As a child in care, Joe Sabien used to run away to the coast. 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. A troubled mum. Home is a care facility for the next decade. You’re scared, you’re lonely, you want out. Where do 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 only knew that sitting there on the shore, looking out across the deep blue, he found safety, solitude, peace.
Fast-forward half a century and this overlooked yet determined ward of the state is now a qualified mental health clinician who spends his weekends with the police helping talk people in acute distress down from bridges and cliff edges.
Today, he enjoys kayaking and volunteers for his local lifeboat service in Falmouth, the Cornish port town he now calls home.
But it is Sea Sanctuary, the mental health charity that Sabien founded back in 2006, where his life experiences and maritime passions find their fullest expression.
Using a combination of sail training, marine activities, and evidence-based therapies, the charity seeks to help people who are experiencing a range of mental and emotional problems.
People are invited to participate as much or as little as they want
In April this year, Sea Sanctuary welcomed a new addition to its fleet: a stunning, wooden tall ship named Irene. 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, who are either referred by a medical professional or apply by word-of-mouth, spend four days sailing up and down the beautiful cornish coast (or up river estuaries if the weather is squally).
An ‘all hands on deck’ atmosphere prevails. So, hoisting the sails, trimming the ropes, and scrubbing the decks. Or not. Most folk throw themselves in, but there’s no obligation, says Sabien.
“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.
Every now and then, the crew drops anchor and are led through some formal 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 to feel connected to something greater 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.”
To a medical ear, that probably sounds somewhat vague and non-clinical. Hence, moves within the research community in recent years to explain the physiological impacts of the briny deep.
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’.
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 are not really designed to be in fluorescent-lit offices all the time. 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, a former civil servant who has bipolar disorder, first went on a Sea Sanctuary voyage back in 2014.
With zero sailing experience and finding life “a little difficult to say the least”, she almost chickened out. During her four days at sea, Gorman met others in the same boat (figuratively as well as literally) and learned to come to terms with her mental health issues.
Part of the sense of wellbeing she felt afterwards she credits to the formal therapy she received on board. 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 since been on two subsequent sailing trips with Sea Sanctuary. She has also completed the Royal Yachting Association’s Competent Crew basic course.
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, the sea is never far away. 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 that humans are positively impacted by proximity to the sea. The first relates to what the medical community calls ‘restoration’, which, in practice, comes mostly down to stress reduction. The idea is that the calming nature of the sea resettles the cognitive imbalances and emotional exhaustion that accompany modern life.
Scientists have shown that people’s heart rates normalise and their frown muscles relax when looking at marine scenes. More recently, researchers developed the Mappiness iPhone app that asks people to log their moods during the day and tallies this with their geolocation. The results show participants were happiest when by the coast 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. Examples include localised cooling (lakes, rivers and seas absorb heat better than our concreted cities), pleasant sounds (lapping waves instead of revving traffic), and reduced air pollution.
Mitigation is also where the negative ions come in. High-energy phenomena such as crashing waves and tall waterfalls leave water particles with a tiny electric 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 linked more to what we do in water environments, than what it does for us. These positive effects, known as ‘instoration’, derive from health-giving practices encouraged by being close to water. For example, physical exercise and the simple enjoyment of being with friends.