Wednesday 2nd October 2019
Lee Thomas served more than 11 years in the RAF before he was medically discharged in 2018 with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It was an awful time, I’d lost my career and I was struggling with my medication. I wasn’t sure where I was heading in life. Christmas was coming and I didn’t have any income for presents for my wife and three small kids.”
After spending months on the sofa, Lee’s Personnel Recovery Officer convinced him to “get off my arse” and take back control of his life. “Living in Cornwall, he suggested I get outdoors and try surfing or sailing. I thought I had a better chance of finding a job in the sailing sector so went with that.”
Lee, 29, was introduced to Turn to Starboard and joined a group of injured veterans aboard a training yacht for a week-long voyage along the Cornish coast. “I’d never sailed before and for the first couple of days the weather was rough and I struggled with that and being around new people. As the week progressed and the weather calmed down and things became easier – both on the boat and in my mind. By the end of the trip I thought it was brilliant, I came back happy and was even awarded my Competent Crew certificate.”
In a surprise move, Lee was offered a place as a crew member on a leg of a 3000-mile sailing expedition from Croatia to Cornwall taking place the following month. With support from his wife and family he accepted and flew to Krk Island in Croatia to climb aboard Kikila, a 43-foot Hans Christian yacht. Within a few days the crew set sail and Lee spent six weeks at sea covering more than 1,000 miles to Sicily off the southern coast of Italy.
“The voyage was awesome and easily the best thing I’ve ever done. I really enjoyed how the skipper taught us to sail, he had a really relaxed style with no pressure which made things easier. If I made a mistake he didn’t scream or shout but just reminded me I could do it which filled me with confidence. It really did change my life.”
Lee continued his sail training and in December 2018 he passed the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Day Skipper exam – meaning he could take charge of a small yacht and its crew by day in familiar waters. “Passing this exam meant I could take my family out on the water and watching my boys having the time of their lives on a yacht made me feel incredibly proud.”
Within a few months, Lee had gained enough skills and experience to sit the RYA Yachtmaster exam – the ultimate aim of most skippers and a qualification recognised and respected around the world. “I’ll admit I felt sick with worry before the exam but it went fine and it was so worth it. The sense of achievement getting that ticket was a pretty epic feeling. Getting that qualification meant I could finally find a new career too.”
As a result of his efforts Lee landed his dream job as a sous chef on board a 60-metre superyacht based in the Mediterranean. The role required candidates to hold a Yachtmaster qualification and offered plenty of time ashore to explore towns in Italy, Spain and the south of France. Once the 3-month contract had ended he returned home to receive the news he had been offered a second contract for a year on a different superyacht in the same region.
“Learning to sail has not only changed my life but my whole family’s life. It has given me a new life and career and we now enjoy sailing together when I’m at home from work. On land life goes at 100 miles per hour yet when you’re at sea you’re back down to 3 or 4 knots. It’s just you and the family or crew, the boat, the weather and the sea. You work as a team as no one is judging you. You get away from technology and the stresses of life and that’s good for my mental health. Becoming a Yachtmaster is a big achievement and makes me feel really good inside. My kids are proud of their Dad and not just seeing him lying around on the sofa. Sailing has also given them new opportunities in life which makes me feel incredibly happy too.”