Please note that as of October 2020, we now operate as Sight Scotland Veterans. Our former name, Scottish War Blinded will appear in content, such as reports, produced before that date.

Veterans with vision impairments who attend the Hawkhead Centre in Paisley recently donned their life jackets and waterproofs for a brand new activity: sailing.

Cruising on the waters of Castle Semple Loch at Clyde Muirshiel, the veterans, who attend Scottish War Blinded’s activity hub, were undeterred by choppy waters – and sailing the boats independently proved to be a big hit.

The group of veterans, who all have sight loss, took on an eight-week block of sailing sessions, and took to the sport in a flash.

They were immediately captivated by the little boats when considering which activity to take part in at Clyde Muirshiel, said Hawkhead Centre Officer, Jason Turnbull, who accompanied the group each week to the loch.

It was the first time sailing for some, but the group were quickly manning the boats independently, speeding away on the loch and experiencing both calm waters and rough weather week-on-week – much to their delight!

Army veteran Hugh ‘Shug’ McMillan, who has been attending the Hawkhead Centre since it opened in October 2017, loved the sailing experience.

Shug said: “I did windsurfing while I was in the army and I knew I liked that. When I came here I was doing a solo sail after a couple of weeks. I really enjoyed that – finding your independence. It’s quite freeing when you’re out on the water.

“We’ve also had really rough weather, but we enjoyed that. I think that was the best time. You get a good wind and you get the boat tilting on its edge. We’re all thrill-seekers, really. We’ve picked it up here, and I’d like to take it further and get the navigation qualifications and maybe sail around Scotland.

“Last summer we did white water rafting and canyoning too, that was brilliant.

“It’s great that they can find us these things that we’re able to do. We didn’t think we’d be able to go and do these things.”

Veteran, Peter Ramsey, added: “I really enjoyed it, I’d not done sailing since I left the army. 

“You have a moment when it’s very windy when you think, ‘Oh, no!’ I think I enjoy being outside the most about it. It’s good company as well and we have a good laugh. It’s something a bit different, it gets us out and about. It’s been brilliant.”

And it was a “double thumbs up” from veteran David Martin.

“It was the perfect journey and travel to Castle Semple with the Hawkhead staff who drove us there, otherwise I couldn’t have gone along as I’ve no driving licence,” David said.

“It was a fantastic activity, I never knew that I’d ever sail, never mind after my brain injury. Everyone I spoke to loved learning how to sail and we all look forward to doing it again. The instructors were great.”

The veterans were all supported on their sailing excursions by Castle Semple sailing instructors and members of the Hawkhead Centre staff..

Centre Officer, Jason Turnbull, said: “Right from the moment we got in the boats, sailing is what the group wanted to do. They’ve been totally independent doing it. They love it. We’ve been seeing everyone’s confidence building and that’s been great.

“Getting out on the water can be quite scary – even more so when you have sight loss. It’s more of a mental challenge. You feel the strength of the wind in the sails moving you along. When the weather’s been bad and it’s choppy and you get the boat tipping as well, that makes it even more thrilling.

“The veterans have been working in partnership in the boats, constantly communicating. A couple are now interested in doing qualifications and even competing.”

The outdoors can be an intimidating prospect when you’re blind or partially sighted – let alone the prospect of sailing out on open waters.

But Scottish War Blinded Rehabilitation Officer, Katrina Campbell, who is based at the Hawkhead Centre, explains that it’s all about building confidence up slowly, step by step.  

“Even just getting out for a walk around the block, that in itself is really important,” she said.

“It can be a chance to meet neighbours, just to say good morning to somebody. It can help with being brought out of isolation.

“Any kind of exercise is good for you, both physically and mentally. The sailing activity was major confidence building for our members. A lot of people when they lose their sight are terrified at first, and the thought of going outside is terrifying. Going out can feel too much.

“But apart from driving you can do a lot of things you used to despite sight loss, just in a different way. That’s where we step in and support members to find ways those different approaches. It’s about taking each step at a time and building confidence.”

Scottish War Blinded gives free support to former servicemen and women of all ages, no matter if they lost their sight during or after service.

The Hawkhead Centre offers activities with transport provided free of charge. Call 0800 035 6409 to refer a veteran to the charity.