Rebuilding lives through sailing

It was fourteen years ago that the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust untied the ropes and set sail from Cowes for the inaugural trip for the charity.

On board were five young people in recovery from cancer looking to rebuild their lives after treatment. Fast forward to 2018 and the Trust will welcome over 600 young people on various trips on the Solent from the team’s base in East Cowes, as well as from the recently formed Largs office in Scotland.

The four-day sailing trips are a unique and life changing experience for the young people that join them, but they are about much more than just sailing. “Sailing is just a vehicle”, says Trust founding Patron Dame Ellen MacArthur. “It’s about regaining your life. The joy of the trips is overwhelming, there are always transformations.”

The Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust takes young people between the ages of 8-24 on sailing trips to help them rebuild their confidence after cancer treatment and re-engage with education, employment and society.  The young people that join them have spent long periods in hospital and can be suffering from low self-esteem and a loss of confidence as well as missing out on large parts of their childhood.

The young people are initially invited to take part in a four-day sailing trip on yachts in the Solent on the South Coast of England or on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland, which are run throughout the summer holidays. They are all about having fun; and regaining a sense of independence. Crewing on-board a 45 foot boat with other young people in the same situation allows them to feel normal again, for once they aren’t the only kid in the room with cancer, it is a perfect blend of empowerment, challenge and distraction.  The time onboard enables the young people to work together as a team and to take part in the duties on board the boats. They are given freedom and independence in a supportive and caring environment, for many it is the first time they are away from parents and care givers since their treatment.

“What I see is almost a transformation.  If I knew what the secret was I would bottle it. The boost that the young people get is phenomenal.” Dave Hobin, is a consultant oncology Paediatrician, and also a member of the Trust Board. “What we’re doing for a lot of the teenagers and young adults we take is providing that first stepping stone back to them reclaiming themselves and their own individuality”.

For the Trust it is about providing the foundation to navigate the next step in their lives. During treatment, the young people and their families are given guidance and support. But once the treatment is complete, they are often on their own, with no experience or support of how to handle the next step.

“The chemo finishes and everybody goes, ‘Hurrah! It’s over, let’s go and have a big party.’ And it’s not quite like that because the world has moved on. You’re trying to get back to who you were but you’ve all changed significantly,” said Mrs Skepelhorn, mother of Daisy who first sailed with the Trust in 2008.

Daisy, now 25, looks back on her time with the Trust, “I’d been wrapped in cotton wool for two years,” she said. “I hadn’t needed to lift a finger because mum was doing everything.” Suddenly the crew were challenged how to get a boat from A to B. “We learnt how to do things for ourselves again. Everyone understands what you’ve gone through.” They compared scars and shared stories. You can talk openly with people who just instantly get it. I could talk to them about my survivors’ guilt, and realised I shouldn’t feel ashamed.”

After the initial trip, the Trust annually invites young people back to take part in other sailing events until they are 24.  Inviting the young people back to take part in other events enables the Trust to establish ongoing relationships with them. Once the young people are over 24 the charity train those who are interested so they can return as volunteers to help on the trips. This is where the Trust really stands out as our Return to Sail programme provides the extended support many young people need.

All of this amazing work cannot be achieved without the generous donations from the public, the amazing fundraisers and the volunteers who generously give their time to help at events and on the trips. If you would like to find out more about how you can support the Trust go to www.ellenmacarthurcancertrust.org and click on the ‘Get Involved’ section.