25 Aug 2022

Tessa Kingston Adventure Therapist and Operations Manager with Sailing into Wellness

We recently chatted to Tessa Kingston who is an Adventure Therapist and operations manager with Sailing into Wellness who looks to provide a healthy natural solution for communities to look after their physical and mental well-being.

Here’s the full interview

Thanks for joining me today Tessa. Tell us a bit about your own background?

I am from Kinsale in Cork. And basically, I grew up doing a lot of things by the sea, in the sea in and around nature. And a long story short through the impact it had on me that I went on to realise, really later in my teen years and my 20s, I was really inspired to go study psychology and then on to do the counseling and psychotherapy course in ICHAS, because for me, being outdoors, and being engaged with us and with people in different ways, was what actually has helped me most of my life. So I’m very passionate about doing this type of work, outdoor-based therapeutic work, so to say,


If there’s one thing I kind of noticed when it comes to, especially, from at least the Irish context the outdoors, we tend to if it’s raining, we’re not going out. So how has that evolved?

Well, that’s actually a huge part of the work. So let’s say if we go backward when I was just an outdoor instructor, so to say, you go out in Ireland, in nearly all weather, unless it’s like, dangerously too windy to go sailing, for example, and that teaches people honestly a lot of like resilience and lot of, like, I mean, it’s a cheesy saying, but you can’t change the weather, but you can change your attitude and often you end up having the most fun because you overcome the challenge and you’ve gotten out of your comfort zone, you realize it’s actually great craic. So in general, I find the Irish are really good to sort of go out in all sorts of weather, obviously, when it’s safe and then where my work is now is a more therapeutic outcome. It just allows for so much opportunity for people to like challenge themselves, put themselves out of their comfort zone, realise you might sit inside and look outside at the rain but actually, with that day, you went out with that group and had a bit of a buzz, you were happier, and you actually like pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. So it does allow for a lot of learning opportunities. But that said, there is always a storm that you can’t go out in.


Definitely, it’s like you said, it’s those kinds of experiences that kind of they tend to resonate with people more so than if it’s just like a sunny day, and you just kind of go out and it’s calm

Yeah there’s a huge sense of achievement, you know when you’ve pushed yourself, and it also makes you be more of a dynamic thinker, because we all are out of control in our plan, but the weather always throws that up and it’s a really nice practice ground to be like, Okay, I can’t do Plan A or B, but like maybe instead of going on the water, we can go into the forest and that safe today. It makes you look differently at things.


So how’s the area itself evolved and developed over the last couple of years? Obviously one of the big benefits is, given the restrictions that there were on indoors, this is outdoors.

Yeah COVID actually allowed for some of this outdoor-based work to really thrive when people saw it as a safer option to be outside. But then I suppose my experiences when I had had my transformative experience from being in the outdoors and working in the outdoors, and I really mean it, like it was not a therapeutic setting in the slightest. But it absolutely changed my trajectory and my view of myself and my ability to deal with what life was throwing at me. I went to pursue my studies in psychology and when they allowed us in the University of Limerick at the time to go and Co-Op I was trying to find like, outdoors in psychology, outdoor therapy, anything and there wasn’t much at the time. 

Now, this was between 2012 and 2016 and a few projects cropped up in Ireland, but they were saying you need to go away to America or Canada, where they’re doing something called adventure therapy. So adventure therapy was one of the first terms I saw kind of coined as the work where people are mixing the two worlds and, and I guess learning a little bit about that it was a lot of activity-based and getting out and experiential learning and then I suppose I just fast forwarding it on, I just saw a lot of options where you could use the outdoors when whatever you’re trying to work on indoors isn’t working out. 

So to fast forward to now in Ireland, there still isn’t necessarily an established network of us so to say, but there are some really good established programs and we’re all starting to communicate more and what’s beautiful about it is someone might be actually from a social work background and someone might be from a clinical psychology background and someone might be from, you know, a surf instructor background, but they all have had this switch click in some sort of way and are delivering or facilitating programs across the spectrum like some very much have a therapeutic intention and some very much don’t it’s very experiential, you know, come out surfing and here’s a participant with autism and he’s getting a lot from it. And we’re not know started doing a big intervention. Or it could be the other side of the spectrum that this person is working on something and talk therapy, but they’re actually not comfortable in that environment. Let’s get out and go for a walk. So it’s, it’s really cool that things are happening in Ireland, and we’re starting to communicate and people are connected to people in other countries to say, well, what are you doing? What are you doing? And it’s just, it’s growing. And it’s developing? For sure.

adventure therapist


It sounds almost like for Ireland there’s a blank canvas when it comes to being an adventure therapist like there is no kind of set roadmap. It sounds a lot as well, kind of it’s, it’s kind of combining you’d have the theoretical but you’re also the practical elements of it.

