Out & About The Bay – by Jillian Humphreys
Bay Waters, Helping Heal Wounds
We all hear about the good Samaritan that rescues a person or vessel in distress, but have you ever had the experience firsthand, or better yet met a person who makes it their mission. I had the privilege of meeting a group of people who go out of their way to assist others with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like many others and myself. People who suffer from PTSD range from veterans, nurses and first responders to cancer survivors and other lines of work, or events in their lives that have been traumatic to them. This group of people is the family known by the name of Sea Valor.
Sea Valor’s mission is to use sailing and other ocean activities to help improve the quality of life for those with physical or emotional wounds, PTSD, underprivileged youth and local heroes. Making good use of their beautiful Hans Christian 56 adequately named Valor, the voluntary crew not only helps those in need, but also receives the same tranquil therapy by providing such help. The crew of Sea Valor are also individuals who suffer from PTSD, you see, so they personally can relate to those of us that join them on their ventures. Each crew member spends time with each of the passengers to ensure that they are comfortable, not only on the boat but with the experience. The founder of Sea Valor is Eric Jones. He has his own unique experience with PTSD. Jones is open about his experience with PTSD and how buying a sail boat changed his life. Now he makes others see that there is something worth living for.
Jones is someone that makes you feel welcome and accepted, but as mentioned, he suffers from PTSD himself, not that you could tell from meeting him for the first time. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Jones was on his way to class at George Washington University where he was studying to get his Masters in public health, but as he neared the Pentagon, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into it. Jones pulled over and ran towards the Pentagon. As he knew that he had the training and duty to assist, Jones assisted in recovering five people from the impact zone. Days after Jones joined the Mortuary Affairs team and aided in removing the remains of those who lost their lives. Only three days after working on the recovery efforts at the Pentagon, Jones drove up to New York and started to assist in search and rescue at Ground Zero. Jones was awarded for these selfless acts of valor by the Department of Defense. They presented him with the highest civilian award for heroism, the Medal of Valor. Jones makes it known that adventures on S/V Valor are not only for those who seek to be heroes, but those who are heroes without even trying.
Jones did in fact grow up in the Bay Area, and felt like becoming an EMT was the thing to do at age 18. He went on to continue his training in firefighting, search and rescue, hazardous materials and rescue diving from Prince George’s County Fire Department. In the last month, Jones recalls the crew of Valor rescuing three whales (two deceased) in the SF Bay, and at the time of this conversation one windsurfer that was being swept underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in the commercial shipping channel. Jones’s PTSD struggle comes from not only the events of Sept. 11, 2001, but he has had to deal with the deaths of very close friends that dealt with their PTSD in silence. One was an Oscar Award-winning cameraman, and the other a highly decorated Army sniper. Both were too young to take their own lives. Jones had tried all of the traditional treatments like support groups and medication, but nothing took away the depression he suffered, or the PTSD. Jones was feeling hopeless and unable to process these tragic events when a friend invited him on a sailing trip from Florida up to the sailing capital of the United States, Annapolis, Maryland in 2011. Jones told me that this was an amazing experience and it brought him to love the freedom of sailing, as it brought him a sense of peace, one that he had not felt in years. As I shared with Jones, a good friend of mine once told me that the ocean air is the cure for everything of which might ail us.
On my recent trip with the crew, I met a number of different people who suffer from different forms of PTSD, and they all heard about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity from different sources. Dawn (a nurse from Colorado) took the time to explain to me that she heard about this opportunity from her head nurse at the hospital she works at outside Boulder. The head nurse knew of the program as Eric and her have kept in contact from when they went to school together back east. Dawn went on to explain that after the last year dealing with COVID-19, the medical field is wearing thin. Nurses are getting burned out as they are having to pick up extra shifts and put themselves at risk for catching COVID. The hospital staff, including doctors, are getting exhausted and some are retiring early as the toll that COVID has put on the medical industry is more than one can explain.
Another person I met is James. He is in the job of law enforcement and his superiors presented him with this trip. James is in a line of work where he is putting his life on the line daily, all to keep us civilians safe. He got to spend it with his family doing something different. Watching how happy James was as Jones taught his youngest son how to steer the boat, “it’s like driving a school bus,” was something that brought a tear to my eye. In that moment I understood why Jones does this and why he encourages people to take the helm and sit on the bow sprit. Apparently, it’s the driest place on the boat.
