Operation “Sailing Angel”

Will drives LIQUIDITY on the Potomac River

Will drives LIQUIDITY on the Potomac River

The morning of Wednesday, October 23, 2013 saw the dream of a young Iraq vet come into reality. That day, Will Williamson, a 25-year-old soldier who is battling his second round of leukemia, stepped aboard the beautiful Beneteau 49, LIQUIDITY, for his first sailing lesson.

Will had eagerly completed the “homework” that I had given him during my brief visit to see him while he was in treatment at the National Institutes of Health in early September. Within a few days of our meeting, Will reported that he had read both issues of SAIL magazine “cover to cover,” reviewed the parts of the boat, points of sail and the basic knots–which he practiced using the piece of small stuff that I gave him with the reading materials.

Chemotherapy treatments exhaust both body and mind, so it was about six weeks between our visit and my receiving the notification that the young soldier’s health had stabilized and he had medical clearance to start living his dream.

As Will’s “sailing angel,” it was my pleasure to make things happen. Quick action by phone, email and Facebook had everything lined up in just over a week: boat, skipper, crew, lunch, travel plan, and permission to take time off of work. Details fell together with ease. The weather even cooperated, with the rain dissipating and a decent wind coming in its place.

Escorting Will from Bethesda was Pete Ahearn, a Transition Officer and soldiers’ advocate at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. They met me at my house, where I presented Will with two more copies of SAIL magazine, a 2013 Leukemia Cup t-shirt and hat courtesy of Team PIXIE DUST—with which I had crewed for that race—and a wooden sailboat model that my mother had sent from California.

The three of us met our hosts Sean and Nicole and boarded LIQUIDITY at about 1000 hrs. Sean gave the safety talk, everyone helped Nicole bring aboard her bountiful meal fixings, and we were off. As he drove the boat out onto the river, Sean gave instruction on reading the Windex and using the winch. Nicole took the helm while Sean showed Will how to unfurl the sails. After learning a bit more sailing theory, Will put his hands on the wheel of a sailboat for the first time. “It was wonderful seeing the pleasure on Will’s face as he took the helm,” said Nicole later that day. Will paid rapt attention to instructions, and Sean observed that Will “had a natural knack for it so the ‘teaching’ part was easy.”

Will drove the boat for most of the 4-½-hour sail, during which he learned about wind, telltales, reading the Windex, handling sheets, sail trim, grinding, right-of-way, judging distance of oncoming vessels, and much more. “It was so cool to see when he could feel the boat,” said Pete, “to see that he got it.” The young vet dreams of being a tugboat captain, but while at the helm of LIQUIDITY, he was heard to say, “Maybe I should forget about tugboats and just sail.”

Will also enjoyed a fine lunch under sail. When asked about his food preferences in advance, the young soldier had said, “I am a big fan of ham and cheese sandwiches.” So, as is her style, Nicole put out a ham-and-cheese extravaganza, with various types of cheese, ham, turkey breast, roast beef, a variety of chips, veggies, three kinds of bread, and every kind of sandwich fixings.

The storm front that ended the sail.

The storm front that ended the sail.

Nicole and Pete departed via the marina dinghy mid-afternoon, then Sean, Will and I kept sailing. After another hour or so, Sean called the sail due to bad spots on the weather radar and a heavy-looking front closing in on the river. When the boat was back in her berth and ready to be closed up, Will and I said goodbye to Sean, and I treated the soldier to dinner at the Wegmans food bar—where we ran into my old sailing chum, Alex, who had wanted to meet Will.

Traffic on the drive back to Bethesda was typical rush hour stop-and-go. Will was rather quiet, so I turned on some music. When the sailing song queued on the Celtic fusion CD, I turned it up loud. As the song ended, I turned to Will, to gauge how he liked it, and saw that the poor exhausted guy had fallen dead asleep. After about 20-minutes, though, he was awake again and helping me find the easiest way back to the barracks. Will hugged me goodbye, thanked me and said he hoped to see me again soon. According to Pete’s report the next morning, Will “was up ‘til midnight, telling everyone” about his day, about his dream come true. “They said they had never seen him smile like that,” said Pete.

As I was talking to Pete over the phone, he saw Will in the area and handed the phone to him. “How are you this morning?” I asked Will. “I am pretty fantastic! How are you?” The normally soft spoken young man replied in an enthusiastic lilt. Will and I chatted for a while, talking of sailing, of that day his dream came true, about other sailing dreams to come true ahead—and some that were just pure fun to imagine.

Pete said that Will’s sailing day was “the best of days” and that “it left me speechless.” He was not just referring to sailing. Rather, he was talking about the whole atmosphere, the sense of love and wonder and magic that we shared. “We all discovered new depths to the love within our hearts and shared it with one another,” Pete reflected. “Every one of us on that beautiful boat had to be who we are to one another to give Will the best of days. It was not only our friend Will, but God’s will that brought us together,” he stated.

Nicole said that her experience of the day “gave me a renewed appreciation of all the wonderful people and privileges I enjoy in my daily life.” She said that she and Sean “would be delighted to take Will out sailing again and be available for any other serviceman/woman who would be interested in going out on our boat.” Pete was glad to hear this, since he is starting a non-profit to match up service men and women with people who can help them live their dreams.

Exactly a month later, on November 23, Will went out for a day sail aboard the Catalina 309, MUSIC MAKER, with Charlie Hazard, Charlie’s friend Steve Sokoly, and Pete Ahearn. Charlie reported that “we had a real nice breeze, 10-12 knots out of the North,” so, they beat upwind to Mattawoman Creek and then turned back toward Quantico. Charlie talked to Will about points of sail and explained the boat layout. The four men also shared sea stories, which, according to Charlie, “as you would expect from sailors a few were probably exaggerated.” Pete, a very humorous fellow, shared his own funny stories with the group. Like Sean before him, Charlie found that “Will did a great job driving the boat and seems to be a natural sailor.”

Next up for Will is a trip to Tidewater, to meet Capt. Steve Briggs and pilot NORFOLK REBEL, the world’s only “Tugantine” (sail-assisted tugboat). Stay tuned for new Operation Sailing Angel stories. There is more sailing ahead!

Find more photos of Will’s first sail on my Flickr album, Will’s Dream Come True.

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