Yeah, I find it does bounce back and forth. And essentially, I’ve been trying to explore this and make my own pathway for like, 10 years now and it’s gone from studying psychology and getting those theories and then it being like go back outside. Okay, go outdoors and let it happen experientially, okay, go back. It’s actually what drove me to do the Masters in ICHAS in Counseling and Psychotherapy because I had been involved in some of the projects, I was really learning a lot, it’s very person-centered, and it’s a very experienced lead. It’s a very safe space and it’s really based on like rapport and experience and hands on learning. But I personally wanted more tools to hold space and facilitate the people that were showing up in front of me and, yes, we had supervision and this and that, but I wanted tools for myself and what I really like is that option now to be in the workplace and you know, I’m still training, I’m still learning and developing, but to see, you know, okay, I’m sailing on a boat. and there’s this group here, and this person has started opening up. And they’re, let’s say, addiction recovery counsellors with us on the boat, and we’re here, and they haven’t opened up like this and we can both hold the space between us and it’s lovely.

They’re getting this chat, and I feel comfortable, I have the tools to hold a safe space. They feel heard, and it’s brilliant and it goes, and maybe you do start getting into something and you work on long-term goals, or maybe you don’t. But I also love how on the flip side, I could be out and days could pass where my mouth is zipped as far as my background in counseling and psychotherapy, because the person just being outdoors alone and facilitated safely, is doing all the learning themselves and they’re getting through their own frustrations, and they’re figuring it out. 

I really liked that you can do both because for me that’s like life, sometimes you need a hand and sometimes you’re doing it on your own in a safe space and I liked that there are options for people to explore.


So that’s a nice segway into the next part which is Sailing into Wellness. For anybody who may have not heard of it before what’s it about, and what’s been the response to it since things started?

What Sailing into Wellness is we are a charity and a not-for-profit, and a social enterprise that is all about wellbeing. But we particularly aim at any groups that just could do with this experience to boost their wellness journey. 

Where it started was specifically with the addiction recovery population, because Colin who started salient wellness had his own background in addiction recovery and his own mental health struggles and through his own story got bought out sailing by another co-worker he met in AA and he had a lot of fear to even step on a boat, it was a lot for him to overcome to trust. Then it just opened up for him and he was so inspired by the experience of just feeling that living that like separation from whatever’s going on at lunch, that he started Sailing into Wellness and the timing for me was so beautiful because they had started trying to run pilots and programs with different addiction recovery centers like the idea was to get people out doing something new while they’re on their journey, you know, they’re in maybe a residential, and to just have a different way of working. 

It has absolutely taken off by joining the team a good few years ago now and at the time, I only had maybe two days on the water a week. But while I’d be in Dublin with addiction recovery groups, I’d be in Cork and we already branched out and it might be a refugee group, it might be a different mental health group and as the word spread, and as we sought more funding, we really made it our mission to just make this opportunity available regardless of any socio-economic barriers. So a lot of our funding is like for marginalized groups and groups that might be left out of the system were groups that weren’t ready to access either health care or an education system because they didn’t actually have the core tools yet. So coming out sailing can be a little bit of a building block, it seems random that it’s sailing, but you’d be surprised how many just life skills you play out and how much you actually overcome personally and in that social context. 

Right now, we work with a range of addiction recovery to adults with intellectual disabilities, like criminal justice system and not in education, employment, and it’s from that person-centered therapeutic approach and we’ll meet you where you’re at, what are your goals, and we make the day work around you to get there and we work with them for at least a month. The bare minimum is a month-long program on smaller boats, and if all goes well with that, then participants come with us on a voyage on a large wooden ship. So then you do overnights, and that brings a whole new level of learning for everyone.

sailing into wellness


So what’s the general feedback been for people who have taken part?

Obviously, I’m a bit biased because being out in the water had such a huge impact on me and that’s where I’ve been charged. It’s where I love, I love the challenge about you, you know, you have to keep the mindset that that doesn’t mean it suits everyone. But what I find is it’s very much challenged by choice and people come in, and there are absolutely people that like waters, not for them, and there’s no forcing to come out. So every say every established support group that we approach, people sign up by choice. 

