Turn to Starboard charity helping ex-servicemen with PTSD

Friday, 04 September 2015

On  an even keel

Just off Cornwall’s south coast, Freemason Roy Newport takes retired military personnel out on the open water to help them adjust to life in the ‘normal’ world. Imogen Beecroft finds out how sailing can treat the injuries you cannot see

‘There is no “normal” after Afghanistan. You come back a different person.’ 

Roy Newport was serving as a Royal Military Policeman in Afghanistan when he was thrown from his vehicle after being caught in the blast of an explosive device. Three days later, he was in his living room at home, unable to contact anyone he knew in the military. 

Keen to replace the sense of belonging he found in the army, Roy joined Fowey Lodge, No. 977, which meets in Tywardreath, a small hilltop village in southern Cornwall. ‘I found camaraderie in the masonic group,’ he says. ‘It was a massive part of my reintegration and helped with my confidence no end.’

While Freemasonry was a huge step in the right direction, Roy’s war experiences had led him to develop severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ‘It was horrendous. I’d spent days on end being shot at in the desert, and when I got home I couldn’t go out in the sunshine, so I spent most of my time inside. 

I found it very difficult to talk to people I didn’t know and would get uncontrollably angry. I almost lost my family – almost lost my life. That’s how close it came.’

‘I was desperate to engage with people like myself, and that helped me more than anything. You don’t get over PTSD, but you’ll get through it.’ Roy Newport

Like-minded people

After a year and a half of suffering, Roy heard about Turn to Starboard, a charity that uses sailing to help military personnel adjust to life after the armed forces. Based in Falmouth’s picturesque marina, the charity takes groups of ex-military individuals on sailing courses, providing them with a new hobby, a supportive community of like-minded people and, occasionally, even a new career path. 

The comradeship helped Roy battle his PTSD and begin to regain his cheerful character. ‘I was desperate to engage with people like myself,’ he says. ‘Being able to decompress and spin a few yarns with chaps who’ve been in the same boat helped me more than anything. You never get over PTSD, but you’ll get through it.’ 

Roy now works full-time at Turn to Starboard, mentoring other servicemen on the water. ‘I saw so many lads struggling with PTSD and the things I’d been through. I wanted to help them deal with those experiences and defeat our common enemy.’

Turn to Starboard is the brainchild of Shaun Pascoe, who served for 16 years in the Medical Emergency Response Team, undertaking tours in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Finding it increasingly difficult to adjust to normal life after returning from these war zones, Pascoe began teaching windsurfing. He found that his time spent with similarly active individuals – whether on the water or later in the pub – was having a pronounced effect on his morale. 

Pascoe eventually started sailing with groups of ex-military servicemen who were struggling with PTSD, physical injuries or other mental traumas. Seeing the positive impact sailing had on his students, he founded the charity in 2012 and now has groups of people on the water daily. 

Turn to Starboard runs several different programmes, from Royal Yachting Association-accredited courses for beginners to week-long family trips, as well as an extensive Zero to Hero Yachtmaster development programme, which gives participants the necessary qualifications to begin a career in sailing. The family trips are particularly important for servicemen with children, and Pascoe sees these as one of the most vital parts of the charity’s work. He vividly remembers one child saying, ‘My daddy came back from Afghanistan – but when we went sailing, he really came back.’ 

‘You’ve got to realise that you aren’t in control – that you can’t tell the wind or the weather what to do.’ Roy Newport 

Freedom on the water

Drastic transformations are not uncommon at Turn to Starboard. ‘We had one guy who had been locked inside his house for years. We picked him up and took him sailing. Since then, he’s really engaged with life and sails every day with his local club,’ says Pascoe. ‘Roy is someone else who’s really transformed his life. Before working with us, he wasn’t engaging with anyone and didn’t want to do anything. Now we wouldn’t recognise that because he moves at 100mph and is enthused about everything.’

For Roy, there is nothing like being on the water. ‘You experience complete freedom, which is a huge release. You’ve got to realise that you aren’t in control – that you can’t tell the wind or the weather what to do. You learn to control the things you can and adapt to the things you can’t. That’s completely different to being in the army, where your own and your soldiers’ lives are at risk, and giving up control is the furthest thing from your mind.’

Although 70 per cent of the people sailing with Turn to Starboard have to struggle with these kinds of mental traumas, the rest have physical injuries. 

The team refuses to allow an injury to prevent someone from sailing, says Roy, explaining that most amputees or people with physical injuries can’t bear special treatment. ‘We don’t make it any easier for them – they just crack on. If that means they take their prosthetic leg off and slide along on their bottom, then that’s what they do. We find most service people just want to be treated as normal.’

Rich Birchall had been in the marines for 14 years when he was medically discharged because of a back injury. A Freemason in the Royal Marines Plymouth Lodge, No. 9528, Rich felt lost after being discharged and took a job in an IT company. ‘It was driving me crazy. I hated being stuck inside and was working with people who I really had nothing in common with. I thought I was going to end up with a rope around my neck.’

Rich started volunteering with Turn to Starboard in May and has never looked back. ‘I’m really enjoying it, and it’s had a massive impact on my life. I was at my lowest, having some pretty sinister thoughts about how to get out of this situation, but I had a wife and three kids I didn’t want to leave behind. Turn to Starboard helped me turn things around just in time.’

As Rich saw it, he had gone from handling firearms in war-torn countries to being ‘babied’ by people who were worried he might hurt himself. ‘But the guys at Turn to Starboard let me manage my injury myself and have allowed me to get back outdoors. My ultimate goal is to do the Zero to Hero programme, which would mean I could sail for a living and continue volunteering with Turn to Starboard in my spare time.’

‘My concern is that we’ll get to a point where we can’t afford to help all the people coming forward…’ Shaun Pascoe

Navigating the future

Rich is full of praise for his lodge and Turn to Starboard. ‘They’ve both really helped me, and I hope if I’m well behaved and continue to work as hard as I can, Turn to Starboard will keep me on for the foreseeable future.’

The charity is going from strength to strength, with backing from Help for Heroes and the Royal Air Forces Association. For it to be able to continue helping people like Rich, however, it needs continual funding, as the participants don’t pay to go out on the water. Pascoe says, ‘We’re getting a significant demand for what we’re doing so it’s about making sure we don’t have to say no to any of these people – my concern is that we’ll get to a point where we can’t afford to help all the people coming forward.’

Roy voices similar concerns: ‘There’s only a certain amount of space on the funded courses. We can’t afford to help everyone. It would be great if lodges could help a local serviceman – injured, retired, out of work or down on his luck – get to us and we can give him a career. The masonic fraternity couldn’t have been more supportive of me, so it would be fantastic if they could take that one step further.’

Sailing into 2017

Freemasons and Turn to Starboard will be working together in the 2017 festivities. A trustee of Turn to Starboard, Freemason Mike Pritchard also sits on the Province of Cornwall’s Tercentenary Celebration Committee. At the culmination of events, the charity will be sailing a commemorative banner across to the Isles of Scilly. ‘Turn to Starboard has very graciously supported our event, and to have a tall ship escort the banner should indeed be a spectacle,’ says Mike, who is a member of St Pirans Lodge, No. 7620.

Mike has been impressed by the selflessness of the Turn to Starboard team. ‘Their drive and determination is hugely impressive, as is the empathy they offer to everyone lucky enough to be supported by this exceptional charity. I can think of no better candidate for the Freemasons’ support. A charity with such values providing help to injured or retired servicemen fits in extremely well with the grand principles on which our Order is founded.’

Find out more at www.turntostarboard.co.uk 

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