By Sean Duclay, SailAhead Co-Founder
Photos by Jennifer Duclay, SailAhead Photographer & Boat Jumper
SailAhead is an organization on a mission to fight veteran suicide with the power of sailing. By providing free and frequent access to sailing, we hope to save lives and provide support to those who need it most. SailAhead’s mission is threefold:
1. Use sailing and the ocean as a therapeutic platform to foster healing in our military community. It can be easy to believe that the only ones impacted by war are those who travel overseas to fight. In reality, the impact of war touches the lives of everyone around the soldier or veteran. The SailAhead community includes active-duty soldiers, retired veterans, and family members or friends of our fellow citizens in green. Through our events, we aim to connect the sailing and military communities, in order to employ the curative powers of sailing and curb the veteran suicide epidemic.
2. Spread awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and veteran suicide. The first step to solving any problem is to raise awareness of the cause. Awareness is raised through sailing programs and annual events across the country.
3. Honor and remember SailAhead’s Mates. SailAhead is on the front lines of a war for veterans’ mental health at home. The Mates ensure that the memories of those who lose the battle live on. Flags representing our Mates are carried aboard boats as a physical symbol of the urgency of this crisis.
The issue of veteran suicide is an insidious struggle that remains a threat long after service members leave the military. The nonprofit America’s Warrior Partnership conducted a study with devastating findings — 40 to 44 veterans take their own life each day. This means self-inflicted casualties are more dangerous to our service members than the enemies they have encountered in combat since 9/11. It is essential we remind ourselves of this crisis and offer help to those in need while they transition back into civilian communities. SailAhead believes we owe it to those who offered their lives in defense of our country, to do what is necessary so that every veteran can live a good life after they’ve made it home.
SailAhead is a resolute non-profit organization that provides a unique and effective approach to treating mental health struggles and suicidal thoughts: sailing. By utilizing the serenity of the ocean, participants have access to new perspectives and insights that can help them cope with their issues. Sailing is an excellent exercise in mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention to the present moment, and has been proven to have great effects against depression. Sailing supports self-determination and facilitates personal growth. It is an invaluable asset when it comes to SailAhead’s idea of achieving emotional wellbeing, as they strive to make a difference in others’ lives.
SailAhead offers free sailing lessons and organizes large sailing events with yacht clubs, such as our biggest to date, held in partnership with the Centerport Yacht Club in Centerport, NY in honor of U.S. Army Ranger SPC Ryan James Day, who took his life at age 21. This event in 2022 marked its sixth annual running. Centerport Yacht Club has expressed their appreciation for the event and have declared that they want to continue their tradition of taking veterans sailing every ensuing year.
Last year, SailAhead and Centerport Yacht Club took 130 veterans and family members sailing in a single day! The event begins with a ceremony, and a speech by Jim Day, the father of Ryan Day, to honor and remember his son. Ryan’s friends and family fly in from across the country, including the states of Colorado, Washington, and Texas, to participate in the event. After the ceremony, veterans and guests board the boats. Just a few minutes after the boats are underway, two helicopters do a fly-by. The first is a Messerschmitt helicopter in the Suffolk County Police Department that shows solidarity and support for the veteran’s community by circling the fleet a few times. The second helicopter belongs to a volunteer, who takes pictures of the fleet every year. The event concludes with a barbecue sponsored by Arizona Iced Tea and with a band providing live music.
These events are important because they create a bridge between the worlds of sailing and veterans. They work to stimulate interest in the world of sailing, giving veterans the opportunity to explore new experiences on the water. It also creates meaningful human connections between veterans and sailors. This creates opportunities for veterans to continue to sail with new yacht club friends, and by interacting with other veterans they can relate and help each other out by discussing resources and by motivating each other. Each event is dedicated to one of SailAhead’s Mates, like the USMC LCpl Michael Blanco Memorial Sail at the Babylon Yacht Club. Michael was almost 19 when he died by suicide.
The USMC LCpl Michael Blanco Memorial Sail will run for the fifth year in 2023. In 2022, nine sailboats participated to take twenty-five veterans sailing, many of whom were homeless. The event begins with a short ceremony, and the Blanco family gives a speech in honor of their son and brother, Michael. Once everyone boards the participating boats, the SailAhead RIB visits each one while underway to make sure that the SailAhead Mates visit each boat. There is also a photographer who goes to each boat to crack jokes and steal snacks! There is a short ceremonial rose toss into the water as the sailboats return to their slips, in honor of Michael. The Babylon Yacht Club then generously treats the group with a barbecue.
As part our mission, SailAhead also teaches leadership, teamwork and discipline on the water by engaging in recreational activities such as regattas, cruises and socials. By providing these unique opportunities, veterans can stay connected with each other and help ensure that no one sails alone. SailAhead maintains a growing fleet of sailboats and powerboats, the latter used as safety boats and to take Gold Star families to the Statue of Liberty for important memorial events.
Since its founding by my brother Killian and I in 2013, SailAhead has helped over 4,500 people struggling with mental health issues. We save lives by taking veterans to the water and exposing them to new activities. SailAhead has received testimonials and “thank yous” for saving and changing the lives of the veterans they serve. By giving them the opportunity to spend time on the open water and discover new activities, SailAhead has helped veterans get back on track and live out an improved quality of life. Such heartwarming testimonials prove just how inspirational SailAhead’s work really is. We’re fulfilling our mission with the following six programs:
• Events – SailAhead organizes five annual events, and we’re adding two new ones this year.
• Sailing – These are regular outings with veterans suffering from depression and PTSD.
• Racing – The SailAhead Racing Team has participated in races as such places as Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island.
• Safety Team – Consisting of veterans trained in CPR and First Aid who participate in some regattas and sailing events
• Maritime Education – Programs that teach history, navigation, and the fundamentals of sailing
By partnering with educational organizations like the Long Island Maritime Museum and others in sailing and racing, SailAhead can pursue each of their programs and facilitate healing across each of these genres. The Museum offers tours to SailAhead veterans and sailing outings on board their 130-year-old National Historic Landmark Oyster Sloop, the Priscilla.
For all these achievements, SailAhead needs help! We offer these programs to veterans at no charge, so we rely heavily on the community. You can donate money or time to SailAhead, or simply spread awareness about their mission and what we’re doing to help those in need. SailAhead’s fleet grows each year, and the maintenance of these boats is more and more expensive as they expand the scope and capacity for healing. Please visit sailahead.org/support-us to see how you can help.
In 2023, SailAhead is hoping to expand and strengthen our team in order to broaden our reach and capacity for healing.
The vast amount of veteran suicide in America is a call for urgent attention and change. SailAhead is one organization leading the charge to address this problem. Though this is only one step forward in an intricate process, what SailAhead does saves lives. Through their testimonials and expressions of gratitude from veterans, this non-profit organization has proven its effectiveness in helping people who have been affected by the trauma of war and service. All it takes is awareness, a modest donation, or your commitment to volunteer time with SailAhead to make a tangible difference towards reducing veteran suicide. Let us collectively take action towards ameliorating mental health issues among the military community. By empowering those who serve our country, we can ensure that no more heroes are lost due to these terrible tragedies. ■
A sailor since infancy, Sean Duclay has sailed on hundreds of boats of all kinds and for all reasons. Currently pursuing a Masters in Political Science and History at Stony Brook University – a school chosen in part so that he could continue his work with SailAhead – he plans to further the organization’s mission after graduation. He lives in Huntington, NY.