The stage is set for nine Brits to fly the Union Jack when sailing makes its Invictus Games debut later this weekend.

Sailing takes place on day one of the Games, with Sydney Harbour providing the stunning backdrop for the competition in two classes on Sunday 21 October.

Spencer Bull, the Team UK Vice-Captain, competes in the Hansa 303 one-person event, while two teams of four Britons will do battle in the Elliott 7 keelboat class.

Poppy Pawsey, John Shepard, Sadie Melling and Andrew ‘Pav’ Taylor make up one crew with Daniel Majid, Lavinia Goddard, Dave Watts and Debbie Godfrey teaming up in the other UK boat.

To select a team of sailors to compete at the Invictus Games, RYA Sailability have been working with partners at Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion and the Ministry of Defence to deliver a programme which, at its heart, is using sport and activity to support people's recovery and rehabilitation.

Experience in the sailing team ranges from dinghy racing to expedition sailing to barely having sailed before, so over the past six months, and led by RYA disability racing coach, Brett Cokayne, the sailors have had a ‘crash course’ in learning to sail and race the Games boats.

'Pav' Taylor , who sustained a serious back injury in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in 2008, has found sailing delivers a relatively pain-free physical activity that satisfies his competitive appetite. Pav is also competing in powerlifting, archery and athletics at the Games, and admits the sail training has been an enjoyable challenge.

He said: “The others sports I’m doing are very physical, but there’s a mental wellbeing aspect to sailing. You don't think about other things when you're sailing, you’re concentrating on what you're doing, looking at where the next gust of wind is coming from, trimming the sails, so it empties your head of everything else.

“I also like the banter we've had on the boat and working as a team. You're used to that when you're in the military, then through injury you find yourself outside of a team so it's nice to be back in that environment again with likeminded people.”

 

More than sailing

When the selected team of sailors came together to compete and train the RYA Multiclass Regatta at Rutland in August it was obvious that sailing was helping each of them achieve something far beyond simply making a boat move.

Ex-Army man Spencer was previously very active and a keen sailor before a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis in 2005 initially stopped him getting on the water. But he says re-discovering sailing has given him so much more than a sport, it’s given him a way to spend quality time with his children again.

Spencer said: “Sailing to me means freedom. When my mobility started to disappear the biggest issue in terms of sailing was getting on and off the boat. When I started Invictus I realised there are possibilities to use a hoist and then I was introduced to Sailability and they've been amazing.

“My children are 15, 13 and 12 and I've never kicked a ball with them or played with them in the garden in the way I would liked to have done as a father. Now I can go sailing with the children and it’s something we can do together again. I want to be a role model, the father figure, you wouldn’t necessarily get to do with MS.”

Meanwhile, Poppy Pawsey, is a former Royal Marines bandswoman, whose childhood love of sailing, developed through Sea Scouts, has been rekindled by Invictus.

She said: “Last year I was like a broken little bird and I didn't really know what to do about that. Then Invictus came into my life, that journey and going to the trials was so great. To then be selected my confidence soared.

“I've got chronic pain in my back and hips, which can be quite frustrating. If you'd seen me a year ago it wasn't me, I’d lost all of my confidence. Now I'm going to be helming a crew on Sydney Harbour. Does it get much better than that?”

Final word

Each race in Sydney will consist of up to three laps of a windward/leeward course with an anticipated race time of 30 minutes. Brett is joining the team in Australia as coach.

But having experienced the benefits the sport brings on their journey to Oz, none of the competitors’ sailing stories will end on Sydney Harbour.

The Invictus Games are showing that, whatever your history, sailing can change lives.