Healing of the deep: Cornwall’s 100ft therapy sailing ship

Joe Sabien, a child in foster care, used to run to and fro to the coast as a refuge. The salvation he found in the sea now forms the basis of his life’s work, as founder of a pioneering ‘blue health’ charity that uses sailing as therapy

Imagine. It’s the 1970s. London. You’re eight. No dad. Troubled mom. Home is a home for the next ten. You’re scared, you’re lonely, you want out. Where can you turn?

In Joe Sabien’s case, he looked to the sea. He’d bunk off school, steal on to a train, and head to Brighton (“I think the term was ‘abscond’,” he says). Why? He wasn’t sure. He knew that he found safety, solitude and peace sitting on the shore looking out at the deep blue.

Fast forward to half a century later and this unassuming, but determined ward is now a qualified mental healthcare clinician who spends his weekends helping people in acute distress get off the edge of cliffs and bridges.

He enjoys kayaking, and volunteers for Falmouth’s lifeboat service.

It is, however. Sea SanctuarySabien’s mental health charity, Founded in 2006 by Sabien, is where his life experiences and maritime passions are expressed to their fullest.

The charity uses a combination of sailing training, marine activities, evidence-based therapies and other methods to help people with a variety of mental and emotional issues.

Participants are welcome to participate in as little or as much as they like

Sea Sanctuary welcomed Irene, a wooden tall ship, to its fleet in April. Built in 1907, the 100-foot ‘ketch’ has space for eight guests, plus a five-person crew (skipper, first mate, deckhand, chef and therapist).

Participants are either referred to by a physician or applied by word-of mouth. They spend four days sailing up and along the beautiful cornish coast (or river estuaries if it is squally).

An ‘all hands on deck’ atmosphere prevails. You will be hoisting the sails, trimming ropes, and cleaning the decks. Or not. Most folk throw themselves in, but there’s no obligation, says Sabien.

Joe Sabien at the Sea Sanctuary office — a boat in Falmouth Harbour. James Bannister

“People are invited to participate as much or as little as they want. They can even drive the big old boat if they want,” he says.

Sometimes, the crew will drop anchor and go through group work. But much of the therapy happens from “building meaningful connections” and informal one-to-one chats with the onboard therapist.

At the core of Sea Sanctuary’s services is a profound belief in the restorative powers of the sea; its ability to make us forget, to lose ourselves, to (counterintuitively) find our feet.

The sea allows us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

“There’s something about the sea – something visceral, precognitive, beyond language,” Sabien reflects. “It allows us to feel connected to something greater than ourselves.”

This may sound a little vague and non-clinical to a medical ear. Recent research has attempted to explain the physiological consequences of the briny depth.

Theories now abound, from the depression-alleviating benefits of the ‘negative ions’ (negatively charged molecules) found in mist and spray through to the meditative effects of the sea’s rocking motion. There’s even a name for it: ‘blue health’.


Scientists have discovered that the sea has a healing effect on humans. Image: Sea Sanctuary

Despite Sabien’s clinical background, the science doesn’t bother him. In fact, explaining the biological mechanics of the sea’s health impacts takes away some of its magic, he believes.

“Most people who go to the sea to surf or swim don’t stand there and unpick it like a clock. They don’t want to understand the workings. What they want to do is just be lost in the moment,” he says.

He is not the first to appreciate the sea’s balm. A century ago, the poet and orator (and keen sailor) Hilaire Belloc wrote of the eternal “consolation” of the sea, of its capacity to “perpetually show us new things”, and of its moods sufficient to “fill the storehouse of the mind”.

Humans were not made to work in fluorescent-lit offices. We’re much better off out in nature

Nor is he the only one to experience the sea’s healing power for himself. Molly Gorman is a former civil servant suffering from bipolar disorder. She first experienced the Sea Sanctuary voyage in 2014.

With zero sailing experience and finding life “a little difficult to say the least”, she almost chickened out. Gorman spent four days at sea and met others (figuratively and literally) who were in the same boat as her. She also learned to deal with her mental health issues.

She attributes part of the feeling of wellbeing she felt afterward to the formal therapy she received aboard. But the lion’s share happens “while you are not realising it”, a mystery she puts down to being immersed in nature.

“I think as humans we’re not really designed to be in fluorescent-lit offices all the time,” she says. “We’re much better off out in nature if we possibly can be.”

Gorman has been on two additional sailing trips with Sea Sanctuary. She has also completed the Royal Yachting Association’s Competent Crew basic course.

“People are invited to participate as much or as little as they want. They can even drive the big old boat if they want,” Sabien says. Image: Sea Sanctuary

As restorative as the sea can be, Sabien is realistic about what four days’ sailing can achieve. He describes it as the “start of a journey” back to good mental health, not a magical cure or quick fix.

“I’m not suggesting for a minute that four days is going to resolve complex trauma,” he admits. “But what it will do is encourage people to be able to trust again … and recognise that they aren’t in isolation with their experiences.”

Many participants also go on to access Sea Sanctuary’s other services, which cover everything from anxiety management and mindfulness classes to art workshops and family development support.

In all cases, it is never far from the sea. There’s something unknowable about this watery mass that covers 70 per cent of the world’s surface, Sabien notes. “And that in itself is incredibly powerful.”


Main image: Sea Sanctuary’s new addition to its fleet: a tall ship named Irene. Credit: Sea Sanctuary


Blue health: What the science says

Scientists have identified three ways in which proximity to the ocean can positively impact human health. The first relates to what the medical community calls ‘restoration’, which, in practice, comes mostly down to stress reduction. The idea is that the calmness of the sea can help to reset cognitive imbalances and reduce emotional exhaustion that are common in modern life.

Scientists have shown that people’s heart rates normalise and their frown muscles relax when looking at marine scenes. Researchers have also developed Mappiness iPhone app, which asks users to log their moods throughout the day and adds this to their geolocation. Participants felt most happy when they were near the ocean or on the water.

The second focuses on so-called ‘mitigation’, or, in layman’s speak, how blue spaces take the edge off aspects of modern life that affect our health. Some examples include localised cooling (lakes and rivers absorb heat better than concreted cities), pleasant sound (lapping waves rather then revving traffic), and lower air pollution.

Mitigation is also where negative ions come into play. High-energy phenomena, such as high waterfalls and crashing waves, leave water particles with a tiny electrical charge. The theory is that this electric charge can improve breathing conditions and even reduce depression – although exactly how this happens remains unclear.

The third category is more about what we do in water environments than what it does for our bodies. These positive effects, known as ‘instoration’, derive from health-giving practices encouraged by being close to water. For example, you can exercise or simply enjoy being with friends.