Another part of Sea Valor is their work with whale research in the San Francisco Bay, along with the Marine Mammal Research Center out of Sausalito, the world’s largest marine mammal hospital. The Sea Valor team assists whenever they witness sea life in distress. Some of them have passed away due to ship strikes, which unfortunately are becoming more common. Once Sea Valor is able to secure the whale to their tender, they drag the deceased whale to Angel Island where the Marine Mammal Research Center takes over in determining the actual cause of death. Some recent whales have shown no signs of significant bruising and hemorrhaging to the muscle around their jaw, which is consistent with blunt force trauma caused by a ship strike. When a whale is deceased and there are no signs of trauma, the research center will usually examine the whale’s skeleton to see if they can determine if it was natural causes. Gray whales tell us a lot about the health of the ocean, and the number of deaths in the San Francisco Bay have been rising over the last decade. Jones explained that he has personally responded to VHF calls of whale sightings whether they are in distress or not. Part of what Jones tries to bring to the passengers while sailing is to respect the ocean, and what humans can do to protect it. Whales as well as other sea life are suffering due to things such as the oceans warming and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Sea Valor is also about keeping our beaches clean as well as the ocean. About 90 percent of the trash in the ocean is plastic and is caused by humans, and about 80 percent of trash found on beaches is from single-use items such as utensils, straws, cups and more. The city and county of San Francisco restricted the distribution of single-use plastic straws in 2019, and they keep moving forward in banning single use plastic items such as cocktail sticks and plastic toothpicks. In 2007, San Francisco became the first large city to ban single-use plastic bags at grocery stores in an effort to eliminate debris in the SF Bay and ocean. Sea Valor does their part to get the kids out on the water and learn about marine life and conservation, but also do their part in picking up debris from the water. The Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Sea Scouts are just a few of the youth groups that go out with Sea Valor to assist as much as they can. Valor has a small tender that they use to transport the kids to beaches around Angel Island, Crissy Field and Ballena Bay to assist in picking up trash left by visitors. Volunteers over the years have removed about 2,500 pounds of garbage and 1,500 pounds of recycling. Sea Valor participates in this year-round mission of keeping our waterways clean, even though there are enough coastal clean-up days year-round throughout the area.
The pandemic was one that shook Sea Valor, but only for a bit before they came up with a plan to keep the sails happening. The crew of Sea Valor minimized the number of guests they brought with them to a maximum of 10 people who signed waivers and were required to wear masks. The Valor crew themselves saw the need for being outdoors increase over the year as more people were suffering as they were adapting to a new way of life. Most PTSD comes from the fear of dying. Even when a person has completed therapy, being on Valor assisted in making individuals feel alive during the unprecedented time of 2020. Jones also took possession of two J-24s to add to the fleet of 30 boats, and has started looking at teaching sailing as well. His team is more than qualified to teach boating safety on the San Francisco Bay. He will soon be starting a new sailing educational program. The Sea Valor family is working with U.S. Sailing to become an accredited sailing school to assist others in learning how to sail and make it a lifelong hobby. Jones wants to keep on expanding the Sea Valor experience through sailing education, boating safety and ocean conservation. They are acquiring their boats by purchasing them with funds that they collect from donations. Most of their business sponsors have assisted in keeping the boats safe and well-equipped.
Jones makes a point to ensure that every guest leaves happy. The sailors usually leave Emeryville Marine, and stop at Ayala Cove, San Francisco or Tiburon for lunch, then out underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and back. But it all depends on the group of passengers and what the crew feels is safest. While on your trip with them, you will notice that a small tender follows the boat with at least one Sea Valor team member in it. Jones explained that this tender is open to any of the guests to take a ride in so they can experience the Bay from a completely new view. Chris was the Sea Valor crewmember in charge of the tender when I visited with them and got to experience a different view. The tender is used as part of Sea Valor’s search and rescue efforts as well. The crew is trained to assist whenever they hear a distress call over the VHF radio.
