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On board: sailing adventure helps put veterans back at the helm of happy, healthy lives

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Healing. Connection. Community. Former Sunshine Coast schoolboy Scott Reynolds knows how those three concepts together can put the wind back in the sails of military veterans struggling to cope.

And now a local “fleet” of current and former servicemen and women, from conflicts including Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, also understands the therapeutic benefits of having the sun on your face, sea spray in your hair and breeze at your back.

Saltwater Veterans took the 16 enthusiastic participants (including two children and one carer) on to the water and out of their comfort zones for its inaugural morning sail from The Wharf, Mooloolaba.

An ex-Navy bomb disposal specialist and advanced diving officer, Scott and his wife Jen founded the Sydney-based collective in 2018 to keep military veterans physically and mentally active.

Scott and Jen Reynolds.

Scott, 43, admits to having “a whole gamut of brokenness” when he medically retired from the Navy.

He had joined the service in 1998 – six weeks after finishing Year 12 at the then Kawana Waters State High School.

“About two weeks after discharging from the Navy, I got hounded to come down and try sailing,” Scott remembered.

“I wasn’t interested, which is the irony of it.

“Once they started getting me out on the boats, I really found something I could sink my teeth in.

“It gave me focus. It gave me something to do with my hands, and I started to connect with other veterans. I had been becoming quite isolated.

Scott Reynolds (right) with a participant on a Saltwater Veterans sail.

“After a couple of years hanging around the yacht clubs and seeing what it had done for both myself and our family … that’s when we started Saltwater Veterans beyond just being a Facebook group and a racing team.

“The guys we were originally racing with on a Wednesday night, three of the four are still involved. They still volunteer and come out sailing. They have their full-time jobs and they’re happy with how it’s progressed.”

Scott said Saltwater Veterans aimed to break down the social isolation that was systemic to being wounded, injured or suffering mental health issues as a result of military service.

Veterans with chronic pain or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder needed what is known as “psychosocial reintegration” in order to heal.

“Beyond just having a sailing experience, it’s about creating community and social connection,” Scott said.

“A community connected by the water. Our little tagline is, ‘On, in and around water’.

“For people enduring mental health injury, I know from personal experience that the biggest obstacle of the day is walking through that front door at the yacht club.

Participants in the Saltwater Veterans Mooloolaba sail.

“I had one (Coast participant) ask if I would take him out again the next day.

“He went from not wanting to go … to wanting to go again the next day and asking about doing some sailing programs at the club. That amazing. That’s a win.”

Scott and Jen have been expanding locations around Australia to include Newcastle, Nowra, Adelaide, Perth and now Mooloolaba.

From one social media post six weeks earlier, the October 6 event filled its quota almost immediately – an indication of demand within the local veterans community.

“It’s been on our vision board for a while (to launch Mooloolaba) but Covid was the thing that stopped it,” Scott said.

“The Sunshine Coast has a really high population of retired veterans – I’ve heard numbers of between 10,000 and 15,000 veterans.

“We had 20 registrations, 16 on the day, with a handful of carers and assistance dogs. The dogs come out on the boats as well if they’re comfortable.

“On the day, the youngest was six and the oldest was in their late 60s/early 70s.

“There was some Air Force, some Navy and quite a few Army.

“While the program is targeting veterans, both current and former serving, particularly those who are wounded, injured or ill, we practise that family is our greatest supporter. So, if it is safe to do so, we get them out on the boat, too.”

One of the Mooloolaba participants, former newspaper photographer Barry Leddicoat said that as a 21-year Air Force veteran, he was well aware of the difficulties some people experienced from ADF service and believed Saltwater Veterans was “on a winner” with the sailing adventure.

Having known Scott as a boy, Barry said he jumped at the chance to participate, and learnt all about boat control and how to read the wind.

“With our skipper (Jim Morgan) and enthusiastic crew, we thoroughly enjoyed the morning and came away with a newfound experience and undiscovered skills,” he said.

The Mooloolaba event, coinciding with Veterans Health Week, was launched with the help of funding from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Young Veterans Sunshine Coast and Mooloolaba Yacht Club.

Scott said it took “a village” to bring the sailing concept to reality and the yacht club and Sailability Sunshine Coast were instrumental in the success of the first local event.

The club offered use of its facilities at The Wharf, four Elliot 6 sailing boats and a safety vessel, additional volunteers (many of whom have military service) and the club instructor.

Sailability Sunshine Coast scheduled an extra day to its usual program to offer one veteran specialised support with an adaptive sailing boat and lifting mechanism for her wheelchair.

“Doing that extra day to align with our activity meant that she was sailing side by side with fellow veterans,” Scott said.

All smiles on the water.

“That’s the beautiful thing about this community: what it does do to bring people together.

“In Sydney and Adelaide, we do this every month. We have a set tempo and we aim to do 10 of these a year in those locations.

“We’d like this to become a regular activity in other locations.”

Scott, who calls himself a “participant volunteer (“I’m still a veteran and I’m still going through my own rehabilitation journey”), hopes the next Saltwater Veterans social sail off Mooloolaba can be held in late November.

“If the veteran community wants it, we’re happy to help to bring this together and I know that both Mooloolaba Yacht Club and Sailability Sunshine Coast are keen to be behind it as well,” Scott said.

“It all just comes down to the two resources of money and time.”

Keep an eye on the Saltwater Veterans Facebook page and website for updates and registration details.

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