A Therapeutic Sail Through Sag Harbor

Posted on 25 June 2014

Sailing 1web


Sailing through Sag Harbor on Friday. Photo by Nancy Greenberg.

By Mara Certic

There’s something about being out on a boat on a sunshiny day in June: it changes your perspective. The water seems different when it surrounds you. The familiar shoreline becomes, at times, unrecognizable when you look at it from a sailboat, a half a mile offshore. Day-to-day problems can be reevaluated and troubles seem to fade, at least momentarily, in the face of the vast blue bay.

This notion is one of the founding principles behind Sailing Heals, a non-profit organization that takes cancer patients and their caregivers on two-hour sailing trips to provide some respite and peace of mind during their times of difficulty.

Twin sisters Trisha and Michele Gallagher founded the organization in Marblehead, Massachusetts, three years ago this month.  Michele was working for Panerai—a quality watch company based in Manhattan—which sponsored classic regattas. She “thought it was great,” according to her sister, but wanted to add a community aspect to the sailing.

The rest is history. Panerai loved the idea, Trisha Gallagher said, and gave her and her sister seed money to get started, and Sailing Heals was born. The organization works in conjunction with private captains who donate their time and boats to give their “VIPs” two-hour healing getaways onto the water.

“We’ve taken over 700 cancer patients and caregivers out,” she said. In September, the organization also took out 37 runners who had survived the 2013 terrorist attack at the Boston marathon. “Everybody enjoyed it so much,” she said. “We expect to triple that this year.”

On Friday, June 20, Sailing Heals joined forces with Sag Harbor’s Fighting Chance to give some of that charity’s members a day out on the water.

Around 16 cancer survivors and their caregivers gathered at Breakwater Yacht Club for a buffet lunch catered by Cavaniola’s.

The captains, organizers and VIPS sat at circular tables; chatting softly amongst themselves as they ate their sandwiches and brownies and waited to be split into smaller groups and assigned to their vessels.

Captain Toby Stull hosted a couple along with their 11-year old daughter on his beautiful 52-foot sailing yacht, Starlight.  The mother was diagnosed with Stage 3 Lymphoma a few years ago. The 11-year-old was excited, chatting with her parents as the launch took them from the dock out to the 52-foot sailing yacht. Her infectious enthusiasm for the afternoon activity spread quickly to her parents as the anchor was lifted and the sails caught the early summer winds.

Starlight was the last of the five boats to set off, not that any of its passengers noticed or minded. The young girl explored the cabin below deck; its comfortable staterooms and “really cool” galley had her thinking that the sailor’s life might be for her.

There was a newfound levity in the air; a carefree feeling that seems only to come when away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, suggesting the truth in Kenneth Grahame’s words: “there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Conversation drifted from school and childhood to poetry and books, as smiles got wider and the sun warmer. The young girl, a voracious reader, proclaimed “A Fault in Our Stars,”—which she read for the first, second, third, fourth and fifth times last week—her new favorite book.  John Green’s 2012 novel tells the story of a 16-year-old cancer patient who is forced by her mother to join a support group, where she eventually falls in love.  “It’s so good,” she said. “I mean, it’s sad. It’s very sad. But it’s so good, you have to read it.”

As the boat tooled around along the shoreline, Captain Stull pointed out the familiar hamlets and neighborhoods the boat sailed past; places such as North Haven and Noyac looking small and almost unrecognizable from Starlight. As the vessel turned around near Cedar Point, talk shifted quickly as the girl’s mother excitedly pointed out a peninsula as “where we used to camp.”

The afternoon was tranquil and beautiful, and though thoughts of doctors’ appointments and future plans occasionally fogged the pleasure of the outing, these moments passed quickly. “We’re in a state of perpetual advent,” one of the women said somewhat despondently as the boat made its way back to shore, back to reality. But her face lit right up again when she saw her daughter joking around and sunbathing on the bow.

The boats returned to port at around 3 p.m., and as the VIPs and captains disembarked, it was with a lingering sense of wellbeing.

New friends shook hands, hugged, promised to stay in touch as the words of Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo came to mind: “The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides.”


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