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Veterans Sailing: Peace and Learning On the Water
As many as 20 U.S. military veterans commit suicide every day, and just recently that grim list added a soldier who Joe Mastrangelo knew. Mastrangelo, a 47-year-old retired Navy SEAL, felt compelled to find a way to help combat vets de-stress while learning a fun and valuable skill. So he came up with the Veteran Sailing Association– a non-profit organization that teaches vets to sail and conducts small private sailing charters.
“I think this is going to help people. I really do,” Mastrangelo said. “Instead of training people with guns, I’m training them to sail.”
Operating out of a small ante room at Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures in Tavernier, a Guy Harvey Outpost Outfitter, Mastrangelo has trained and certified about 30 military members and civilians through the American Sailing Association (ASA). Students must pass on-water and written tests at various levels of ASA certification in order to take bareboat sailing charters –(without a licensed captain aboard)– in U.S. waters and worldwide.
Mastrangelo offers free training for military veterans, using grants and private donations to offset the costs. Besides classroom sessions, his courses include on-water instruction aboard his 22-foot O’Day sloop, 41-foot Morgan Out Island live-aboard, and a 19-foot Tornado racing catamaran.
On a recent Saturday, two new Veteran Sailing Association students received the marine equivalent of trial by fire: they would learn to sail the 22-foot sloop in Key Largo’s Buttonwood Sound in gusty, 20-knot winds. Note: world-class regattas have been cancelled in South Florida under those conditions.
Both U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gil Aybar of Homestead, Fla. and retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lt. Col. Rene Jewett of Kendall, Fla. had little to no sailing experience going in: Jewett merely had ridden as a passenger on his dad’s sailboat in east-central Florida’s Indian River Lagoon while Aybar had never even been aboard a sailboat.
“Something new and different,” said Aybar.
First, Mastrangelo drilled the students on the points of sail–irons; close haul; close reach; beam reach; broad reach; and run–and tacking to port and starboard when heading into the wind. On board the boat, he taught them to feel the points of sail with their ears; for example, on a beam reach, the sailor should feel the wind on both ears.
“This is the meat and potatoes of sailing,” the instructor said. “You gotta feel the wind.”
He taught them to jibe, or change course, and heave-to, or come to a virtual stop.
“You make it seem so easy,” Jewett said.
“It is, brother,” Mastrangelo replied.
The crew sailed through a sudden squall, entered a narrow cut between mangrove islands and navigated a well-travelled boat channel.
“Well done, guys,” Mastrangelo said afterward. “This is the boot camp of sailing. It’s difficult. It’s not easy.”
After about six hours on the water, with Jewett on the tiller and Aybar trimming the sails, the three cruised back to port at a brisk clip.
“Look at us. We’re on afterburners now,” said Jewett.
Once safely back at the dock behind Mastrangelo’s house, the instructor congratulated the students on their first on-water lesson.
“This is hard conditions you’re learning in,” he said. “You guys are doing good. You’re on it.”
For more information about Veteran Sailing Association, visit www.veteransailing.com or call 305-619-3433.