Veterans in high spirits for maritime challenge

A few of the Spirit of Falmouth’s crew moored on Oban’s new pontoons are, left to right, veterans Chris, Andy, Rich, Dixie, Dan, Big Al, Pat, Emz, Gary and Ash.

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Injured veterans with little or no sailing experience piloted a tall ship into Oban and Tobermory this week on a 2,000-mile expedition around the British Isles.

The Round Britain Challenge set sail from Falmouth harbour on Saturday August 5 with a crew of 17 ex-servicemen and women, who are living, sleeping and working on board the 92ft, 88-tonne Spirit of Falmouth, which weighs the same as a blue whale.

The historic ship, built on the Mersey in 1984 and donated by the Prince’s Trust, is a replica of a 250-year-old schooner. The crew moored off Port Ellen on Islay, then Oban on Monday and Tobermory on Wednesday, before embarking for Skye and Orkney. They hope to finish back in Falmouth in September.

The voyage is organised by Turn to Starboard, a charity helping military personnel suffering with physical injuries or mental trauma by providing sailing courses and trips. It aims to help participants re-engage, re-integrate and gain new skills to help start new careers.

Skipper Dan Fielding, who was medically discharged from the Royal Marines in 2008, told The Oban Times he was reaching the depths of despair before discovering Turn To Starboard.

‘When you get out of the military you can feel a bit useless,’ he said. ‘There are some guys here who would not leave their house. I was exactly the same, and now I am a skipper of a tallship. She has helped a lot, getting people out on the water and enjoying life.

‘Now I am helping give back what I got, and it is probably the most wonderful thing in the world.’

The Spirit of Falmouth, a replica of a 250-year-old schooner, visited Islay, Oban, Mull and Skye on its circumnavigation of Britain.

Injured Dan, in Oban on his second expedition, praised its new pontoons. ‘I am above the knee, so it makes getting on and off far better. We have to do some sail repairs: we got caught in a really big blow off the Isle of Man. It just went mad: 17 to 45 knots in five minutes.

‘Being out at sea teaches people to face their fears. We have to get through it together. You bond as a team.’

‘We are all on the same boat,’ said first mate ‘Big Al’, an ex-cavalry officer once ‘written off’ with a brain injury and broken neck but now training to be a yachtmaster. ‘It gives the confidence boost that veterans are looking for,’ he said. ‘It is like being back on a horse.’