Sailing Heals -September/October 2011

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Cory Silken

A day on the water is a welcome respite for just about anyone. For cancer patients locked into a routine of doctor’s appointments, chemotherapy or radiation treatments and the simple struggles of everyday life coping with the disease, it can be a godsend.

Passengers enjoy a Sailing Heals cruise off Marblehead in early August aboard the Panerai watch company’s 1938 Fife-built yawl Mariella.

With that in mind, the nonprofit organization Sailing Heals was formed, with the goal of giving cancer patients from Massachusetts General Hospital and other facilities in the Partners HealthCare system – including Nantucket Cottage Hospital – a much-needed opportunity to feel the wind in their hair and the salt spray on their skin, and spend a few hours away from their worries on a classic sailboat on the open water.

In conjunction with founding sponsor Panerai, the Italian luxury-watch company, Sailing Heals was officially launched Aug. 18 during Nantucket Race Week with a reception on the Nantucket Lightship.

“We couldn’t be more pleased than to launch our new charity with such well-respected organizations as the MGH Cancer Center, Nantucket Cottage Hospital and Officine Panerai. We see a true collaborative spirit among all the partners, and we look forward to taking patients and their caretakers out of the clinical environment to enjoy the healing powers of the sea,” Sailing Heals executive director Trisha Boisvert said.

The seeds of the idea were planted last summer, when patients and their care-givers were taken on cruises aboard Gary Gregory’s classic 12-meter America’s Cup contender Valiant in the waters off Nantucket and Marblehead. Panerai launched the pilot program in partnership with the British-based Sail 4 Cancer, but those involved soon realized a North American organization would make more sense.

“It went really well. Everyone enjoyed the concept and the experience, especially the captains and the patients. But we realized it wasn’t going to translate across the Atlantic, as Sail 4 Cancer wasn’t really set up to migrate,” Boisvert said.

“Panerai liked the idea so much, and in time wanted to expand it beyond cancer, with some other initiatives. (Public-relations director) Michelle Gallagher of Panerai approached the executive board and asked them to be the founding sponsor of a North American-based organization, and they agreed.”

Greg Vrettos was one of the first to go for a sail. The 64-year-old Durham, N.H. man, who was diagnosed in 2004 with stage-four lung cancer, headed out with Gregory on Valiant in Marblehead last August.

“It was a great experience. It just takes you to another place. We always have this on our mind at some level, so getting to do something totally different, so peaceful and beautiful, was just a great break, a great respite. Spending a couple hours on a boat on a beautiful day with some very nice people, it was a great feeling to get out there and do that,” said Vrettos, who shortly after being diagnosed at age 57 was put on an early clinical trial of a drug that he says has been “amazing.”

That’s exactly what Sailing Heals is all about, Boisvert said.

“We really want to take patients and caretakers out of the clinical environment, so they can enjoy the healing powers of the sea. We’re so connected to water, and that connection really gives people a rejuvenating effect.”

Sara Kelly, senior managing director for development at Mass General, agreed.

“We know that our patients and their care-givers appreciate a relaxing escape that a day at sea brings to their often challenging treat- ment schedules,” she said.

In early August, Gregory’s Valiant was one of three boats – along with Panerai’s Eilean, a newly-restored 1936 Bermudian ketch, and her sister-vessel Mariella, built two years later – cruising for Sailing Heals in Marblehead during the Corinthian Classic Yacht Regatta. As of press time, he planned to be on Nantucket for Race Week as well.

Panerai sponsors the three-race Classic Yachts Challenge, which opens in Marblehead, heads to Nantucket for the Opera House Cup, and concludes with the Museum of Yachting Classic Yacht Regatta in Newport, R.I.

Gregory took several cancer patients and doctors out last summer the day after the Opera House Cup, on a gray morning, damp and rainy, for what turned into an epic sail.

“It’s truly an honor to be involved with an organization like this,” he said, standing on the dock of the Nantucket Yacht Club last year. “If I can help these people take their mind off their troubles, even for a short amount of time, it’s well worth it.” The program is also a way for the patients to thank the doctors and others who are providing their treatment and care, by inviting them along for the ride. “People sometimes forget that it’s not just the patients who go through the treatments, it’s the families and care-givers too. We want to celebrate their contributions as well,” Boisvert said. “It’s an opportunity to say thank-you. Not often do we have the chance to do that. This shared experience is one way. They can really get out there, share an experience on a beautiful boat, and we’re excited about what it will deliver for their health.”

Moving forward, Sailing Heals would like to expand the program to assist even more cancer patients, and then others as well, Boisvert said.

“As we get more ‘admirable admirals’ – the captains – coming forward, we’re hoping to do even more. In time, we’d like to branch out into other regions, and to other groups, like disabled veterans, who could benefit from this,” she said. 

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