Healing from the Deep: Cornwall’s 100ft Therapy Sailboat
As a child in care, Joe Sabien used to run away to the coast. The salvation he found in the sea now forms the basis of his life’s work, as the founder of a pioneering ‘blue health’ charity that uses sailing as therapy
To imagine. It’s the 1970s. London. You are eight years old. No dad. A troubled mother. The house is a care facility for the next decade. You’re scared, you’re alone, you want to go out. Who do you turn to?
In Joe Sabien’s case, he looked out to sea. He slept at school, flew on a train and headed for Brighton (“I think the term was ‘on the run’, he says). Why? He wasn’t sure. He only knew that sitting there on the shore, looking out into the deep blue, he found safety, solitude, peace.
Fast forward half a century and this neglected but determined neighborhood of the state is now a trained mental health clinician who spends his weekends with the police helping people in acute distress get off bridges and cliffs.
Today he enjoys kayaking and volunteering for his local lifeboat service in Falmouth, the Cornish port town he now calls home.
But he is marine sanctuarythe mental health charity that Sabien founded in 2006, where his life experiences and maritime passions find full expression.
Using a combination of sailing training, marine activities and evidence-based therapies, the charity seeks to help people who are experiencing a range of mental and emotional issues.
People are welcome to participate as much or as little as they want
In April this year, Sea Sanctuary welcomed a new addition to its fleet: a stunning wooden tall ship named Irene. Built in 1907, the 100ft ‘ketch’ can accommodate eight guests, plus a crew of five (skipper, mate, deckhand, chef and therapist).
Participants, who are referred by a medical professional or apply by word of mouth, spend four days sailing along the beautiful Cornish coast (or estuaries if the weather is gusty).
An “everyone on deck” atmosphere prevails. So, hoist the sails, adjust the ropes and scrub the decks. Or not. Most people jump in, but there’s no obligation, says Sabien.
Joe Sabien at the Sea Sanctuary office – a boat in Falmouth harbour. Image: James Banister
“People are invited to participate as much or as little as they wish. They can even drive the big old boat if they want to,” he says.
From time to time, the crew drops anchor and is guided by formal group work. But a big part of the therapy is “making meaningful connections” and talking one-on-one with the onboard therapist.
At the heart of Sea Sanctuary’s services is a deep belief in the restorative powers of the sea; its ability to make us forget, to lose ourselves, to (counter-intuitively) find our bearings.
The sea allows us to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves
“There is something in the sea, something visceral, precognitive, beyond language,” Sabien thinks to himself. “It allows us to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.”
To a medical ear, this probably sounds somewhat vague and non-clinical. Therefore, moves within the research community in recent years to explain the physiological impacts of deep brine.
Theories now abound, ranging from the anti-depression benefits of “negative ions” (negatively charged molecules) found in mist and spray to the meditative effects of the rocking motion of the sea. There’s even a name for it: “health blue”.
The sea has a restorative effect on humans, scientists have found. Image: Marine Sanctuary
Despite Sabien’s clinical history, science doesn’t bother him. In fact, explaining the biological mechanics of the sea’s health impacts takes away some of its magic, he believes.
“Most people who go to the sea to surf or swim don’t stay there and drop out like clockwork. They don’t want to understand how it works. What they want is to be lost in the moment,” he says.
He is not the first to appreciate the balm of the sea. A century ago, the poet and orator (and avid sailor) Hilaire Belloc spoke of the eternal “consolation” of the sea, of its ability to ” perpetually showing us new things”, and of his humors sufficient to “fill the store with bothers”.
Humans aren’t really designed to be in neon-lit offices all the time. We are much better in nature
He’s not the only one to experience the healing power of the sea for himself, either. Molly Gorman, a former civil servant with bipolar disorder, first made a trip to the Sea Sanctuary in 2014.
Having no sailing experience and finding life “a bit difficult, to say the least”, she nearly chickened out. During his four days at sea, Gorman met other people in the same boat (both figuratively and literally) and learned to accept his mental health issues.
She attributes some of the feeling of well-being she felt afterward to the formal therapy she received on board. But the lion’s share happens “while you don’t realize it”, a mystery she attributes to immersion in nature.
“I think as humans, we’re not really designed to be in fluorescent-lit offices all the time,” she says. “We’re much better off in nature if we can.”
Gorman has since been on two subsequent sailing trips with Sea Sanctuary. She has also completed the Royal Yachting Association Competent Crew Basic Course.
“People are invited to participate as much or as little as they wish. They can even drive the big old boat if they want,” says Sabien. Image: Marine Sanctuary
As restorative as the sea can be, Sabien is realistic about what four days of sailing can bring. He describes it as the “start of a journey” to good mental health, not a magic cure or a quick fix.
“I’m not saying for a minute that four days is going to resolve a complex trauma,” he admits. “But what it will do is encourage people to be able to trust again…and recognize that they are not isolated with their experiences.”
Many participants also access Sea Sanctuary’s other services, which cover everything from anxiety management and mindfulness classes to art workshops and family development support.
Either way, the sea is never far away. There is something unknowable in this watery mass that covers 70% of the surface of the globe, notes Sabien. “And that in itself is incredibly powerful.”
Main image: Sea Sanctuary’s newest addition to its fleet: a tall ship named Irene. Credit: Sea Sanctuary
Blue health: what the science says
Scientists have identified three ways in which humans are positively impacted by proximity to the sea. The first involves what the medical community calls “restoration,” which in practice mostly boils down to stress reduction. The idea is that the soothing nature of the sea resets the cognitive imbalances and emotional exhaustion that come with modern life.
Scientists have shown that people’s heartbeats normalize and their frown muscles relax when watching marine scenes. More recently, researchers have developed the Mappiness iPhone app that asks people to record their moods during the day and associate them with their geolocation. The results show that the participants were happiest when they were near the coast or on the water.
The second focuses on so-called “mitigation,” or in layman’s terms, how blue spaces mitigate aspects of modern life that affect our health. Examples include spot cooling (lakes, rivers and seas absorb heat better than our concrete cities), pleasant sounds (waves lapping instead of speeding traffic), and reducing air pollution. air.
Attenuation is also where negative ions come into play. High energy phenomena such as crashing waves and high waterfalls leave behind water particles with a small electrical charge. The theory is that this electrical charge can improve breathing conditions and even reduce depression – although exactly how this happens remains unclear.
The third category has more to do with what we do in aquatic environments than what they do for us. These positive effects, known as ‘restoration’, result from beneficial health practices encouraged by proximity to water. For example, physical exercise and the simple pleasure of being with friends.