So the people who definitely know what’s not for them probably don’t show up in front of me anyway. But we definitely get people that are on the fence and they’re like, look, I might just step on the boat today and not go out and I’m like yeah, perfect you showing up this morning might be a big enough step, we were going on within your background, maybe you coming in at the correct time is brilliant. So we’re going to celebrate that. But it’s so amazing, I absolutely love and it’s a very fulfilling work in that way that you meet people scared, nervous, anxious, all the same things you’ll get when you’re about to start something new, meet a new group of people, but then also do something that like, a lot of people have never been on the water.

So it’s huge that day one, but it just comes back to the simple things. It’s the personal connection so we meet the group beforehand, so they at least know a friendly face, send a few pictures and out they come and I just I can’t believe and I’m always really inspired by week four the people who are like because even week one, they’re steering the boat, they’re pulling up the sails, it’s extremely like in here, and the award of empowering your sense of ability, so to say. 

There’s no forcing people don’t have to, they can sit on the boat and look at the horizon and that’s what they needed today, perfect fair choice with the number of people that leave even on day one and say I can’t believe I actually was steering or I can’t believe I was doing this. The first two weeks are usually about just getting to know each other trying something new, you know, meeting people where they’re at. But then you start the real magic in the work is then transferring that back to what they’re working on in their everyday lives, you know, and it’s the same for me, anytime I’m out, I get inspired every single time I go out either from the groups or from the environment, even if it’s as simple as I’ve left my stressors and my problems on land for a couple of hours today, my brain has gotten this different type of regulation, we’ve basically gotten into a mindfulness state like really easily, or it’s been stormy, and I get this adrenaline and these giggles and I get the fight or flight system going. But every day that it happens, it’s just a new perspective.

Then you’re gonna go back to your everyday life. That’s the thing it’s not that we’re escaping what’s going on in our reality, where you think, Okay, today, Mary, you came on you were absolutely really scared, you know, you didn’t trust you’re worried you didn’t think you’re here you go, what did you do today, XY and Z? How does it feel? Whatever it feels, maybe it still feels, you know, uncomfortable for her. But the more and more they get comfortable, the more you can start relating to things back in life, like when you apply that sense of perseverance there to something you’re dealing with in life for can you, and it’s just led by them, but just really nice to see people living at something and maybe making a new identity about themselves on the water to then step back into their stuff in a different way.


Is there any one particular thing from your experience where it’s been the most eye-opening or the most surprising for you?

For myself, it is absolutely the building of my own self-confidence and I think what allows that to build is yes, you’re doing practical hands-on things, and you get that immediate sense of achievement. But you just also have to have that like long-term goal orientation setting because things aren’t gonna work out, you’re not gonna get everything the first time and it just really like empowers you to believe you can do things. You’re talking in front of a group, you’re acting in front of a group, they are also because whoever steering is in the captain role, so to say they’re the skipper at the time. So it’s just really nice to be in that world because often you have your own autonomy, but there’s also a task to do. So it’s a really clear, safe structure, you know what you need to be doing but you have the freedom to play with it and do it your way and again, just then to step back into your everyday life problems being like actually, let me step into the skipper role here again for a minute. So for me, it is the building of confidence 

The other one that’s a close tie is just the connection. I had for years been trying to work on mindfulness & meditation the amount of time someone could have told me you’re such a busy brain. I was too far away, I hadn’t the tools to get to it. But actually going out on the boat, and just zoning out, actually helped me understand what people were meant at that time with mindfulness and meditation. So that was my segue in and it allowed me to be connected to myself because I was connected to the environment, just like watching the waves feeling the wind, and then that allowed me also to be connected to others in a different way. So it’s the connection piece to me to nature and to others that the way it is out there is just magic. It’s just magic and it gives you such belief and trust that you can build that back. Even if your home environment or your work environment is not feeling connected at the time you realize what connection actually feels like.


You can understand why there are hundreds of videos on like the likes of YouTube, or it’s just the sound waves because it’s almost like people can just have that playing in the background. It can just help them tune out and get more focused on their own surroundings.

Yeah, I think that’s why it’s working for people because we’re all looking for that sense of maybe peace or neutrality at certain times. But as I said, it can be hard to step into it if what you know is different, or you’ve never even stepped into that place. So to actually, I suppose, yeah, segue into it a little bit easier. I guess. It’s a form of active meditation, but it’s like, okay, that’s one taste of what it can offer.


