Wheelchair rugby, ability cycling, adventure sports: Roch Rochester has plenty of thrills in his life. But what the 58-year-old veteran really loves is to grab a moment of calm out on the water.
A spinal cord injury means Roch uses a wheelchair, but thanks to Plymouth Youth Sailing Club, he’s a regular in a boat.
“Sport’s always been in my blood and I used to sail in the military,” says Roch, 58.
“I have a real passion for sailing, but I couldn’t afford to do it because I’m on benefits. So I’m ever so grateful to Plymouth Youth Sailing Club for getting me out.”
Although the sailing club was originally formed to help young people get out on to the waters of Plymouth Sound, a project funded by money raised through The Health Lottery is helping to make water sports inclusive for veterans and those with disabilities.
It helped Roch, who served in Northern Ireland, when he needed it most.
His ongoing pain was originally written off as an old parachute injury, but he later found out he’d broken his neck. Becoming more unstable on his legs, Roch decided it was safer to use a wheelchair, but as he was used to being so active his mental health suffered.
“Go back a few years when I wasn’t very mobile and all of a sudden my world got smaller,” he recalls.
“I didn’t want to go out and I was really struggling. Being an active person, that’s like putting a tiger in a cage.
"Having a world of adventure in your mind and not being able to live that is terrible. I struggled to come to terms with it.”
Finding Plymouth Youth Sailing Club helped him rebuild his life – and his next step is to train as an instructor, which is a far cry from those dark days.
“I love sailing, but I wasn’t sure how I’d get in a boat because you can’t just park your wheelchair on the slipway. Putting toes in the water and getting some of the other veterans along was great,” says Roch.
“When I finish sailing on a Sunday afternoon, my muscles tell me I’ve had a heavy day. But it’s a good pain and I’ve learned the benefits of getting back out there.
"Sailing is about working with the elements and concentrating on that. It hits you on so many levels. On a boat, it can be blowing a hooley, but in my mind I’m calm again.
“I’ve had a lifetime of sport and my injuries took that away from me. I believed the narrative that I was broken and couldn’t do it anymore.
"Once you start to believe that, it takes your heart and soul away. But now I do cycling, sailing and wheelchair rugby.”
Roch isn’t the only one who’s benefitted from getting out on the water with Plymouth Sailing Club, as project leader Adrian Kemp has seen.
“One of the key features is the stress reduction,” says Adrian.
“Roch was a very active person in the military and he needs to have that adrenaline buzz and something to look forward to. With our support, he’s realised he can do some of the things he thought he’d never do again.
“Another veteran who sails has very bad Tourette’s and he’s got a significant twitch and gets upset quite easily, but once he gets on the water and has a different challenge it goes away completely.
"That’s quite a dynamic change and we see it every day.”
Other people, with more hidden disabilities also access the activities, which support their mental health and well-being as well as allowing them to socialise.
"Being out on Plymouth Sound, in the National Marine Park, has provided a very positive experience for them all.
"This project is possible thanks to funding raised through The Health Lottery, which provides additional training for volunteers and the costs of running the boathouse, which recently went up by 11 per cent.
“Without the help of those people who buy The Health Lottery tickets, we wouldn’t be able to offer this holistic package of support to those in need in the community,” says Adrian.
“Sailing may be the activity, but it’s the vehicle to engage with a much wider level of social support. Thank you for your continued support for those most in need in our community.”
What that’s done for Roch is priceless.
“I’m not giving up,” he says. “If you give in, you don’t go forward. It’s important that we portray there is light at the end of the tunnel for any ability.”
Plymouth Youth Sailing Club Factfile
Plymouth Youth Sailing Club: More Than Just Sailing! project
Two-year project for people with disabilities in Plymouth who find it difficult to engage in physical or social activity
Reducing social isolation and improving mental health for participants
Twice weekly sessions offering a range of accessible sailing-related activities including time for socialising, to enable participation in an activity which is a large part of cultural life in Plymouth
£39,640 grant funded through The Health Lottery