“What do I have to offer? What could I do?” These are the questions Lee Price asked himself after reading the book “Invisible Scars” by Bart Billings. The book, first published in 2015, takes a look at the medical care some of our veterans receive after returning home from their time of service and explains how some of the shortcomings of these systems contribute to the alarming suicide rates among veterans. “It was enlightening, but troubling,” Price says of the book. According to the Billings book, there are 22 veteran suicides a day, and Price says that is actually a low estimate. “Not all states are required to report veteran suicides,” he said, “and when you couple the pandemic with it, it’s increasing.” So, what could Price offer? What did he decide to do about it? He decided he would launch a sailing program. West Michigan SAIL (Service members Adapting Interacting Living) is a nonprofit that is meant to “provide our veterans experiencing PTSD, traumatic brain injury, physical handicaps, depression and other health and life challenges with a team focused, nature inspired, confidence building sailing program.” The program will accept veterans from a seven-county area around Pentwater. Those counties include Lake, Mason, Mecosta, Muskegon, Newaygo, Oceana and Osceola. Between them there are 26,000 veterans, according to Price, “and out of them there are about 6,000 that are considered unique patients.” The goal is to accept groups of about three or four veterans from within the same county, put them together, and give them sailing classes. “Once they complete our course they’ll be able to come back with that same unit and sign out a sailboat any afternoon that it’s available, but they have to be with that same unit, to keep that camaraderie going. And that will be at no cost,” Price said. “We’re never going to charge the veterans.” The camaraderie is important to Price. He recognizes that many veterans have built a strong sense of camaraderie during their time in the service, and yet their lives may become increasingly isolated upon returning home. “And that right there,” he adds, “That’s the key point. We’re gonna build that camaraderie they had.” Price, himself, has been sailing since his college days. “I started out without a plan,” he admitted. “I didn’t plan to get into sailing.” In the spring of 1970, Price was a freshman at Hope College in Holland, working part-time jobs to get by, “and a part of that, with Holland being a Harbor town,” he said, “was sanding and painting the bottoms of boats and getting them ready to launch.” One of the boats that he worked on belonged to his Geology professor, Dr. Cotter Tharin. “The day we finished his boat, and it was ready to be launched,” Price said, “he asked if I was busy that afternoon.” Price of course said he wasn’t and that ended up being the first day in his life that he ever steered a sailboat. “So, I’m steering a boat for the first time in my life out the channel from Macatawa Bay into Lake Michigan. Dr. Tharin’s putting the sails up and I feel it catching the wind, and he showed me the basics to steer the boat according to the wind. And once we turned the motor off, it was quiet, you hear the waves on the hull. That was it. I’ve been hooked ever since.” In the years that followed, Price would continue sailing with Dr. Tharin and other sailors before finally buying his own boat after graduating from undergrad school and moving to Ohio. This is when he got into sailboat races. “I raced a little bit down there with a young kid,” Price said. “He must have been 15 or 16, but he was a good little sailor. I learned a lot in my first races with him.” Price moved back to Michigan in September of 1980 and met Bill Bluhm. Bluhm hired Price to work at the intermediate school district, but more importantly, “he was skippering The Northern Light,” Price said. Price ended up doing his first Mackinac race aboard The Northern Light. “Both Mackinac races, in Chicago and Port Huron,” he clarified. These days, Price seems to feel that he has gotten all that he can get out of racing and is now looking for other ways to share his love of sailing with other people. “Racing, it was great, I loved it,” he said. “I’ve done 27 Chicago Macks or something, I’ve done I think about 18 Port Huron Macks, but now I’m wanting to get other people turned on to sailing. And if they aren’t into that, we’ll help them find something else they can be passionate about. Maybe it’s sport fishing, or kayaking, or fly fishing or something. We’ll build the relationships with them, get to know the veterans and help them find something they’re passionate about as a unit of three or four.” Price’s first job in Ohio after graduating from college was to set up a mental health clinic, and the work he did for the school district after being hired by Bluhm had to do with affective education, which helps children to better understand their emotions and their behaviors. Not only that, but his father was a veteran. “He was a tank commander and fought in the Battle of the Bulge,” Price said. “He was wounded three times, and they patched him up, and sent him back out.”
