Easter racing sees military men back in business

Eight injured servicemen sailing at last weekend’s Red Funnel Easter Regatta (10-12 April) under the banner of Toe in the Water kicked off the 2009 racing season in style. One of the teams clinched a hotly-contested podium position in the overall rankings whilst all three of the charity’s crews gained top-three placings over the course of the weekend.

One of the charity’s entries, the eponymous Toe in the Water, an A40, skippered by Paul Andersen stormed to victory in the first race of the season on Friday when the 12-man crew were first over the finish line.

One of the crew was Martin Hall, 41, from Royal Armoured Corp Bovington who sustained a knee injury four years ago whilst training.

Giles Bradford, 30, one of the able-bodied crew is a helicopter pilot currently serving with HMS Albion.

Participation in the event forms a part of the injured servicemen’s rehabilitation programme after sustaining traumatic injuries. The eight sailing with Toe in the Water, who have all been treated at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre (DMRC) at Headley Court, lined up with and against able-bodied teams for the three-day regatta. Many of them have never sailed before and the competitive environment provides a disciplined team setting with a shared focus which directly aids their rehabilitation.

Simon Miller, an officer cadet, who sustained extensive injuries after falling 150-ft from Blencathra in the Lake District, is one of the crew on LITTLE TOE, a J80 kindly loaned by the RYA. In August 2008, just 14-weeks before completing his officer training, he sustained a broken neck, broken shoulder, broken arm, serious head injuries and a multiple fractures to his right leg whilst competing in an ultra marathon, the Bob Graham Round. “After I fell, I was left lying in a stream for five hours and the cold probably saved my life as I’d lost lots of blood. I’m very lucky to still be here,” Simon said.

A former hockey player and runner, he is now unable to do many of the sports he used to and is still undergoing surgery for his injuries. He has spent the weekend sailing alongside able-bodied crew and Chris Herbert, 21, who lost his leg whilst serving with the Territorial Army in Iraq in 2007. Speaking at UKSA, where the team was based for the weekend, Simon said: “I’ve started looking at what I can do now rather than what I can’t do anymore. It’s been great sailing with Toe in the Water this weekend. It’s something I haven’t done before and it’s great to be back to being part of a team again.”

One of the two keelboats racing under the banner of Toe in the Water is BIG TOE, a J109 kindly loaned by private owner Steve Maine for the weekend. Alongside injured crew members, Lance Corporal Johnathan Lee, 26, and Nick Gibbons, 18, both of whom lost a leg in active service, is Ben Rogerson, 25, who is sailing Round Britain in his Mini Class 6.5-metre boat to raise funds for Toe in the Water.

The charity, founded only last year, will be entering teams in seven events throughout 2009. The programme commences with the Red Funnel Easter Challenge followed by the Warsash Spring Championships, J80 National Championships, the JP Morgan Round the Island Race, Cowes Week, Dartmouth Week and the J80 Autumn Cup.

Eddie Warden Owen, CEO of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, said he was delighted that three Toe in the Water boats were entered as part of the 64-strong fleet in the Red Funnel Easter Challenge.

On Thursday, the Toe in the Water teams took to the water for a day of training ahead of the regatta. They were joined by Double Olympic Gold Medallist Shirley Robertson OBE, who joined the crew to offer some tips and advice before the first day of racing on Good Friday.

Upon returning to UKSA, she said she was “really impressed” with how the injured crew members performed and how the injured and able-bodied crew bonded into a successful team in just a matter of hours. “I think it helps that the guys are from a military background as they are used to following instruction as that’s critical on a racing boat. They seemed to get really stuck in and the team really gelled as a result. I think Toe in the Water is an inspiring project which proves what a leveller sailing can be. I look forward to seeing the guys on the circuit this season,” Shirley Robertson said.

Toe in the Water receives no statutory funding and relies entirely on voluntary contributions from individuals, trusts and companies.