GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In sailing, the saying goes that you can use any wind and go any direction.
Before he knew what it was like to feel the breeze on his face at sea, Trevor VanAssche thought he had found his direction: with the U.S. Army. The self-described “Air Force brat,” who had all over the world because of his dad’s service, was 17 and living in Utah when he enlisted.
He explained that he joined so young because he “started getting into and hanging out with the wrong crowds in high school.”
A Vietnam veteran, someone who had a similar experience with getting into trouble as a teenager, approached him and told him about opportunities in the Army.
“The idea of being something, a soldier… and part of something so much bigger than myself was huge for me,” VanAssche said.
After a whirlwind of basic training and a station assignment, he immediately received orders to deploy to Iraq.
“I got to Fort Bliss in November and we went to (the National Training Center in California) in January, then I was in Iraq two months after that,” he said.
He served one tour of duty before medical issues made him “undeployable” and he found himself off course.
“After I left the army, I was a little bit lost and I didn’t really know my place anymore,” VanAssche said. “I decided to set out and figure it out and stopped in northern Michigan.”
He officially moved to Traverse City in 2015 and has been there ever since.
Soldiers see things most civilians can’t imagine, but VanAssche said his biggest struggle wasn’t the service — it was leaving. He missed the military and the men and women who had become his family.
“It was isolating. I really didn’t want to leave my house,” he said. “There are a lot of things, like being around crowds, that just kind of made me uncomfortable and, you know, gave me anxiety and things like that, just from leaving the house.”
Ships in harbor are safe, but that is not what ships — or people — are built for.
“To reach a port, we must sail. Not tie at anchor…. or drift… but sail,” President Franklin Roosevelt once said.
So VanAssche looked for motivation to get out of the house, if not out of isolation, and found his calling on the water.
“I was watching YouTube videos about sailing and ended up finding a little boat in the neighborhood that no one was using,” he said.
He taught himself how to sail and eventually discovered an organization focused on veterans.
Warrior Sailing is a nonprofit foundation specifically for veterans, offering those who have served the opportunity to take part in basic training camps, certification programs and competitive races.
Ben Poucher, who grew up in Portage, Michigan, helped get the foundation off the ground in 2013 after sailing as a student at the College of Charleston. He became a professional in the sport, managing race boats, doing deliveries and serving as a paid crew member at regattas.
Poucher met VanAssche during VanAssche’s first Warrior Sailing race and the two became friends.
One thing VanAssche enjoyed about the military was the sense of purpose it gave him: knowing exactly what he was supposed to be doing and when. He found that purpose again at that first sailing race.
“There was a regatta going on in Traverse City and I drove over, got on a boat with a bunch of people I didn’t know (including) several veterans and it felt right at home,” he said. “I was once again given specialized tasks at that point. It was as simple as ‘pull on this when I tell you to pull on this,’ and we ended up winning the regatta.”
He went through the program’s basic training in Annapolis, Maryland, and has been sailing with the team ever since.
Poucher is now based in Charlevoix and recently opened a Warrior Sailing Clubhouse. He and the team have spent the last week preparing for their first big event since before the pandemic: the annual Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac.
“We’d usually take a day off, but I got word from a couple of the warriors who said they felt like they’ve had a whole year off, they don’t need a day off, so we’ve been busy every day,” Poucher said, adding that the veterans are “trying to teach me the military way.”
Sailing can be an expensive sport, so Poucher relies on donations to help make this a nearly cost-free experience for veterans. All of the boats they use are part of a boat donation program and philanthropists donate money and supplies to help make Warrior Sailing a success.
“The community here in Charlevoix has really stepped up. We’ve had almost all of our meals provided,” Poucher said. “People have been dropping off breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
A team of sailors and a military unit have more in common than it may seem on the surface. Though Poucher never served, he does have a unique understanding of that kind of closeness.
“When you’re sleeping on the boat, there are five people up on deck who pretty much have your life in their hands, and you have to trust them, and you have to work as a team to make it happen,” he said. “When you can recreate that (military bond) with a recreational activity, there’s nothing like it because we all bond over that connection we have as a team.”
That unique bond has helped VanAssche get back on course, because, as any good sailor knows, when the wind doesn’t blow your way, you adjust.
His hobby has turned into a paying job. He helps deliver sailboats all of the world.
“I had a return trip in May and we got stuck in St. John for a couple of days… it was absolutely terrible,” he joked.
VanAssche now encounters people in various cities who he has met through sailing, even in remote parts of the world.
“I kind of seek people out these days,” he said when asked if he’s done avoiding people now.
That’s a win for Poucher, who believes hoisting the sail as part of a team has very little to do with the sport itself.
“That’s the biggest thing that we take away,” Poucher said. “It’s all about people. It’s not about sailing.”