By Mitchell Riel & Lexi Pline
The modern sailing community is a wonderfully diverse, eclectic mixture of sailing groups, classes, and competitions. However, no one sailing organization stewards the supportive nature of the sailing community quite like The Valhalla Sailing Project.
Founded in 2015 by veterans Michael Wood and Jay McGinnis, The Valhalla Sailing Project connects service veterans with one another and the greater sailing community in order to promote veteran well-being and address the growing concerns around veteran suicide and mental health.
“I started the program for selfish reasons,” said co-founder Michael Wood, himself a disabled veteran. “I needed to help myself out, and if I’m going to help myself out, I’m going to help some of my fellow veterans.”
“By creating the opportunity for veterans to sail with other veterans, Valhalla helps individuals re-establish a critical sense of belonging and camaraderie that many find missing when they leave active service”, co-founder Jay McGinnis explains.
“The military does a very good job of re-molding you, re-shaping you, and giving you a new sense of identity and a sense of belonging, whether it’s to the larger organization or to the sub-units of whatever branch you’re in,” he said. “But when we leave active duty, that’s gone, and it’s not gone quietly or gently, it ends immediately. You retire, or your finish your enlistment and it’s over. You’re out. We all go through that on some level.”
According to McGinnis, the sailing community can become a new “unit” for the veteran, filling that void of organizational belonging, and give some untethered veterans a new community with which to identify.
“We’re around people who think like us, walk like us, talk like us, and we have some shared experiences,” noted McGinnis. “That’s really what’s at the core of any feeling of ‘belongingness’ – it’s shared values and shared experiences. I can tell you from my own experience that you begin to identify with your crew or even your boat. You know, you go to Wednesday night racing, or a regatta party and you meet someone and it’s one of the first questions you ask, ‘what boat are you sailing on?’”
Sometimes, it even goes beyond sailing, serving as a starting place for veterans who may not know where else to look.
“I’ve also had people come through where, you know what, sailing just wasn’t their thing. We use sailing as way to get people together,” said Bo Darlington, a member who came to the project after serving in Afghanistan as part of the Army’s 82nd Airborne. “It’s about the veteran itself and not necessarily always about sailing, it’s about getting that new connection to another person.”
In conjunction with establishing a sense of community amongst the veterans, this critical sense of purpose and belonging are vital to improving veteran’s mental health. Veterans are overrepresented in adult suicide death statistics – nearly 14 percent of adult suicide victims are veterans, even though veterans represent around seven percent of the adult population.
This mission, in part, is what gave Valhalla Sailing its name.
“One of our phrases that we use in the military community is “until Valhalla;” we will see each other again in the warrior’s heaven, at Odin’s table,” explained Wood. “With the veteran’s suicide prevention assistance and the help that we give through the program, we try to give them a sense of Valhalla here on earth, so they don’t resort to taking their own lives.”
While veteran suicide has been on the decline, and Valhalla Sailing has been able to help a number of veterans, any number of veterans in distress is too many for Wood.
“When it comes down to it, and I don’t want this to sound callous, I don’t care if we put 500 or 1 million veterans through the program, if we aid in saving one life, that’s all that matters to me. If we can change the mentality of even one veteran that is going down a very bad path, that’s all that matters.
Am I shocked that we’ve gotten as big as we are and that we’ve been able to compete on an international stage? I am, and I’m very impressed. It just solidifies the mission and the method that we go about works.”
To date, The Valhalla Sailing Project has helped support over 500 veterans out of their headquarters in Annapolis, MD. The project hosts several sailing clinics throughout the year using their own J/80, J/30, and J/35 often partnering with Eastport Yacht Club and members of the local sailing community.
“We’re very grateful to the Annapolis community,” said Jeremy Dublon, a veteran and member of the Valhalla Sailing Project board. “This is our first year that we’ve been able to run clinics with our own boats. Up until now, we’ve had to depend on the Annapolis community.”
“And I will give a huge shout out to the J/30 fleet,” added McGinnis. “In every clinic we’ve run, one or more of the J30 skippers has given us a boat or supported us with crew. Not that other fleets haven’t also helped, but the J/30 fleet has really stepped up.”
This year has been full of competition for the Valhalla program. They traveled to Newport, Rhode Island for the J/80 National and World Championships. They also competed in the J/30 and J/35 North American Championships in Annapolis.
The significance behind the number of veterans aided through The Valhalla Sailing Project is certainly meaningful, according to Wood, but far less impactful than the overall mission statement.
“We’ve had people come through the program that have said ‘I was ready to take my own life and just be out of my own misery,’ but they saw that the program was available over a weekend and decided to try it out. I’ve had people tell me, ‘You’ve turned my life around,’” said Woods.
If there are two things Wood and McGinnis want the non-veteran community – both in and outside of sailing – to know, it’s to remember a veterans’ sacrifice and to check in on the veterans in their daily lives.
“War or no war, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week there is a soldier in uniform standing on the far side of the globe protecting the freedoms that this country enjoys,” said McGinnis. “Never forget that these are the best and the brightest. They are absolutely the heart of this country.”
You can learn more about the Valhalla Sailing Project on their website: https://www.valhallasailing.org/what-we-do. If you or a veteran you know are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call the Suicide Hotline by dialing 988. Both the Veterans Administration and the Wounded Warrior Project has resources for free mental health treatment: www.va.gov and https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/programs/mental-wellness