“Seeing the impact the Games had on the families as well as the athletes really made Invictus the most incredible, life-changing experience.”

As the rest of us sat at home in awe of the endeavour, skill and heroism unfolding in Sydney via our TV screens, Midlands Disability Development Officer, Brett Cokayne, was at the heart of the Invictus Games in October.

In his role of RYA Disability Racing Coach, Brett led the Invictus sailing programme as RYA Sailability worked in partnership with Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion and the Ministry of Defence to select a team of sailors to compete in Australia. 

Brett’s Invictus sailing journey began in March as 140 wounded, injured and sick veterans and service personnel took part in ‘have a go’ camps at Rutland SC and Whitefriars SC, Gloucestershire, as sailing prepared to make its Games debut. From these, 70 sailors were invited for two days of trials on a bitterly cold Portland Harbour later that month, before the Games sailing squad was confirmed in May.

Some had sailed before and were returning to the water, but many had little or no experience and were on a fast track from beginner to international competition as the programme focused on using sailing to support recovery and rehabilitation.

Nine Brits took to the start line in the impressive stadium-like setting of Farm Cove in Sydney Harbour - Spencer Bull, the Team UK Vice-Captain, in the Hansa 303 one-person class and two teams of four racing in the Elliott 7 keelboat class. But for Brett, sailing’s success was much greater than what happened on that racecourse.

“It was the most incredible setting. The racing took place in this U-shaped cove, with a big stand set up on one side, spectators watching from either side and all the friends and family on these beautiful racing yachts next to the racing. Prince Harry was also supporting from a RIB weaving among the spectator boats.

“When the sailors came off the water, the friends and families cheered and clapped them off the pontoons. Everyone was buzzing; there were interviews, the medal ceremonies and then a massive party for everyone in Rushcutters Bay.

“Everything was about the athletes and their friends and families. I think a lot of people realised through this process that sailing is something the whole family can do together; they can take the kids sailing or can go on sailing holidays as a family.”

Lasting legacy

Sailing was included in the Games as a choice of the host nation. There is no guarantee it will feature at the next Games, but with Invictus heading to the Netherlands – a sailing nation – in 2020, Brett hopes the sport did enough to show its value to return in two years.

For many of the nine Brits, getting into sailing over the past nine months has had an enduring impact.

Spencer, who has MS, has joined Chesil Sailability at WPNSA, John Shepard, who at one point was not able to leave his house, is involved with Turn to Starboard, the Forces’ sailing charity in Gosport, and is doing his Yachtmaster, and Poppy Pawsey stayed in Australia and is sailing at Moolloolaba YC in Queensland.

Meanwhile, Andrew ‘Pav’ Taylor is exploring opportunities in keelboat racing while Sadie Melling is another who says sailing has changed her life. In addition, Jennifer Yarwood, who did all the training camps, joined Rutland Sailability along with three of her family members after her first training session at the club in March.

And it’s not just the ex-service personnel whose imaginations have been captured by the opportunities sailing presents. Brett revealed eight people asked him how their club could get involved with Help for Heroes and other military organisations at the recent RYA Midlands Affiliated Clubs Conference.

Brett cannot stress enough how Invictus has changed him. But when he reflects on his Games experience there is also one other moment the competitive sailor in him will never let him forget, meeting Invictus Games Sydney 2018 Ambassador and America’s Cup-winning skipper, Jimmy Spithill.

Brett adds: “On the training day he came over and just said ‘How are you doing?’ He asked if he could have a bit of input so there was Jimmy Spithill helping to coach our Team UK sailors. He was brilliant with the team and signed every bit of clothing they could find. I was starstruck!”

Helping hand

While Brett’s focus was on sailing in the build up to Sydney, he also found himself in the middle of one of the Games’ most iconic moments away from the water.

Brett led the sailing team on day one, but later in the event doubled up his coaching duties on the tennis court. When the sound of a helicopter left Team UK wheelchair tennis player, Paul Guest, who has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), visibly distressed on court, Brett was one of the first there to support him.

The images were beamed around the world, but, for Brett, it was simply a moment that a bond brokered on the water helped him comfort a new friend.

Brett explains: “Paul had done the Invictus sail training at Rutland in March and our final camp at WPNSA and so we had developed a little bit of a connection through the sailing. As a coach, Team UK had explained what I needed to do for someone who has experienced PTSD so I just talked to him.

“That moment summed up my Invictus experience; it really hammered home the challenges and what the athletes were battling in their day-to-day lives. The mental health and wellbeing struggles were as real as any physical struggles they had.

“What sport they were doing didn’t matter, it was just a vehicle for the athletes to say ‘I’m not an injured service personnel, this is my family and this is what I’m going to do from now on.’ It’s genuinely changed the way I look at things now.”