Life Invigorated with Oceans of Hope

By Jana Soeldner Danger

DSC_0561-1Life is not about what you can’t do, or what you might not be able to do tomorrow.  It’s about everything you can do today, and discovering what it is. Dr. Mikkel Anthonisen drives that philosophy home to multiple sclerosis patients in a unique way. He’s the founder of the Sailing Sclerosis Foundation, an organization that offers individuals with MS the opportunity to be part of an around-the-world voyage aboard a 67-foot sailboat. It is the first-ever circumnavigation of the world by a crew made up almost entirely of patients with MS, a debilitating disease that strikes young adults in the prime of their lives. The illness is unpredictable, and effects can range from minor to almost complete disability.

Inspiration for the project came to Anthonisen, a medical doctor, psychotherapist and avid sailor, when he was confronted by
a patient who had dreamed all his life about sailing around the world. “He had spent 10 years building his own boat,” Anthonisen recalls. “The diagnosis shattered his dreams, and it was unbearable to see him like that. I told him he had to go sailing again.”
To help make that happen, Anthonisen started a small sailing program in Denmark for MS patients. People began to realize their MS didn’t mean they had to stop doing something they loved. “It’s just a matter of doing it a bit differently,” he said. When the idea for a round-the-world voyage came to him, he found a sponsor in Biogen Idec and discovered an appropriate vessel in Spain: a steel-hulled yacht built in 1996 for the BT Global Challenge. He rechristened it Oceans of Hope.

The yacht left Copenhagen last June, crossed the Atlantic to Boston and is visiting 20 ports around the world. There is a permanent crew of three, and when the boat is out of helicopter range, a doctor is on board. MS patients stay for two to four weeks and participate in sailing the boat, planning supplies, cooking meals and cleaning. In December, the boat docked in Fort Lauderdale before setting sail for the Panama Canal, the Galapagos, French Polynesia, New Zealand, South Africa, and back to Europe. “It’s a test of personal courage,” says Jules Kuperberg, co-executive director of the
Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. “The project raises awareness and gets people out of their comfort zones.”

Patients often feel depression when they are diagnosed, Anthonisen says. “They feel disconnected from life. Sailing helps them recapture the identities that MS took away so they can say, ‘I can still do remarkable things.’ It’s a journey of empowerment.”
Vermonter Christina Lamb had been an avid sailor, but stopped after her diagnosis. A month aboard Oceans of Hope showed her what she was still capable of.  “I needed to prove that MS wasn’t going to define me,” she said.

To qualify, an individual must speak English and have some sailing experience. But not all that much. Anthonisen mostly wants to be sure he or she can handle living with other people in cramped quarters aboard a vessel at sea. “I tell them to go out for an afternoon and see what it’s like,” he said.

Everyone is, literally, in the same boat. “When the nearest land is days away and waves are rising, everyone feels vulnerable, whether they have MS or not,” Anthonisen says.“MS becomes something they deal with, but it’s not in charge anymore.”

Londoner Nicola Kaufman’s illness forced her to retire from her office job at the age of 38. “I lost confidence,” she says. “I was wondering what the future would hold for me.” Kaufman joined the Oceans of Hope crew in Portsmouth. One of her most vivid memories was on night watch.  “The boat was heeling over on its side. It was challenging, but also quite wonderful. I discovered I can still work together with others and achieve great things.”

The voyage teaches an important truth for everyone, Anthonisen says. “We’re all vulnerable. You never know what tomorrow will bring, and it takes courage and strength to live your life today.”

Life Invigorated with Oceans of Hope