Sailing club teaches self-confidence, teamwork, fun

Leslie Caron, left, coordinator for Reliance House, and Lynelle Hengen, second from right, tell Tina Slavic, right, a client of Reliance House and Teamworks, about their sailing trip up the Thames River from New London soon after arriving at Howard T. Brown Memorial Park in Norwich Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016. Slavic was planning on making the return trip to New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Norwich — Tina Slavic stood nervously on the shore of Norwich Harbor at the Howard T. Brown Memorial Park Wednesday, eyes peeled on the Thames River for the 32-foot sloop Interim to round the bend in the river and arrive in port.

The boat would carry Slavic, 55, of Norwich on her first-ever ride on a sailboat, the Interim's return trip to New London.

“I'm doing it to get rid of the fear,” Slavic said. “I've gotta do it. I gotta step up and get rid of this fear, and be able to get off the boat at the end and say 'I did it!'”

That sentiment is exactly why Reliance House teamed up with Capt. Richard Lathrop's nonprofit Sea-Legs Inc. three years ago to create a summer sailing club for people recovering from mental illness. The sailing club is part of Reliance House's Teamworks program that offers psycho-social health and wellness recovery activities to some 30 clients throughout the region, said Teamworks Director Cort Murphy, who also awaited the sailboat's arrival Wednesday.

“Ahoy!” Murphy shouted as the Interim pulled close to the dock, with several Teamworks clients and Reliance House staff aboard, along with Lathrop.

“I feel a little frostbitten,” Teamworks Coordinator Leslie Caron shouted.

“There was a very gusty headwind,” Lathrop said. “We had to fight the current all the way up. It was no match for us, this expert crew.”

Jill Groszswicz, 49, of Preston said she was hardly an expert, although she did help sail the boat. For Groszswicz, the three-hour excursion Wednesday from New London to Norwich Harbor was her first trip in the sailboat. She had hoped to join the sailing club when it started in July, but life got too busy.

“It was exciting!” an emotional Groszswicz said. “It was really beautiful and exciting. It was breathtaking to see the sails going up. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my entire life.”

Stephen Donlon, 54, of Norwich was one of those experts Murphy mentioned. Wednesday was his fifth trip with the sailing club.

“I enjoyed steering the boat and the companionship of the other people,” Donlon said during the post-sail picnic at the Brown Park gazebo.

Wednesday's picnic celebrated the successful end of the third year of the sailing club. Caron said she will start writing grant applications to fund next year's program.

After the successful first year in 2014, Reliance House obtained a grant to fund the 2015 program. But when the agency's limited grant funding was directed elsewhere this year, Teamworks staff became determined to keep the program going.

“Our aides said, 'We can't not have sailing,'” Murphy said. “So we scrounged up some money from here and there and kept it going.”

The program cost $2,200 for 12 days of sailing, three trips a day from July through September in partnership with Sea-Legs. They sailed out the mouth of the Thames, saw the region's lighthouses close up and one five-hour trip took participants to Fishers Island, Murphy said.

Lathrop said he founded Sea-Legs in 1998 to give sailing opportunities to people — mostly children — who never get to go out on the water.

Caron said there are many benefits for her clients, from Slavic's determination to overcome fear, to participants' experience working together as a team, to the sheer joy they feel at being on a new adventure.

“The best quote I heard was from a gentleman who said, 'Out here, I don't have a mental illness,'” Caron said. “We've all coached people into it who were afraid, and they get off the boat and say, 'I did it!'”

c.bessette@theday.com

Clients and staff with Reliance House and Teamworks participate in a sailing club sail up the Thames River from New London to Howard T. Brown Memorial Park in Norwich with Capt. Richard Lathrop of Sea Legs Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Clients and staff with Reliance House and Teamworks participate in a sailing club sail up the Thames River from New London to Howard T. Brown Memorial Park in Norwich with Capt. Richard Lathrop of Sea Legs Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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