Many individuals who suffer from PTSD, many of whom are veterans, have emotional support dogs. Jones is no exception and the same applies for his guests. The crew of Sea Valor encourages the furry friends to join them underway as they have a number of different sizes of personal flotation devices (PFDs) for them as well as you. Safety is a big part of the Sea Valor way of life on the sail boat. Everyone is given a number and required to sign waivers about the dangers of being on a sail boat. The numbers correspond to what PFD you are assigned, and it is how they keep track of you when stopping at Angel Island for lunch as not everyone gets off the boat. The Sea Valor crew typically has not only their own PFDs, but also whistles, personal beacons and VHF radios that are monitoring USCG Channel 16. The crew of Valor also does a safety briefing before they set sail so every passenger knows what to expect, as we all know the water can be unforgiving at times. In case passengers do not bring the correct gear to keep them warm, Sea Valor keeps a selection of foul weather gear on the boats. Most passengers have never been on a sail boat before, so they do not know that they should expect all the seasons of the year in one trip around the SF Bay. As Eric Forster, fellow crewmember explained, it will be a nice winter day full of wind chill on the way to Angel Island, a brisk fall morning on the way out to the Golden Gate, spring time sun on the run back to Emeryville and when you land back at the dock you remember that it is summer. Regardless of how you arrive, everyone and anyone is welcome to join them and you will be properly outfitted to enjoy the sail.
My experience with Sea Valor is one that has changed my life and continues to as I stay in touch with the men and women of the crew. I personally suffer from PTSD because of past experiences in my life. The day I joined them, my mother witnessed how bad my anxiety can get. Michelle, a crewmember of Valor recognized my symptoms as soon as I approached the meeting area and took it upon herself to assist me. Michelle and I connected as if I had known her for years. She also assisted in teaching my mother about the warning signs and how to relieve my anxiety. While getting myself composed, Michelle shared with me about what she did for work before coming to Sea Valor. As random as it sounds, she knows my cousin (what a small world.) While I got to know other crewmembers like Catalina, a woman that has both Columbian and Italian descent, something that caused her to suffer from PTSD as she had to leave her family behind. Forster met Jones, founder of Sea Valor, as they were both set up to go sail boat racing. The skipper never showed up and they bonded over their first responder careers. Kia is also a crewmember that took the time to explain to me where her PTSD comes from, and I was amazed to hear that we have it in common. She definitely is an animal lover as she introduced me to Franklin, Carl and Mattie. Kia also explained that some of the more exotic PTSD support animals that they have had on the boat include a tortoise and a potbelly pig. While we were getting ready for our return to Emeryville Marina, some of the crew noticed a windsurfing kite in the water, but not a board or rider. One of the passengers kept an eye on the kite as the Sea Valor crew lowered the sails and deployed a few crewmembers in the tender to search for the rider and the board. Those of us that were still on the boat fished the kite out of the water and radioed in the location to the USCG. The effort to find the rider was unlike anything I have ever seen, and it was definitely something that your average person would not do. But the crew of Sea Valor is not average. They are above average.
When getting prepared to go on a trip with Sea Valor, as all trips are open and welcome to the public, it is a good idea to know that everything is covered by the donations of the passengers and sponsors that support them first off, but there are some things to keep in mind as well. Plan on being on the Bay for about 4-5 hours depending on the wind of course. Read up on basic sailing terms so you know what the crew is talking about, especially if there is an emergency. Another is to be 30 minutes early to your departure time, as it will take time to account for everyone and get the required safety information recorded for each of the passengers. Also, do not forget about the safety briefing that the crew goes over before setting sail. Talking about being on time, you may also want to think about the possibility of you getting sea sick as you may not be used to the roll of the Bay; pack Dramamine along with multiple layers in a bag that will be stored below in case you are in need. The most common worry about being on a sail boat is that it can possibly flip over, and that is not true. Most sailboats heel, and Valor has 20,000 lbs. of lead in the keel to keep the boat upright. Please remember that Sea Valor is a nonprofit organization, and even though they do not expect donations, they are greatly appreciated as they help them to keep on sailing into the future.
