Veterans find strength, hope and camaraderie through sailing

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ANNAPOLIS — Veterans Day can be a somber day spent honoring friends and family who lost their lives serving in the military, and it proves to be even tougher for veterans battling their own personal physical and mental health challenges from the service. However, some veterans have found continued strength, hope and camaraderie in civilian life through a surprising activity — sailing.

For Jay McGinnis, sailing provided him a way out of a dark place. A former Army paratrooper, physician assistant and special operations medical officer, Jay spent many years in the military, serving in central South America, east Africa and the Middle East. His medical and special operations work in the Army gave him a distinct, defined sense of purpose, and leaving that community took a toll on him.

“The thing about the military is that it also becomes your identity,” McGinnis said. “So the day that you leave active duty, all of that gets challenged, get turned upside down.”

That’s why McGinnis, along with Marine Corps combat veteran Mike Wood, created the Valhalla Sailing Project in 2015 — a program designed to connect wounded, transitioning and disabled veterans with each other through sailing to recreate the camaraderie of the military and promote mental well-being. The program, which runs out of marinas in Annapolis, primarily takes veterans out on Valhalla, a J/35 racing sailboat, and runs sailing clinics on other boats including J/22s, J/24s, J/30s and J/35s.

After returning to civilian life, some veterans have a hard time finding their next identity outside of the bonds formed in battle, which can lead to increased feelings of social isolation and exacerbate negative symptoms of existing mental health disorders. The number of deaths by suicides in the veteran population has also increased, with an average of 17.6 veteran suicides per day, according to a 2020 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Valhalla’s main mission is to provide a way for veterans to find a new or companion identity in the sailing community, which is especially broad in and around Annapolis and the Chesapeake Bay, along with expanding veterans’ contact circles so they’re able to talk with and be around others who’ve been through similar situations.

“We’ve had some who have given us a call and said ‘I need to be on the water,’ and then it’s up to them if they want to talk about it,” McGinnis said.

Valhalla crew boss and board member Bo Darlington has been both the veteran in need of a few hours on the water and the experienced sailor taking those veterans out for a sail. He can’t even begin to count how many times he’s taken Valhalla out just because he needed that time himself, and he’s eager to help provide the same experience for others.

“People hit me up, I’m like, ‘yup let’s go’ because I know what it does for me,” Darlington said. “If I can get one other person to experience that and it helps them, then good, that’s it.”

Darlington first deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 as a paratrooper with the Army’s 82nd Airborne division. He was on his way home after a few months when his vehicle was struck by two rocket-propelled grenades, with the second striking his arm as he pulled his fellow soldier out of harm’s way. His arm injury sent him back to the states to Walter Reed Hospital, where he underwent surgeries and rehab to regain function in his arm, finally retiring from the Army in 2013.

Learning how to sail wasn’t something that crossed Darlington’s mind until roughly Memorial Day 2017 while watching Captain Ron with his brother-in-law. At that point, he was still trying to figure out what to do in civilian life, but the movie prompted him to take sailing lessons in Maine that summer. He found Valhalla in August 2017, and the rest was history.

Since starting with Valhalla, Darlington has jumped right into Valhalla’s community, racing and sailing extensively with other veteran sailors. One of the big benefits he’s noticed — aside from improving his sailing skills — is his increased willingness to come out of his shell. He’s noticed that he’s become more open to hanging out with people and has found that he’s more likely to talk with others when he’s down instead of isolating himself.

“Being on the water for me personally is just therapeutic as hell,” Darlington said. “There is nothing like it when you get the sails up and you just hear that crackle, that the sails took over, the engine is off, you just hear the water lapping, the wind going. That to me, that takes so much away.”

Alicia Gouvêa, a Marine Corps truck driver and recruiter, is working on transitioning out of the military to go back to school as a full-time nursing student. In the middle of an eventful time in her life, she credits sailing and racing with Valhalla 100 percent for saving her sanity from the stress of work.

“That’s part of what Valhalla is, not only working and building that camaraderie, but it’s also having more people you can turn to,” she said, explaining that she’s found veterans who’ve gone through similar stressors and understand more than a civilian friend of family member.

Like Alicia, former Army paratrooper Paul Fowler also appreciates how sailing and racing with Valhalla can put a smile on his face and reset his mood after a bad day at work. To him, the water has become his happy place, even during hard times.

For veterans with physical disabilities or mental health conditions, the thought of getting out on the water may seem far-fetched and virtually impossible. However, with Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB), disabled veterans — or recovering warriors at CRAB — are able to get out on the water and experience the joy and camaraderie of all aspects of sailing.

Operating out of a marina at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, CRAB’s fleet of adaptive sailboats and handicapped boarding equipment are able to accommodate anyone with a physical disability wishing to sail, regardless of the level of severity with the disability. The organization hasn’t yet come across a disability that they weren’t able to accommodate, according to executive director Bo Bollinger.

Their fleet consists of six Beneteau First 22As, which were designed specifically for sailors with mobility issues. The boats have two chairs mounted in the cockpit, which have straps to ensure safety for the sailors. Guests are able to board the boats from wheelchairs using a transfer box slide or a Hoyer hydraulic lift, which lifts sailors from their wheelchairs and lowers them into the seats in the cockpit. For quadriplegic individuals who want to sail, CRAB also provides a Martin 16 sailboat with a “sip and puff” steering system, which allows the skipper of the boat to adjust the sails and steer.

For recovering warriors looking for the chance to sail, CRAB offers two-day sailing clinics and Recovering Warrior Sailing Regattas throughout the sailing season, which are specially organized for veterans to learn how to sail and race in a safe and fun setting.

Sailing has long been a part of life for Rear Admiral Tim McGee. A 1978 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, McGee served as the captain of the intercollegiate dinghy racing team and was recognized for his competitive excellence by earning All-American honors his senior year.

Several years ago, McGee suffered a severe stroke that affected the right side of his body and his vision. For McGee, who is normally the helmsman and skipper on boats, adjusting to sailing with his disability now has been “pretty difficult,” he said.

Not having vision as strong as it used to be has proven to be a challenge for McGee when sailing. He’s used to visualizing the whole race course and looking for the mark to round, but his occasional double vision issues prompt him to ask his normal crew of former Navy All-Americans where the mark is.

Despite McGee’s mobility issues, CRAB’s adaptive boats have provided him with a way to get out on the water and back into racing, where his skills are as sharp as ever. McGee has participated in CRAB’s Recovering Warrior Sailing Regattas and the CRAB Cup, a charitable regatta to benefit the organization.

In August 2020, McGee and his crew made history as they sailed to a first place victory out of 89 boats in the…

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