Frank Fletcher, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, on how sailing can help rebuild confidence in teenagers and young adults in recovery from cancer. 

Over the past 14 years around 1,600 young people in recovery from cancer have come sailing with us. For many, the first four-day Trust trip they do is the first time they have been away from home, left their families and had a taste of independence and freedom again since being cocooned in medical environments on treatment. 

So many of these young people arrive shy and lacking confidence but, even after four days, they return home with a newfound positivity about their futures.

Sailing therapy

Mixing with others who have had similar experiences is key in rebuilding confidence. In 2013-14 an unpublished Southampton University study concluded young people benefitted from their Trust experience in many ways. Sailing was found to produce and develop positive individual characteristics, such as leadership, self-esteem, feelings of control, attitudes and fitness. On a boat everyone has a role and new skills may be developed, boosting confidence, while the small, physical boundaries of a boat are important in personal development, as it keeps the young people more engaged. The level of teamwork in sailing is also a major differentiator. 

Different needs

Seven years ago we recognised young adults aged 18-24 had different challenges and needs to teenagers. This age-group didn’t have the same opportunities and support as children and teenagers, both while on treatment and in recovery. Yet they can often be hit hardest by cancer as it comes at a time they are embracing adulthood and all the exploration, experimentation and responsibility that brings. 

We now run separate trips for 8-17s and 18-24s, appreciating that each age-group will be looking for something different from their experiences.

Restoring confidence, communication and ambition are key factors for the 18-24s in starting to move forwards in terms of re-engaging with career, higher education and relationship possibilities. They have the chance to rediscover their voice, express opinions and be treated as equals. For Under 18s, it is more about the permission to be well again, having fun, making friends and finding the confidence to do things they thought they physically weren’t capable of or were too scared to try. Many also feel safe enough to talk about their cancer for the first time, which is big step.  

Long-term bonds

Our biggest impact comes through the long-term relationships young people can have with us. We know young people need support over time, not just one-off trips or experiences, to really progress in their mental as well as their physical recovery.

Through our Return to Sail programme, young people can keep coming back year on year to take part in a range of different sailing and watersports trips. Once they reach 18 they can also get involved as Trust volunteers. Peer support is pivotal in recovery, and young people meeting others who have been through the same as them, and who are now looking ahead to positive futures, is very inspiring.

For us, success is when a young person is confident to fly away from the Trust nest knowing the nest will always be there for them to return to, whenever they need it.