Program Director of the Warrior Sailing Program
BEN POUCHER IS ONE MEMBER of a traveling program providing sailing opportunities for injured or wounded, active or retired, veterans. The three-day sailing course is designed to be an intense, rigorous and immersive experience — we’re not exactly talking about a leisurely cruise at sea — and most participants are hooked at the end of training. The Warrior Sailing Program recently partnered with the San Diego Yacht Club to bring its course to the West Coast for the first time. Poucher spoke with Sea about the program’s growing number of participants and how sailing is, more than anything, an “opportunity for people, whether you have a disability or are completely able-bodied.”
Sea: Can you tell us about your own sailing background?
Poucher: I’ve been a professional sailor for the last eight years. Ralf Steitz [program adviser at Warrior Sailing] actually provided my friend and me with a 40-foot racing sailboat that was owned by the foundation. He gave us the opportunity to do fundraising and do our own sailing campaign on the boat. That’s where I met Ralf, so I’m kind of a graduate of the program. When I decided I didn’t want to be a boat captain, Ralf offered me a job, and the Warrior Sailing Program is one of the ways that we’re providing sailing and racing opportunities for Americans and young people, really.
What is the Warrior Sailing Program?
We are a new program. We’re about a year and a half into existence. We are a program that is a partnership between the USMMA Sailing Foundation, and US Sailing. What ended up happening was US Sailing had been issued a grant from the Veterans Administration, and this was about two years ago, and it was to, just on a basic level, get military active in sailing, specifically wounded veterans. The only issue was that the money was there to provide this opportunity but US Sailing had limited resources, so far as personnel, to put toward the program. They needed another organization to step up and take the role for these camps and help US Sailing deliver on the deliverables. My boss and I went to one of these camps, organized by our founder Jen French, who was a silver medalist at the Paralympic Games in 2012. She was trying to get this off the ground, and the foundation stepped in and provided the personnel to do the coaching. Since then, we’ve become a little more official, and the program established itself with the partners. We provide a traveling camp — we show up at a location, we partner with different yacht clubs and we do a basic three-day, learn-how-to-sail camp. The participants come through partnerships with different VA hospitals and sports coordinators and adaptive sports programs and other government groups that might have contacts with individuals. San Diego Yacht Club has been generous enough to offer up its facility and boat, in partnership with us, and we show up with the full coaching staff, as well as the equipment, the adaptive equipment. We work hard to get partnerships. This is going to be our first West Coast camp. We’ve done a camp this year in St. Petersburg, Fla., we did two camps last year in St. Petersburg, but this will be kind of the start of our road show.
Why does the location of the training camp vary?
We started in St. Petersburg because of the partnerships there, but the idea is that we want to travel the country and provide these camps, and the opportunity, to active or retired, injured and wounded members of the armed forces. We saw that there was a need for an intermittent group that could do a lot of the organizing and bring in the knowledge and coaching staff. What we want to do is provide pathways for people to get into sailing. We like racing, so we kind of structured our basic training camps for people to get into the sport of sailing. Within the three-day training camp, we give them the knowledge to race, but we also get them to go back, after, and go sailing at home with their family. The traveling camp allows us to bring a lot of the most difficult parts of the camp, such as finding the participants, lining up the boats, and the yacht clubs. The groups we partner with, they already have the facilities, and we come in and provide the rest.
What happens during the three-day training event?
To begin, the participants are armed with a little bit of knowledge. We send them information through links, so they have a basic idea of what’s happening. Our usual day starts at 8 in the morning and we do a classroom session. The first day, we go over the very basics. There’s a coach on each boat and we split the teams up and we go out sailing. We try and do a morning session to go over the basic sets, and then we do a lunch, then a review, another classroom session, and then we head out again in the afternoon. The idea is to do two training sessions and classroom sessions per day. On day two, we start to introduce more ideas about racing. In every camp, by day three, the participants are usually out racing. We set up a kind of fun race at the end of the third day, a poker run, where we put five cards on five different buoys to collect, and the best poker hand wins. We do introduce a lot of the rules of racing, but it’s pretty intense to go from not sailing at all to racing in three days. The idea is we get them hooked and interested in sailing, and then they can take it anywhere they want. We pay for all of the expenses. The Warrior Sailing program does flights, accommodations, food, the coaching staff is all provided. We also rely on local people, wherever we go, through our sailing connections. It isn’t just outside people we bring in, but we try to find some locally, wherever we are. It’s a pretty neat experience for the participants, but it’s funny because the coaches and people within the program also leave with a different attitude. It’s as much therapy for them as it is for the participants.
Can you tell us about the accommodations on board?
What we do is we build equipment. The equipment travels with the program. We’re providing an opportunity for the yacht clubs to purchase the equipment from us, both as a way to fundraise but also to provide the opportunity for other people, whether you’re a veteran or not. We build basic adaptive equipment like benches and bars and grab handles and lines with knots. Sometimes it’s as simple as putting a cooler on a boat. A portion of the money we receive from the VA goes to developing this equipment. The partnerships we have, they provide research and development through their athletic challenges. We can develop new prosthetics or new benches. The benches are drop-in — we don’t need to put any holes in the boat. The bench is actually just dropped into place and they have what they need in place. It’s really cool and really easy.
How do you select the sailors who become part of the Warrior Sailing team?
The Warrior Sailing team is a continued path for racing. It’s one of the pathways that we wanted to develop. You have to have attended one of our basic training camps. From the basic training camps, if you’d like to pursue the sport, we provide that opportunity through other regattas and competitions. The team right now just has about five participants and we provide registration, travel and accommodations in the racing world. We just did Charleston Race Week with our sail team. We developed new benches for J/22s, and we raced with our team. We had three wounded vets and me on a J/22, and we raced against fully able-bodied teams. It was not the traditional disabled event. Last year, we partnered with Texas Corinthian Yacht Club when the U.S. Disabled Sailing National Championships were in Galveston, and one of our teams won.
What do you hope participants gain from the program?
When people leave the program, I want people to have had a positive, fun experience while learning a new skill that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. These warriors are provided with a lot of other athletic events, whether that’s cycling or other sports, but sailing is something you can do with your family when you’re older, at any kind of competitive level. I really like the opportunity for it to grow into something beyond the camp. They don’t just go home and go back to their regular lives. Out of the 27 participants who came to the St. Petersburg camp, 21 of the participants expressed interest in getting involved and getting a spot on the Warrior Sailing team. It’s not something you want to complain about, having people want to continue with the program.