The air was brisk, the breeze gentle, the boat bobbing up and down at a steady tempo. The creak of wood, the clank of mechanical pulleys, and the dulcet melody of casual conversation filled the air.
“Can I offer anybody a drink?” asked Gary Gregory, captain of the 12-meter wooden sailboat Valiant. “We’ve got water, beer, other beer . . . ”
Gregory is a host captain for Sailing Heals, a nonprofit that offers free yachting excursions to cancer patients and their caregivers. He’s been working for the group since it was founded in 2011.
Trisha Boisvert, one of the cofounders of Sailing Heals, said she got the idea from her sister, Michele Gallagher Glesinger, who was working for a company that sponsored a classic yachting regatta.
“And she brought the idea to them that they could do something nice for the community with these beautiful boats, if some of the captains would be willing to offer a day on their boat,” Boisvert said.
Sailing Heals primarily serves people with cancer, but also those with traumatic injuries or other health problems. Typically, they’re referred to the program through their care providers. All guests are called “VIPs,” a label that intentionally avoids the caretaker/patient dynamic that often defines their lives.
“We’ll say to the VIPs, ‘This is your day, what would you like to do?’” said Rick Fishkin, a former Sailing Heals host captain serving as crew for the Elizabeth M, an old, 42-foot lobster boat. “Whatever it is they want that will make them happy, that will make their day, anything we can accommodate, we will.”
In late August, Sailing Heals hosted an outing at the Boston Yacht Club in Marblehead, with 16 VIPs spread across four boats, Valiant among them. Despite the organization’s name, motorboats will sometimes also join the fleet — in this case, the Elizabeth M.
Before the sailing can start though, people have to eat. Each trip starts with a grand lunch. In a dining hall overlooking the harbor, VIPs and captains alike discussed yachting, life, and treatment over a buffet of salads, sandwiches, and chowder, with brownies and chocolate chip cookies for dessert. Outside the dining room sits a balcony overlooking the harbor.
Built in 1970, Valiant is a 65-foot wooden racing sailboat with a storied past. It’s one of only a handful of boats of its size and material still in existence. After retrofitting it to comply with modern regulations, Captain Gregory has taken it racing across the East Coast, and even in Europe. Today, however, the boat and its 12-man crew served a different purpose.
The first thing first-time VIP Tony Romano noticed while riding Valiant was the mechanical minutiae covering the boat. The crew must constantly adjust winches and pulleys to adapt the sails to the wind, deftly jumping around the top level of the boat with the confidence and balance of housecats.
“I’ve seen sailing, and I had an idea of what it was going to be like, but watching the pulling and tugging of the sails — it’s everything that I thought it would be and more,” Romano said aboard Valiant, his first time on a sailboat. “I was hoping to have some fun, to have a good day. This is way beyond what I expected.”
Romano was accompanied by his close friend and roommate Evangeline Brown, who was helping raise money for his care. Also on the boat were VIPs Phillip Pfatteicher and his daughter, Carolyn McDermott, along with Boisvert, Gregory, and Valiant’s crew.
Sailing Heals has a variety of events beyond its signature Healing Sails. Nurses Appreciation Sails are for the oncology professionals patients rely on, while Pirates and Princesses Treasure Hunts are specifically for children. Finally, Wicked Strong Cocktail Parties (a play on Boston Strong) are for survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing.
“One thing we realized, when we started this organization, is that we take [yachting] for granted,” Gregory said as Romano joyfully steered the boat. “We belong to yacht clubs, we eat out on the water — it’s normal to us. But to a lot of people this is a strange lifestyle, almost like a relaxing fantasy.”
“We realize a lot of people are trying to create positive memories for their families,” he continued. “And this is a great way to way to do that.”
Corey Dockser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.