Sailing Heals What Ails You

Shelley Ferguson knows too well that each day is an opportunity to appreciate life. When she had the chance to spend an August afternoon sailing on the 12-Meter, Valiant, in Nantucket, where her family resides, she didn’t hesitate.
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Shelley Ferguson knows too well that each day is an opportunity to appreciate life. When she had the chance to spend an August afternoon sailing on the 12-Meter, Valiant, in Nantucket, where her family resides, she didn’t hesitate. Ferguson and her husband had never been sailing, but their 6-year-old son, Archie, had been taking lessons, and it was the perfect excuse to get a day off from their usual worries and stresses. On the water, they met new people, had an on-board picnic lunch and didn’t lift a finger.

As a cancer patient with stage four Metastatic Melanoma, Ferguson’s typical day is nowhere near as carefree. Ferguson explains, “Too often those with cancer concentrate on merely filling the days between doctor appointments, harboring the feelings of anxiety between scans.” Taking a day off from that anxiety is an enormous gift. “The relaxation on that day alone can do wonders for spirit.” 

 Guests on Valiant. Ferguson with her husband and son on right

Guests on Valiant. Ferguson with her husband and son on right

To get on board Valiant, Ferguson didn’t use her connections, didn’t pay a dime and wasn’t partaking in some tacky sales pitch. Instead, she was sailing as a guest of Sailing Heals, a non-profit organization that provides healing days on the water to cancer patients around the country, mainly in the northeast.

Sailing Heals was established by Panerai, a luxury watch company that sponsors classic yacht regattas, when the company decided to give back to the communities in which it holds regattas. Taking cancer patients for sails appealed to Panerai because so many of its clients had been impacted by cancer. In only its second year of operation, Sailing Heals’ volunteer host captains have taken 200 guests sailing. 

Taking the Helm


 Aboard Phebe, Gallagher (left) and the author (center) surrounded by the Philbricks. Bottom: Burns, center, with her daughters

Aboard Phebe, Gallagher (left) and the author (center) surrounded by the Philbricks. Bottom: Burns, center, with her daughters

While in Nantucket for the Opera House Cup, Sailing Heals executive director Trisha Boisvert invited me on a patient sail on Nantucket author Nat Philbrick’s yawl Phebe. On board was Boisvert’s sister, Michele Gallagher, who has been instrumental in Sailing Heals’ inception. The guests were Marylyn Burns, who is battling ovarian cancer, and her two daughters.

Boisvert explained that her involvement with the organization had a personal connection: “When [Panerai] asked if I'd be interested in getting the program off the ground, I was delighted as my mother has had cancer for over eight years, my father's in remission and I've had a lot of young friends who have also suffered. I thought this would be a way to make a difference and create more positive memories for people going through a difficult time.”

On Phebe, we enjoyed a beautiful sail with Nat and his family, who served as able crewmembers. As a resident of a small island, guest Burns was already acquainted with her hosts.

Sailing out of the harbor behind host captain Gary Gregory's Valiant, which carried several more crewmembers and guests, including Ferguson and her family, it was easy to see what a treat this day was for a group of Nantucket locals who were mostly unfamiliar with sailing. Burns had little sailing experience, but as her brother is a sailor, she was excited to learn. 

 Burns, right, with Philbrick. Photo by Sarah Burns

Burns, right, with Philbrick. Photo by Sarah Burns

Near the end of the day, Burns surprised us all by taking the wheel and steering us back into the harbor, completely in control and having what she said was a “thrilling” experience and “a delightful respite.”

“There was something magical about sailing,” said Ferguson reflecting on her day with Sailing Heals. “To be surrounded by water, but somehow feel grounded. You focus and live in a moment. The days past and days to come fade into the background. My family had a wonderful time experiencing sailing for the first time together. That day has been a topic of conversation on many occasions.”

Moving Forward

 Phebe and Valiant

Phebe and Valiant

Ferguson and Burns both learned about Sailing Heals from PASCON: Palliative and Supportive Care of Nantucket. Heading into its third year, Sailing Heals is gaining momentum with connections to more care facilities, more host captains and more events, both alongside Panerai regattas and in different parts of the country with new sponsors.

Asked where she sees the non-profit going from here, Boisvert says, “We've had a tremendous response from all over the country and we'd like to continue to expand to a few new markets every year in addition to the ones we are currently in. We'd also love the organization to be well known enough that people who appreciate the healing effects of the water think of us when they are making their charitable donations or leaving a charitable legacy for people in need.”

Boisvert said one of her biggest challenges has been finding the time to introduce new sponsors. “We'd love to have a couple more sponsors like Panerai as they have been incredibly committed from the start.”

To learn more about Sailing Heals and how to get involved, visit their website. Potential Host Captains can sign up on the registry. In order to accommodate as many guests as comfortably as possible, they ask that boats be 35 feet long and in excellent condition.

Photos by Cory Silken courtesy of Panerai

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