All of that combined with his years of sailing experience almost makes him seem uniquely equipped to be the one to bring the West Michigan SAIL program to fruition, and he seems to think so too. “I think of my life as a puzzle” he said. “There are puzzle pieces that I’ve been turning over as I’ve grown old,” he laughed, “and the puzzle is starting to take shape so I can see what it looks like.” West Michigan SAIL currently has five sailboats, all of which were donated, including a handicap accessible boat named Challenge. Challenge was constructed by the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville, Mich. It has joystick controls and what Price calls “sip and puff” controls, “like wheelchairs for people who are paralyzed from mid-back down,” Price said. “We’ve fallen in love with this boat,” he added. “So what we’re trying to do now is get a dock that’s permanent, to mount a lift on it, so we can get handicapped people on and off the boat safely with that lift.” Lee’s excitement is palpable when he talks about this boat, and the fact that they were even able to acquire such a unique, and perfectly suited craft seems nothing short of a miracle. Challenge was apparently constructed by The Great Lakes Boat Building School for a different organization which eventually disbanded and returned the boat. After that it sat behind the school for years, covered in plastic wrap, until one of West Michigan SAIL’s board members got involved with the school. Once they heard what the program was all about, the president offered them the boat. “How does that happen?” Price exclaimed, “I couldn’t make all that happen!” A look at the website for West Michigan SAIL (wmsail.com) shows a three-phase program for sailing courses spanning three years. The first course opens this summer and will offer basic keelboat training. In 2022, they will offer a basic cruising course and by 2023 there will be an advanced sailing course available. They are also aiming to have all their sailing instructors certified by US Sailing, “the gold standard in sailing instruction,” as Price put it. Price, himself, has actually already spent two years teaching sailing courses on Captiva Island in Florida. But West Michigan SAIL won’t only offer these courses to veterans. To help fund their programs to aid veterans, they will offer basic keelboat courses to the general public, as well as day cruises and sunset cruises. Currently, Patti Cattanach, one of the West Michigan SAIL board members, is preparing the veteran outreach program and setting up online applications. The whole program is meticulously thought out. “The thing that we need to make sure of,” Price said, “is that we don’t set them up for a situation that will trigger an episode.” He mentioned how they are working with a program called PsychArmor to achieve this. “They’re really helping us to get to know the culture of the veteran world,” he said. “It’s a different culture. When they’ve been in the military and survived together because of each other, we need to learn about all that stuff.” Price said they are also planning to have “Women’s Weeks” in order that they can provide a safe space for female veterans that are victims of military sexual assault. “It’ll be only women in the program, only women instructors and only women in support roles,” Price explained. The current goal for Price and the program is to have their first group of veterans on June 7, one full week after Memorial Day. They are also aiming to have two boats in the water by Memorial Day, and plan to generate funds by offering public charters. But Price calls himself the “visionary” of the program, and his vision doesn’t stop with five boats in Pentwater’s harbor. He would also like to expand to other harbors, such as Muskegon, Holland and Frankfort, and each harbor would accept veterans from another seven-county area. “That’ll basically take care of half of the state of Michigan almost,” he said. Not only that, but Price would like to offer a larger range of boats, such as 44-foot liveaboard sailboats. “So, there’s breadth and depth in the program plan,” he said, and then, sounding almost like a kid in a candy shop he added, “but the ultimate goal is to get a schooner, and I’ve got my eye on a 77-footer.” There is good reason for this too. “To continually build on their experience,” Price explained, “so they don’t ever hit an impasse and say, ‘whelp, can’t do anymore with this program.’” On the surface, aiding veterans suffering from PTSD through sailing almost seems to come out of left field, but once it is explained it makes perfect sense, and once you speak with Lee Price, its success feels guaranteed. Price is an extremely friendly, outgoing, and caring individual, but on top of that, he is incredibly knowledgeable and willing to do what it takes to help our veterans. He has put together an impressive board of directors to bring this idea to fruition, with four of them being veterans themselves, and they left no stone unturned when contemplating the logistics of this massive project. If Price’s experiences as a sailing captain can be used to reflect his skills as the president of West Michigan SAIL, then it is certain to be a resounding success.