Valhalla, Family Found, Again

by Laura Boycourt

Warriors find solace and a new mission through sailing.


Valhalla, in its own existence, is the Norse/Viking warriors’ heaven where all warriors go to feast with Odin. This historic warrior mentality has carried on throughout epochs and multiple generations of warriors. In recent history, a resurgence of the phrase ‘Until Valhalla’ has become synonymous with saying goodbye to a fallen brother or sister. Unfortunately, this phrase has also been repeated when a service member or veteran feels that there are no further options and they make the terminal decision to take their own life. What Valhalla Sailing Project strives to do is to give these warriors a place where they can be in fellowship with their brothers and sisters . . . essentially give them a piece of Valhalla here together with all of us.
— Mike Wood
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   Chicken Little  and  One Eyed Jack  racing off Annapolis

Chicken Little and One Eyed Jack racing off Annapolis

One Eyed Jack and Chicken Little, two weathered but able Cal 25s, have just finished their first runs of the day, and like a proud father waiting for his kids on the sideline after their first game, Valhalla Sailing Project (VSP) co-founder and executive director, Mike Wood, greets the crew beneath the Severn Sailing Association clubhouse, anxious to know what the veterans aboard thought of their sail. For Wood, a Marine Corps combat veteran, the men and women who participate in the Valhalla Sailing Project are family both in the fraternity of service to the country and in the bonds of sailing on the Chesapeake. It’s been his and VSP’s mission to provide a positive, productive, and oftentimes healing experience on the water for post-
service veterans.

Wood, who grew up sailing on Lake Ontario, found his way to the Bay when he was stationed in D.C. Once combat deployed overseas, he found family in the men and women by his side aboard helos in Afghanistan, but, as is the case with countless veterans coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or struggling to reintegrate into civilian life, a haze settled over his horizon after he returned home. At the urging of friends and family, Wood jumped on a local crew-listing board and was matched with a boat on the West River. In a fortuitous turn, he found himself amongst his brothers once more. The crew was full of former naval F-14 and F-4 aviators, and although Wood was the only rotor-head aboard, “I was there with my people again. Regardless if there was a generation gap, they were my people. The vocabulary was understood, the brotherhood was understood, the family was understood,” Wood explains. The fog began to lift, and, as he was watching the intense competition of the America’s Cup, the Valhalla Sailing Project was conceived. He wondered: “If this entire concept of sailing worked for me as a coping mechanism, will it work for other veterans?”

Wood pitched his nascent idea to a few buddies over margaritas, beers and nachos at Annapolis’s Mexican Cafe, and by October 2015, VSP became a reality. After a few trial runs and mini-regattas to get their feet wet, so to speak, it became clear that the veterans loved what they were doing. Rob Sampson, VSP co-founder and marketing director, put the word out to local skippers, who quickly discovered that although veterans new to sailing might have a steep learning curve to tackle, they could quickly become experts. Wood recalls that the reaction among captains, once they sailed with a VSP vet aboard, was “Can I get them back next week, and by the way, where can I get more?’ ”

As participation and exposure increased, VSP enjoyed the donated use of boats to accommodate its growing crew and welcomed Convictus Maximus, a 2006 Farr Performance 42 known as CMAX, into the fleet to provide a technically heightened learning experience for crewmembers. CMAX will allow veterans to “advance their learning, so it’s not something that’s stagnant. It’s repeatable but not repetitious,” Wood says.

Rank dissolves once the crew steps on deck. The Project has had everyone from an E-1 (junior enlisted) to a Navy Captain aboard, but the “only title you get is the position you’re at at the moment,” Sampson explains. Wood says that the veterans quickly bond while underway, exercising many of the same skills they employed while in the service. Although the sailing experience can never replicate the immense responsibilities of working with others while in harm’s way, the teamwork, communication and trust required of sailors is second nature to the veterans. The crew also enjoys digging into technical discussions with VSP staff and instructors, always looking to improve. In 2017, four clinics, smaller round-the-buoy races, and three distance races aboard CMAX on the Bay provided opportunities to take things to the next level. 

The Annapolis sailing community has opened its arms to VSP. From boat storage at Bert Jabin Yacht Yard to local paint dealers and marine companies pitching in, and other organizations and individuals spreading the word, the city has rallied around VSP, its people and its purpose. 

“Our ability to do these things comes through the support of the community,” says Sampson. 

   Chicken Little ‘s crew pre-race.

Chicken Little‘s crew pre-race.

The Project’s sights are set high. “I want the (VSP) shield to become recognized in the Annapolis sailing community and the East Coast sailing community as that of a really well-integrated crew that, number one, they’re awesome people off the water, they’re incredibly aggressive on the water, and they’re the boat that everybody wants to beat, because they’re the competition, because they’re that good,” Wood explains. VSP hopes to participate in the 2018 Invictus Games in Sydney. The three-year plan includes the Annapolis to Newport race in 2019 and Annapolis to Bermuda in 2020 with all-veteran crews. 

So, what do Wood and his staff get out of running such a powerful and ambitious program for our country’s best? Nothing other than the pleasure of providing a rewarding experience and camaraderie to his fellow veterans with the hope that it might offer crucial support even if only for one person. “As long as Valhalla Sailing Project can help at least one vet cope with post-traumatic stress, and ultimately prevent someone from committing that ultimate act, I’ve done my mission. As long as I can get one. I just want to help vets. That’s all I want to do. I just want to help my brothers and sisters,” Wood says.

And help he has. Adam Keys and Josh O’Neil, both Army veterans who were injured by improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, have found VSP to be a significant presence in their lives. For Keys, a triple amputee, the Project has provided a specially designed seat rig so his experience is about excelling, not limitations. O’Neil says VSP’s love of sailing is contagious; “How passionate they are about sailing makes us want to be more passionate about it as well.” 

Veteran Jeremy Todd, an Army combat journalist who was wounded while filming in Baghdad, initially connected with VSP as a photographer hoping to document the Project in action. Todd, like so many others, is justifiably smitten with the group. “They’re doing such good things,” he says. “And Mike Wood is wrapped in so deep with the Annapolis core, and the love of sailing, and the love of the water, and the love of camaraderie that there’s no other nonprofit that I can think of that I would want to serve. And he gives me an opportunity to serve again.”

Learn more about the Valhalla Sailing Project at valhallasailing.org