The predicament facing service-people returning home has received scant sympathy in the past. It was thought they are tough enough for battle, strong enough to face death…so obviously they can easily cope with peace and life on Civvy Street.
Actually they often cannot. And that is now being accepted more widely and, most importantly, by the men and women themselves.
Anyone who has changed from working in a highly reactive job into a pro-active environment should be able grasp this…particularly if they also swap from team working to an individual life. Servicemen – it still is predominantly men – leave an environment where they are hardwired to work together, to be interdependent, where a single wrong step or missed detail on a far horizon can mean death to themselves and their friends, to return home to find a world where a single, careless word can be seen as damaging someone else’s self-esteem and where there literally seems no real reason to move.
And that’s what some do, says retired RAF Squadron Leader (Rtd) Shaun Pascoe who founded the charity Turn to Starboard which is dedicated to rescuing ex-service-people from this predicament. He recalls one man who spent four years mostly lying on a sofa, so meaningless had life become.
Turn to Starboard was founded with the idea of using sail training to help Forces personnel overcome the challenges of transition to civilian life and was inspired by Shaun’s own personal experience. Shaun served on numerous tours during his 16 years in the RAF, including Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and repeatedly in Afghanistan as Officer Commanding (OC) of the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT).
MERT is a medical team that flies forward using the Chinook aircraft to retrieve injured personnel often under heavy enemy fire. The high-intensity nature of his operational work meant coming home became an increasing challenge. Shaun found it difficult adjusting to normal life, felt isolated and found it difficult to share his experiences, even with his loved ones.
After his second tour of Afghanistan Shaun raised £8,300 from various charitable sources and purchased windsurfing equipment and a rescue boat. As a windsurfing instructor Shaun taught those returning from operations with an emphasis on meeting others in similar positions. And this began for him what has become a new series of rescue missions, extracting the victims of battle from the mental and physical backwaters into which they had drifted, ending up with the foundation of Turn to Starboard in 2012. This was still an entirely volunteer-run charity until two years ago, but the success of its work has won widespread support and it now has a permanent staff.
On June 1, a group of ex-service-people began the sea journey – Turn to Starboard’s Round Britain Challenge 2016 – to regain their lives. A total of 38 crew members – with both psychological and physical effects from their service – started joining the trip in shifts to challenge their mind and bodies to sail around the coast of Britain. Leaving Falmouth, home base for Turn to Starboard, they travelled up the East Coast and around the north of Scotland. On July 5th, Spirit of Falmouth – one of three boats involved in this flotilla – arrived in Stornoway. Spirit of Falmouth is their 91ft wooden gaff rigged Mersey Pilot Schooner which was built using traditional methods in Liverpool in 1985. Gifted to Turn to Starboard in 2014 by The Prince’s Trust, she has a core crew of six with the capacity to carry 12 passage crew.
Some of the 38 veterans sailed the complete expedition as part of their training for more advanced seagoing qualifications whilst others joined for shorter sections. The two additional Turn to Starboard yachts, also crewed by ex-serviceman and women, were added to meet the unexpectedly high number of applicants for the trip.
It’s not hard to see why sailing can revive ability of ex-service-people to cope with life. The automatic doors and gentle ramps of civilian life are replaced by vertical quayside ladders and ship’s steep companionways where a missed step can easily mean injury; tidiness is essential; team-working is the norm; and challenges can come from anywhere – from the sea, the weather or the machinery on board. Instantly there is something to get up for, and Shaun says that the effect starts to work on the men, sometimes within hours.
After their day in Stornoway, the crew of the Spirit of Falmouth spoke of the great welcome they had received on the Island - including a special mention of an “absolutely cracking” breakfast in the café in the Bayhead Bridge Centre. The crew - all but one of whom are ex-service veterans - mentioned the care given by the port with someone available to assist with mooring despite their early morning arrival.
And they explained they had found great sympathy and support from all the ports and communities they had visited in their long voyage from Falmouth in Cornwall up the east coast of the UK - with every port so far, waiving its mooring fees in support of their venture.
Looking back at his RAF career, Shaun said the rescue work out in Afghanistan was “quite challenging, it was really hard. Coming home was really hard. We picked up about 6,500 patients and of those, personally, I picked up 1494.”
Approaching his last year in service, Shaun decided to spend his resettlement time and money on a Royal Yachting Association, Yachtmaster Offshore course with Cruising Instructor. Using this qualification Shaun began providing sailing opportunities for others. The success of this meant that Shaun registered a charity with the Charity Commission in July 2012 and Turn to Starboard was born. Originally the work was entirely ad hoc with borrowed boats but the way the sailing benefitted those involved meant the project grew and it has seen a dramatic increase in funding and support from other charities and organisations supporting veterans.
Building on how he managed his own recovery, Shaun said that the sailing experience “particularly benefits those with post-traumatic stress disorder.” He said: “most of them struggled to do everyday things and engage with normal life.” The experience of sailing meant that “suddenly, within a day or two, they realise they are in like-minded company, there’s no judgement, there’s no reminders, there’s no associations with what they had done and they kind-of get on with it. We don’t mince our words, if you get three services – RAF, Army, and Navy – on board a boat they are pretty ruthless and the banter is rife, they…start engaging, enjoying it and learning something new.”
Sitting below deck with crew members, it is difficult to imagine a group of more positive people. They make it quite obvious how much they are enjoying the work and the real challenges involved in the work and life at sea. Tamsin Mulcahy, the operations manager, is the only civilian on board and is part of the core crew from Turn to Starboard. She had been to Stornoway before, with the Tall Ships in 2011. Her fellow crew members make clear she has the respect of all around for her management and sailing skills – and you know they are going to waste time on saying that if they did not mean it. Their reception in each port has been positive and Shaun says this is a real change in public attitudes to service-people and ex-service-people which has taken hold in the last 20 years.
Tamsin explains that when they arrive in Liverpool in a fortnight they will be taking part in a 250th anniversary commemoration of the work of the Mersey Pilot schooners. These used to race out to the Mersey Bar – a vast sandbank – to safely guide in ships to the port. They competed with each other to be fastest so as to get out to the cargoes first – and were paid in cargo from the vessels which was carried in the rear holds and sold-off to make the money to pay the crew.
Shaun emphasises that on the Spirit of Falmouth they are not providing treatment – or counselling. He has turned people away who weren’t engaging with their treatment. But they have found that the sailing experience has helped some understand better what their psychological treatment is meant to be achieving. After the initial trips, he says: “we got to teaching people who were really quite profoundly unwell to do crew and day-skipper courses. Then they came back for more.” This got them yachtmaster qualifications and some have now gone on to full-time jobs – including with Turn to Starboard itself – and others to part-time jobs like yacht delivery. He emphasised the special skills of their yachtmaster trainees – not only did they have experience on a wider range of vessels than is usual as part of their training but they had pre-existing skills as navigators, as engineers and generally as leaders.
The Round-Britain trip has won wide support, not just from ports and from ordinary people and businesses wherever they have visited but from major funders including International Paints and the Endeavour Fund.
After leaving Stornoway, the Spirit of Falmouth headed for Oban where she met up with the other two yachts and there was a crew changeover. Next stop is the Isle of Arran, followed by the Isle of Man. Whitehaven in Cumbria follows next – arriving July 17th, if the timetable can be maintained. Then there is the stop in Liverpool for the 250th anniversary of Mersey Pilot Schooners with an exhibition at Liverpool Maritime Museum that opens July 22nd. After that, another crew changeover, passage to Holyhead, the Isle of Lundy, Isles of Scilly and finally back to Falmouth for the start of August.