You are likely asking yourself, is there proof that Sailing Adventure Therapy (SAT) actually works? Let’s look at a research study published in 2018 spearheaded by the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Park City Sailing Association, and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Utah. The study involved a group of Veterans suffering from substance abuse disorders (SUDs) in combination with other emotional challenges such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). It is not uncommon for these co-existing conditions to also be present among the general population. While there have been few studies to date related to SAT, the outcome of this study demonstrated positive results for those participating in the SAT program compared to a control group of participants receiving residential treatment only.

The four areas of cognitive improvement for participants included:
1.Learning through applied application and experience.
2.Presence and interaction with nature as a foundation for spiritual growth.
3.Creating a positive response to stress-related conditions.
4.Solution-based focus on positive change.

The study proved out a few more significant contributors to positive change experienced by the participants. Bonding and relationship-building between clients and counselors enhanced due to the increased time spent together in both the clinical and non-clinical settings presented through sailing together. Rapport and trust were established early in the treatment relationship among all the participants, leading to a strong sense of community and support for one another. Perhaps these are the most potent aspect of SAT since a sense of belonging and relationship-building are essential skills to learn for long-term recovery once clients are released into the challenges of day-to-day living.

Alcoholics and addicts often arrive at a disease state where the quest for use rules their thinking and actions as they seek the next “high.” The “high” produces the state of euphoria and perceived sense of mindfulness that the experience of sailing replaces. Instead of seeking serenity through use, sailing provides an experience that enhances a connection with nature, surfacing a sense of peace and tranquility as the art of sailing connects us to the elements and the on-water environment. Skipper, navigator, helmsman, lookouts, and trimmers all have an essential role and responsibility to one another to ensure a safe and enjoyable excursion. Here, in the classroom and onboard, the transition from irresponsible to responsible is correlated to the life skills needed for recovery.

Life in recovery presents many of the same daily challenges that must be navigated safely and responsibly to avoid the pitfalls of relapse. Conditions on the water change daily with wind speed and direction, wave, and sea conditions. What is learned on the water translates into day-to-day decision-making as elements beyond our control cross our paths. Learning to work with and around this constant change is critical for recovery. We learn to be psychologically flexible versus inflexible, making rational versus the irrational decisions that once controlled our actions while in the addictive state of being.

There was one more important outcome demonstrated through this research study. Compared to standard residential treatment and therapy, the retention rate of Sailing Adventure Therapy participants was 35% higher than primary residential treatment. In other words, significantly more clients stayed with the sailing program to completion than a test group that did not experience adventure therapy as part of treatment. Entering a treatment program is generally voluntary. While there are exceptions to this rule, there is no debate that commitment to recovery produces better outcomes. Providing a solid foundation for education and enjoyment adds to a more engaging treatment and recovery experience. Treatment and recovery do not need to be merely institutional. In fact, we believe just the opposite. It should be adventurous.