Setting sail again after brain injury

An acquired brain injury (ABI) is an injury to the brain that is not hereditary, congenital, degenerative, or induced by birth trauma. Essentially, this type of brain injury is one that has occurred after birth. The injury results in a change to the brain’s neuronal activity, which affects the physical integrity, metabolic activity, or functional ability of nerve cells in the brain. 

There are two types of acquired brain injury: traumatic and non-traumatic.

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is defined as an alteration in brain function, or other evidence of brain pathology, caused by an external force. 

Often referred to as an acquired brain injury, a non-traumatic brain injury causes damage to the brain by internal factors, such as a lack of oxygen, exposure to toxins, pressure from a tumor, etc.

Some people can successfully recover without consequences while others can gain both mental and physical disabilities. Main effects of ABI can be a change in personality, changing social roles, decreased life satisfaction and changes in motor and cognitive abilities. 

Sports tourism is gaining more popularity and every day there are new studies on the positive effects of participation in sport on people with a disability. These effects can differ from increasing self-confidence, social mobility and body image. Volunteers, as well as technological improvements, are the key to making sports tourism more accessible and available for people with a disability.

Studies about physical activity after brain injury

Based on several studies an increase in physical abilities reinforces a positive body image as well as creates more independence. It is the atmosphere of the holiday that is making people realise they are capable of performing certain tasks. So rather than an increase in abilities leading to more independence and a better body image, it is an increase in self- esteem that makes people less dependent on help and feel more positive towards their body. 

The first-time visitors are always excited about taking the first holidays independently after their acquired brain injury; the participants are not used to using their ‘new’ bodies in an environment like this. They appreciate the freedom that the professionals and volunteers give them to act independently, knowing they are there to help when and where necessary. We can consider the sailing boat to be the controlled environment most scientists ask for in the studies. It seems true that a holiday in such a controlled setting is a nice start to discovering what is still possible after an ABI. The biggest difference between the group first-time visitors and the repeat visitors lies in the new experience: while repeat visitors are used to the boat and already know what is possible and what is not, the ‘newbies’ recognize the motivation of becoming independent and learning more about this.

Sailing process

When someone does something outside of their comfort zone and has a great experience, their self-confidence increases and carries over to other areas in life. Part of the process of sailing is to problem solve and eliminate barriers which can be easily translated to their lives at home.

That process ignites creativity as participants think of other activities they want to do and discover ways to safely reach their goals.

Once everyone is in the boats they are all sailing. No longer does anyone see limiting physical conditions but big smiles on everyone’s faces as they learn to read the winds and trim the sails. 

Gil Strohheker

One of the best examples of that is Gil Strohheker, Swiss traveler who spent most of his days at sea, sailing. He got in a bad accident while driving his bicycle to his friend’s house and it was unclear will he even survive. When he woke up after his accident he had some difficulties but his doctor was impressed with Strohheker’s discipline, simple living and ability to ride or walk immense distances without sleep which he got from sailing all over the world. That is why his doctor decided to go with him on his first sailing trip after the accident. The doctor, who is a neurologist, intends to come to Canada to sail with Strohheker back across the Atlantic.

He said that it was the only way he could have a clinical eye on him and it is going to be a kind of rehab because he will be able to sleep – which when you’re going solo you are not able to do. And although still not in very good shape, Gil has a lot of knowledge. He can teach anyone how to sail.

Through that voyage, they will learn together where Strohheker’s limits now lay and whether his life of adventure can continue.

Asked aboard the cabin of his boat what a bad verdict from his friend the doctor would mean to him, Strohheker put a finger to his lips and said, “Shhhhh. Of this, we do not talk. I would rather the white bears had got me.”

Finding a solution 

There are numerous sailing courses for people with brain injuries and there are a lot of studies on that subject. Most people agree that they are in better shape after sailing because of the freedom it gives them. In the moment they do not think of their disabilities, but rather on finding a solution to the problem at hand. They can translate that positive feedback on their lives back at home. They become more self-assured and the body image changes when they do things they didn’t think were possible beforehand. 


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