Have you any plans or events lined up over the next few months?

Yeah we’re where we are our busiest this year and I’d say the lads made mistakes, but I put it down to like, the people in the background are what really matters. So like, on our team, all of us care to be there, we all have a personal reason to be there and we all want to drive on the program and simply share the experience with whomever it might be appropriate for. 

So every one of us is different and has a different background and different tools. But some on the team are amazing at like getting that funding, getting that recognition, you know, talking to the people up here that like, I know I’m on the ground, I love being with the people, but I need the likes of James and Colin in the background to do some of that work. So between us all, we and then all the others say on the water stuff it’s huge, because that again, that human connection is so important.

We always say with sailing anyone can actually meet people where they’re at, and then journey with them. So we’re our plans now are we currently move every month. So last month, we were in Carlingford Lough and we were delivering programs for the likes, like tourists and The Red Door mostly addiction recovery groups, and also an autism support unit. So that has a whole different look, while it’s on the water. It’s the same setup for weeks in a row out on the water and so right now we move because I guess we’ve grown in being known and the demand. So then we got funding to go to Kerry and Galway, which we’ve never gone for, we’ve always gone to Dublin, Cork, and a bit of Waterford. But now we’ve expanded as well. We were in Limerick earlier in the year. So the idea is we go deliver month-long programs get through to as many groups as possible in that time and if they want to come on the journey of the voyage on we go for a voyage later in the year. So our aim for this year is to just keep doing that we’re booked up. We’re just working on plans for October to be in and around Dublin. 

We were just chatting, we’ll be working with the traveling community and with the Ukrainians which again is a newer population for us because we’re happy to adapt to it and I guess the other big thing is we’ve been working with The Ilen on and off for the last few years and we just kind of really started to think of plans and programs because now we’re fully partnered with it that we can do bigger longer things on that ship because you know yourself from this area of work, it’s about the long term journey. So it’s all well and good to go out and have a couple of days clear the head meet some new people get over the comfort zone. But the long-term journey is what really looking at like the longer-term impact and just to see where participants can go because we’ve had a few that have stayed with the program and it’s amazing like some are becoming instructors and stuff and it’s not that the intention is that they have to be into the sailing or the outdoor stuff. The intention is that they pursue their goals but it’s amazing to see some of them are now going to be working for us who were on our program last year and it’s just the long term, we’re looking at longer-term because we’re about the quality I suppose so bigger voyages with the big ship and more widespread quality impact.


What tips would have for the general public in terms of the outdoors?

Yeah, I mean, the bare minimum is and it’s said to me and I have to say it to myself so often but to do the thing, even if you’re not bothered, even if you’re sitting on the couch feeling super low, it’s always for me running actually something that gets me out of my head. But for the number of times I said, you know what we all do that we resist it, we’re feeling down, and sort of just actually do it and even, we were just talking about it today with like, a bad weather day or a hike. Sure, probably most of the hike was miserable, my legs are burned, and I’m sweating might have had a breeze like this in ages. But that sense of elation after. 

So it’s just to have that longer-term love and respect for yourself to do the thing that’s going to be good for you, you will never regret anyone who’s like gotten involved in sea swimming for COVID or anything, you will never regret jumping in the sea, you won’t regret going for that walk, you won’t regret signing up for that thing that maybe going out kayaking, because you always do feel at least that sense of achievement after what you get that physical regulation and that fresh air that you just can’t and we’re so close to our working environments right now in different contexts that it’s really it doesn’t naturally come into our everyday. So unless we give ourselves that gift, of course, we’re suffering without it and for me, one of the reasons I’m so into this is, the more I learned about what was happening to my brain, and my body, while I went out gave me more of a buy-in to keep doing it and at a stage where I needed a leg up and I realised working in the outdoors gave me that, I’d call it a protective factor, like a little buoyancy afloat, and might be your social support.. But it gave me that that I gave myself the gift at the time, just work in the outdoors, because you are at a lighter, happier place here. So I started there. So if I can allow myself to be in that environment that I know it’s going to feel nicer, and give me a few things as much as possible do that. You know, why wouldn’t I life’s just too short. 


If you want to learn more about Sailing into Wellness you can check out their website today.

Tessa also has a Facebook page where you can find out all the latest updates.

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