I can’t help but think that Sarah-Jane Coombes and Del Christie are the most selfless duo I’ve ever met. It’s 10am when we sit down to discuss the club they founded, Blue Therapy Active, and they’ve already spent the morning saving lives at sea.
Operating in Southend-on-Sea – one of the busiest coast guards in the country – Sarah-Jane, senior coastal operations officer, and Del, acting station officer, established Blue Therapy Active in 2017. Born out of their joint love of paddleboarding and passion for the water, what started as a small community of 300 paddlers in 2019 has impressively grown to over 1,500 participants by 2020. The club now have 3284 participants.
“By the middle of 2020, everyone was [starting] to enjoy the benefits of getting on the water, partly because of Covid-19.” Sarah-Jane explains. “There was a cry out for help.”
“Sarah responded to a lot of people and paddled with them to help them with their mental health,” Del adds.
“We discovered people are just such social creatures. They needed to be around other people and because that was not allowed, they just needed something to focus on.” Sarah used the neighbourhood information sharing app Nextdoor to form a community of local paddleboarders, at a time when a maximum of 30 people could come together. “We started organising social paddles,” Sarah, who completed a paddleboarding instructors course in 2017, says. “And then the community just started to grow tremendously.”
Sarah-Jane won British Canoeing’s Lockdown Hero Award as a result of her commitment to improving her community’s mental health in 2020.
At their ethos, Blue Therapy Active champions people getting on the water and experiencing the benefits of the water. “We make sure every person feels important and safe. It’s all about each individual,” Del stresses.
From stand up paddleboarding to kayaking, cycling to cold water therapy, Blue Therapy Active have been able to expand in activities and resources thanks to a grant of £5000 from Active Thames. The initiative led by Port of London Authority aims to improve the diversity and inclusivity of watersports on the Thames and promote the benefits to mental and physical health and wellbeing.
The club have bought sit-on-top sea kayaks, paddles and safety equipment in an effort to be a mixed-craft club and “create the best of both worlds” as Del says. Members of all abilities – and in particular those who may find being on their knees or feet on a stand up paddleboard uncomfortable – can choose their preferred sport. The club have also funded and supported nine people to start their journey to becoming qualified instructors.
As a British Canoeing #ShePaddles Champion, Sarah-Jane is fiercely passionate about getting more women into paddle sports. She’s proud to say that Blue Therapy Active is one of few clubs that have more female participants than male. Once a month, she runs a ladies-only paddle that’s open to all abilities. “It’s a gentle paddle,” she says. “There’s no pressure on anyone and a lot of friendships have been made. And there’s lots of cake. Always cake and coffee!”
Del adds: “We have ladies that have come out of marriages, for example, and have lost all of their confidence. For them, it’s time to go out with some other ladies and confide in them. There’s no pressure of other men around them, which is especially important when you can feel quite raw and are trying to find your feet.”
In particular, the co-owners say many doctors have prescribed blue therapy as a way to cope with grief and depression.
Following Thames Ditton Paddleboarding Club, Blue Therapy Active is the second location to host AquaPaddle – a free-of-charge timed 5km paddle for all abilities and paddle sports, in the aim to help wellbeing.
Both clubs have the same values: maximising the benefits of the water for mental health. “It’s a really lovely way of bringing the community together and everyone is looking out for each other,” Sarah-Jane says. “It’s not a race at all, and everyone perseveres together.”
“And that’s the really big thing,” Del chimes in, “it’s [all about] the community, the camaraderie, team spirit and mental health. We’ve got so many volunteers too which has been fantastic. There’s more than enough cover on land and on the water.”
And what does the future look like for this action-packed club?
It’s clear to say there will be more sessions, an increase in overnight trips, camping and campfires, and even packrafting.
“For us at Blue Therapy, we try not to stop because people can slip backwards. They need to, in my opinion, still have that opportunity to meet with others and keep active, and keep your mind active as well,” Sarah-Jane explains.
“Blue Therapy Active has always been our dream,” Del smiles, “but Sarah-Jane has always said and still says it now: let’s make it about them, the members. It’s always going to be about them.”
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