'There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats' - The Wind in the Willows
Like many, there have been more than a few times I have been a little ‘worse for wear’ aboard Broadland Grebe, but not always due to the ever-warm hospitality of owners, Neil Spencer and Natalie West and their seemingly bottomless beer fridge.
Often, I am drawn to them as allies of life and as the winds picked up and my mental health flew a little close to the edge, I would find myself subtly drawn to the river to see out the storm amongst comrades who simply understood. Sometimes, that was all I needed.
I am a paramedic and one of the many ambulance staff who must balance our moral obligations and the subsequent stressors with a job that fundamentally gives me a proud purpose on this planet.
As I have discovered, this balance at times, cannot be maintained… alone. So, one night aboard ‘Grebe, after a few too many ‘Ribenas’ we began creating a plan to share the therapeutic power of wooden boats, the river and its community with our peers and the wider ambulance service. Ernest Hemingway was once quoted as saying “always do sober, what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” We followed that advice, The Ithaca Project was born, and it quickly grew into the 100% non-profit, community interest company: Circus Head.
Some of you may remember me and my peers giving away coffee and teaching CPR at last year’s show as we began building our base. Suffice to say, whilst still in its infancy a lot has changed in the past twelve months. Since formally registering as a social enterprise, we have bought a 1970s Bedford ex-ambulance and are in the process of restoring her to her former glory with the back fitted out to serve specialty coffee.
With the help of our loyal volunteers, we have provided free paramedic led first aid training, served coffee, and engaged with the community at events throughout 2022. All to fundraise and facilitate well-being and respite projects for our local ambulance staff, whose mental resilience has been tested for far too long.
Why Boats Are At Are Core....
Our main project centres around skippered respite and decompression cruises for clinicians at risk of burnout or a mental health crisis aboard Broadland Grebe, through the kindness of her owners, Neil and Natalie. Natalie also happens to be on our board of directors.
Last year at the Beccles Wooden Boat show, two further boats came into the mix, when boat owners Andy Hood and Andrew Griffin offered to skipper struggling ambulance personnel upon Lovejoy and Bollysnigh of Oakwood respectively.
Offers like these form the backbone of our vision and after some pilot cruises we have had overwhelmingly positive feedback. This strengthening of the connection between the ambulance staff and the community they serve has been a joy to watch.
Helping With Mental Health
Mental health is a daunting and unforgiving beast that will require a million arrows before it even stumbles.
At first glance, these projects might appear to be symptom management and a minor reprieve in the face of a seemingly overwhelming onslaught. Please take it from me, that the simple act of welcoming a person onto your boat and showing them the river can have a profound effect.
Replacing our insomniac shift patterns, perpetually busy, neon lit workplace with peace, distance, nature, and connection can sometimes be a catalyst for change. It certainly was for me and has helped keep me alive long enough to report back and throw my hat in the ring. This past year we have been overwhelmed with the support of our project and the Norfolk Broads community.
I have personally been looking forward to returning to this year’s boat show; myself and my team will proudly be there serving coffee, teaching, and talking the ears off anyone who dares approach! You work with what you have, and there is a lot that is beyond our control.
Ultimately, in the face of rising ambulance mental health crises and suicides, what we have – if nothing else – is each other, the community and a sacred little haven called the Norfolk Broads.