Sea Valor and Arunay Foundation Sneaker Wave Safety Campaign are another part of the Sea Valor family mission. The two groups are trying to eliminate a growing problem of people being swept out to sea by “sneaker waves” on Northern California beaches. Recently, the number of people who have drowned in the Bay Area region has begun to rise, most of which Sea Valor and Arunay Foundation believe could have been prevented if people were educated. The Arunay Foundation was started by the family of a 12-year-old, Arunay after he was swept out to sea by a sneaker wave. Sea Valor partnered with Arunay’s family as the Sea Valor crew worked closely in the search for Arunay. The number of people swept into the ocean from Nov. 2020 to Jan. 2021 was 12 and only four survived. The teams are working on installing life rings and proper signage at beaches along the coast to assist witnesses in recovery efforts. Sea Valor also works with local schools and youth programs to educate kids about the risks of turning your back to the ocean. These stations cost an average of $750.00, and are funded solely by donations as well.
Sea Valor is only one of many nonprofits throughout the Bay Area and has been a starting point for many people to get out on the SF Bay. As a retired sailing instructor, I have taught over 1000 kids and each of them had a different experience. Some went on to sail in college and some quit sailing only to come back to it as an adult. The people that get to experience Sea Valor are in for a treat, as the work that the crew does to ensure that everyone leaves smiling is impeccable. If you want to learn how to drive, just ask and one of the crewmembers will step up and assist you on learning the ropes. The feel of the sea air against your face is one that Sea Valor is always willing to deliver on. For a moment in time if you are a first responder for example, you do not have to worry about responding to a 911 call or think about going into the job that stresses you out. This is what they are all about.
The most memorable part of the work that Jones has put into Sea Valor is watching the stress that people carry with them wash away for a day and spend time with their loved ones. His most memorable rescue out in the SF Bay has to be a rescue that happened during Fleet Week 2019, when a retired West Point graduate who had witnessed her roommate hang herself and was severed as a Mortuary Affairs team member in Afghanistan where her convoy was hit by a roadside bomb, causing her to go legally blind, joined them for a sail. Sea Valor was heading back under the Golden Gate around sunset when they heard a kite boarder’s kite pop, in the process of him being swept out to sea. The crew noticed that the boarder was not able to make his way to shore and they turned the boat around to render assistance. The West Point graduate was the first to reach out and assist as the kite boarder was already experiencing hypothermia. Jones brought up that this is similar to what another visitor experienced with them, only he was suffering from survivor’s guilt as he was a survivor of the Las Vegas shooting. When he experienced the feeling of rescuing a life out of the frigid waters of the Bay, he felt like he saved a life, something he did not feel like he did during the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival. The total number of rescues as of this writing by Sea Valor is six kite boarders, three windsurfers and one distressed motorboat. Jones expresses that to be a part of a rescue of another life makes it all worth it, and the crewmembers that he has working with him agree.
I can write more detail about my time with Jones and the Sea Valor family, but it will not do the experience any justice. I can use words like exhilarating and cultural about the experience, but learning about others suffering from the loneliness that one feels after a traumatic experience was eye opening. Some examples are being on the front lines of battling the COVID pandemic, dealing with rioters causing havoc in your city or being a survivor of cancer at the young age of 26. Jones invited me back for future sails. Not as a passenger, but as part of the Sea Valor family. If I took anything away from this time with Sea Valor, it is that everyone has a story. Sometimes they will share it with you, but never feel like you are alone in this world as everyone has experienced a form of trauma in their life. Jones stated that letters written by guests taken out is not expected, but stresses that each of those received has more than justified the mission of Sea Valor’s cause and purpose. Of the handful of letters he has received out of the 1,600 guests to date, I add my own personal thank you to not only Jones but the people that work with him to make Sea Valor the success it is today and will continue to be. Not only thanking him for the experience, but altering my life and other’s lives for the greater good.
Please join in the support of helping individuals suffering from the silent killer called PTSD as about 7% of people will experience it in their lifetime. If you know someone that could benefit from an escape, please reach out to Eric Jones at Seavalor.org. It is worth it. You can visit them at their new Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) research center on the USS Hornet as well. Sea Valor tries to take groups out every weekend, but depending on weather and demand of course.
I hope you have enjoyed my first two months here at Bay & Delta Yachtsman as I am looking forward to bringing my take on the Bay to you for many months to come. Should you wish to contact me regarding your interests or comments, please feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
I would enjoy hearing from you if you have a story or information you wish to pass along. Contact me at email@example.com.