy, so this seemed like a deterrent.

Still, I chose to come out and try it, and the only reason was because I have a lot of respect for the Marine who asked.

I say all of that to make a point. If you’re a service member who stood in front of the flag, raised your right hand and took the oath, then you deserve this program and all the other programs like it. I don’t care if you never fought over seas. You took an oath many people are unwilling to take and you put yourself at risk for them. All branches of service are welcome and I encourage every veteran I meet to sign up for this program.

As for the group therapy thing, it took me a while to realize it is, but I’m OK with that. We all helped each other by talking and listening out there on the water, but it was casual. We didn’t just talk about deployments and complain about the VA. We mostly talked about what was going on in our lives, what was going on at work and our families. Those kinds of things. The deployment talks developed later on their own as we got to know each other and became friends. No one was put on the spot and forced to talk about something they didn’t want to.

On to the sailing. I came into this program with zero experience. I think all of the veterans were equal in that regard. The first few times we went out were like boot camp. We showed up with a foggy idea of what we thought was going to happen, but we were nervous because we knew our knowledge of sailing was almost nonexistent. We knew we were going to mess up.

There’s also this entirely new language we had to learn before we could even communicate on the boat, just like there was at boot camp. It seems like English, but it’s just wasn’t the same. All of a sudden words like halyard, jib, spinnaker, forestay and leeward were tossed around. Then there were the words I thought I knew but will forever have different meanings for now, like tack, guy, line, sheet and tweaker (yes, it’s a sailing term). After a few trips out on the boat we all started getting the language down.

By the way, the instructors are a lot more patient and kind than the drill instructors at basic training.

After a couple of races I realized racing sailboats is all about things going wrong and crews running damage control. Generally, the boat that has the least number of things go wrong wins.

After a few weeks of practice our instructors told us it was time to start racing. None of us felt like we were ready but sometimes you just have to do something in order to learn it. We would be racing primarily against members of the Eugene Yacht Club. I pictured a bunch of people with monocles and high-ball glasses wondering who this ragtag crew from off the streets was.

Once we got out there (and especially later at the clubhouse) I realized I was way off with my assumptions. This was a family who wanted nothing more than to welcome us into the fold, talk about sailing and teach us in any way they could. We were in competition on the water, and sometimes it got heated, but around the barbecue we were friends. And I never saw a monocle or a high-ball glass. Just good people with beer bottles and good stories to tell.

Veterans Sailing
Members of the OCCAM work during the Harvest Regatta on Fern Ridge Reservoir. The group was a part of City of Eugene's Recreation veterans sailing program. (John Franklin/Submitted photo)

Sailboat racing is similar to running convoys in a combat zone. Everyone has a job to do, and you are relying on the person next to you to do their job just as they are relying on you to do yours. You’re excited, nervous and at the mercy of something you can’t control (the wind).

Ten seconds to the start and things get pretty crowded around the start line as boats are fighting for position behind the line. From this point on it’s all about communication and teamwork. Mistakes are made and then adjustments are made. You’re so full of adrenaline it’s hard to believe you’re only going about 6 mph.
This is the feeling I remember from Iraq and Afghanistan. Situations that create this level of excitement and focus are few and far between once you leave the military. You are a teammate and your team is depending on you to do your job correctly at the exact moment you are needed. It takes every single person doing their job to keep the boat moving in the right direction. It might as well be a convoy through Iraq.

After the race is over everyone heads over to the yacht club to eat and tell each other stories. This is where you can learn a lot of different perspectives on how to handle the wind from that night. It’s the debrief after the convoy.

This program took four people who had never sailed before and taught them how to handle a boat. It gave them an opportunity to race a boat for almost six months and enabled them to come away with a first-place trophy. The bonds made with the instructors and fellow veterans — as well as the members of the Eugene Yacht club — made this the best summer I’ve ever had. Just being able to be part of a team again and to execute the training we received made it feel like coming home again every time we got on the boat.

To Doug Smith, Johnny Ward and Roger Bailey I say thank you for your patience and your knowledge. To the Eugene Yacht Club, I say thank you for welcoming us into your world. To Brandt Schram, thank you for the use of your boat, OCCAM.

To any veteran who is considering taking part in this program, I say do it! You have nothing to lose by coming out and trying it. You have the experiences to lose if you choose to stay home. Don’t let yourself become trapped by the haunting things; come join the rest of us who have found peace on the water.

To anyone considering donating to this program, I would say there is great value in this thing. The opportunities it gave us to connect with other veterans, to get out in the community and learn new skills are worth it. This is a unique program that allows veterans a place to learn new skills, talk with other veterans and participate in a healthy activity without having the overshadowing feeling of a forced therapy session.

Before I participated I lived in a tiny world. If I could find a way to shrink it, I did so. I went to work and came home and that was it. Since starting in the sailing program, I have branched out. I am an assistant wrestling coach. I’ve taken advantage of career development opportunities. I started saying “yes” where I used to say no.

My wife noticed a difference in the way I carried myself after starting this program. She could see it made me happy to be out there and she encouraged me to take part, even on the weeks I felt like staying home. This program was a catalyst that has helped me in every aspect of my life. I want other veterans to be able to experience that change in their lives. A lot of them are looking for something and don’t even realize it, just as I was. Maybe all it takes is someone asking them to join the team.

The team, though, can only happen if it is funded. I don’t ask because I want to take advantage of this program again. I had my time on the boat and it’s time for a new group. My wife and I intend to donate to this program this year, and I hope you will consider doing the same.

As for the four of us who took advantage of this program last summer, I believe every one of us intends to show up next year and try to get on different boats so we can keep racing. I sincerely hope we will see another group (or two) of veterans out there with the Eugene Recreation staff, learning and getting better each week.

They will find there is nothing quite like a Thursday night under the sails.

For more information about the veterans sailing program, contact Roger Bailey at 541-682-6323.


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