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In His Slipstream

Shortly after losing my son Laury at the age of 21, I decided to do something to honour his memory. Many of us do this, whether it’s a memorial garden, planting trees, holding a festival or setting up a charity or campaign organisation. It can be a way of trying to make something positive arise from the death of our precious child, or to keep their memory alive, or to give ourselves a sense of purpose in life. Of course, no matter how successful or fulfilling these projects are, I’m sure most of us would rather not be doing them, because the only reason we are is that the worst possible thing has happened.

My ‘positive thing’ has been to set up a bursary fund to enable young people aged 16-25 to experience sailing, and my reasons for doing so were all of the above – as well as the more concrete aim of helping enhance the mental wellbeing of struggling young people. It’s been in operation for just over a year, but even in these early days, I have found that the project brings me genuine joy, for example when I see the smiles on the faces of young people as they take to the waves, or when they tell me they have had a life-changing sailing experience. It is bringing meaning to and helping me value the life that I find myself having to live, rather than just waiting for it to end.

I needed to take it a step further though. Laury was always happiest when he was on the water, and had often said to me “mum, you should learn to sail”. I never seriously considered it because I was ‘too busy’, and found the prospect daunting. I love the sea, swimming in it, looking at it and even travelling by boat, but I knew sailing was complicated and would demand a lot of commitment – not to mention money! (Laury was lucky in that he grew up near the sea in Brittany and the local sailing club offered subsidies to local children which is how he found his passion.)

However, through the work that I had begun doing with Sail Boat Project (SBP) – one of our sailing partners – I suddenly had the opportunity to do just that. SBP runs trips across the channel and sailing in Brittany every summer, and one day my friend and Blue Spirit co-founder Nina (Laury’s godmother) half-jokingly asked the SBP people if we could take part on one of those trips. It seemed fitting because Laury was born and brought up in Brittany and learned to sail there – and is buried there. However, we had not expected the answer to be “yes”, due to our complete lack of experience!

In the end, Nina did not join the channel crossing itself, but we arranged for my family – Laury’s sister and two cousins, his mum and uncle, all completely novice sailors – to be crew on a channel crossing in August. And that’s how we found ourselves on Pelangi, owned and skippered by Dhara Thompson, founder of Sail Boat Project, on a windy day in early August, setting out from Chichester to the Isle of Wight on the first leg of our trip.

We were on the boat for 5 days, blessed with dry weather and mostly favourable winds. We had no disasters and no one fell out, either literally or figuratively. The sea was pretty rough on the first couple of days, however, and my nephew especially had difficulty finding his sea legs, but I am very proud of him that he stuck it out and chose not to abandon ship at the earliest opportunity!

The actual channel crossing happened on the second day, when we navigated from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg. Normally Dhara would have sailed to Guernsey and then directly on to Brittany, but Brexit meant that those of us with British passports needed to get them stamped at one of the authorised ports; sailing along the coast in Brittany from a Breton port to our final destination would have been more complicated than our chosen route from Cherbourg.

Our most dramatic moment came as we approached the French coast, when a thick fog came down and we had a nervous hour or so as we tried to navigate into the port without being able to see any of the lighted beacons meant to help us find the safe route in. Shortly before that, I had gone down below to wash up. When I went down, although approaching dusk, it was still daylight with a crescent moon in a clear blue sky. As I climbed back on deck, it was as though all the lights had gone out, and the tension was almost palpable.

We were all very relieved when the fog lifted and we could see the red and green harbour lights. My niece, Ellen, was effectively promoted to first mate as she ably helped Dhara keep the course and read the charts for our entry into harbour.

On day 4 in the evening, we sailed into the port of Tréguier, where we were welcomed by friends and partners who had travelled there from the UK as well as my children’s father and half-sister – and the creative crew that had been following our progress and doing their best to get film and photographic footage of us during our adventure.

The idea behind this creative project – named ‘In his slipstream’ – is to make a film and photo essay that we can use to raise awareness about life-threatening mental health issues and spread the word about Blue Spirit. An online fundraiser (still open) was set up to raise funds for this project and has been successful enough to allow the team to reach the post-production stage. We hope that something beautiful will come of the footage of the trip and of the mini ‘fest noz’ (ceilidh) we held to celebrate Laury’s life, the interviews with the different people involved, portraits and some video diaries from the crossing.

At the end of it all, I am proud that my family and friends and I managed to pull this project together and do something in memory of our amazing Laury. It has made my family closer and helped us understand another aspect of our son, brother, cousin, nephew. Personally speaking, even though sailing is probably not ‘my thing’, I now understand on a deeper level not only what the benefits of sailing are, but why Laury was so keen to get me to learn.

I already knew that sailing has a lot going for it in terms of wellbeing: just being in blue spaces (like the sea) can have a positive effect on stress reduction and wellbeing. Learning to sail helps develop essential life skills, bringing you out of your comfort zone and challenging your perceived limitations; it can help increase your self-confidence and resilience; it can teach you how to work with others and even lead a team; and it can be great fun.

What I realised on this trip was that being in a vast blue space gives you a sense of perspective and that crewing tasks are often time-sensitive and need all your attention, which means that you absolutely have to be present in the moment, mindful of your surroundings and paying attention to your crewmates. This chases all other thoughts away and if all goes well, you get a wonderful sense of achievement!

Finally, I had assumed that Laury wanted me to go sailing because he thought I’d enjoy it or we’d be able to do it together. Now, however, I suspect that he wanted me to realise just how clever and talented he was to be a proficient sailor, able to skipper a crew of three from Concarneau to Bordeaux.

Well, Laury, consider it done.

(By the way, did I mention the dolphins?)

by Solen Lees, in memory of Laury

Comments: 1 (Add)

Alison Bender on 17 October 2022 at 13:29

Dear Solen What a wonderful project! We were a sailing family, although for me it was never really my "thing" either. But I know what you mean about being in the middle of an empty sea, especially at dawn - preferably when it's calm! - helping to give us a sense of perspective. I have found a way to contribute to a cause that Emma was passionate about and it has brought me closer to her. Being in the company of young people is so comforting. Thank you so much for sharing this account - and allowing us to know Laury a little . I send you and your family the warmest wishes for the future of the project. It will be such a pleasure to see the film in due course. With love xxxx

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