Volunteers building a Viking longboat in Darlington, as an innovative way of supporting the mental health of military veterans, have found an ally that could not be more fitting. PETER BARRON reports

LIKE two streams flowing inexorably towards a river, there are two admirable initiatives in Darlington that, sooner or later, just had to come together.

The first is Discover Brightwater – a £3.3m ‘landscape partnership’ dedicated to celebrating life around the Skerne, a beautiful stretch of river that takes its name from the Viking word skirr, meaning “bright and shining”.

The second is Plane Sailing For Heroes – a community interest company devoted to supporting military veterans through woodwork projects, the flagship of which is building a replica of a Viking longboat, provisionally named Stormbird.

And, as someone who has been writing lately about both Discover Brightwater and Plane Sailing For Heroes, it struck me that they really ought to be in the same boat. An introduction was duly made and that has now led to the launch of a formal partnership between the two organisations.

For its part, Discover Brightwater, which is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, has agreed to donate £5,000, and will also help the charity finance training workshops. In return, Plane Sailing For Heroes has agreed that the River Skerne will be the entirely appropriate setting for the longboat’s maiden voyage, by which time she may well sail under the name of Brightwater Stormbird.

“It’s the perfect fit – a match made in heaven,” says affable Bob Marshall, the driving force behind Plane Sailing For Heroes.  

“This partnership with Discover Brightwater gives us an anchor that connects what we are doing with the area we are invested in.”

The romantic idea to build a Viking longboat had begun a few years back at the Phoenix House Recovery centre, at Catterick Garrison, where Bob was working for Help For Heroes as part of the mental health and wellbeing team. As woodshop manager, he used his lifelong passion for carpentry to support the recovery of those who’d suffered physical or mental trauma in war zones.

He wanted the veterans to have the chance to work on something ambitious and had the unlikely idea of building a Viking longship.

Discussions with The Viking Ship Museum, in the Danish city of Roskilde, led to plans being sent over for a 30-feet-long type of vessel, called a Skuldelev, and construction started in the summer of 2019 with up to 120 veterans involved in the project.

Sadly, the schedule was scuppered by Covid-19, which led to the closure of Phoenix House, but Bob was determined to carry on supporting veterans.

Along with boat-builder Mike Holtham, he launched Plane Sailing For Heroes, leading to the frame of Stormbird leaving Phoenix House last December and being transported to Darlington to be stored at a workshop, leased by Darlington Timber Supplies.

The move to Darlington has also led to a rethink on the design for the boat’s figurehead. Instead of the phoenix that was originally planned, it will now be based on the wyvern that appears in the town’s coat of arms.

Meanwhile, a dedicated group of volunteers have been getting the workshop ready and bringing in around £60,000 of their own equipment. The next step will be to install an accessible toilet and breakout facilities before the first veterans arrive to begin their training so they can work on the Viking longboat.

The £5,000 grant from Discover Brightwater is likely to be spent on a dust-extractor, which will be a vital health and safety addition to the equipment on site.

With a fair wind, the longboat should shipshape for a launch, somewhere on the Skerne, within the next 18 months.

“It’s just brilliant to have this kind of support – it feels like it was meant to be,” says Bob.

And Discover Brightwater programme manager, Paul Black, is equally as enthusiastic about the potential for the partnership.

“Our remit is to reveal, restore and celebrate life on and around the Skerne and, when we heard about the project to provide therapeutic training for military veterans by building a Viking longship, it had our name written all over it,” he smiles.

“The preservation and revival of ancient heritage skills is a very important theme for us, so we will be working closely with Plane Sailing to provide training workshops later this year.

“And, naturally, we’re really keen to work with our partners to explore how the maiden voyage can take place on the Skerne itself, or a water-course linked to the river.”

With new partners pulling in the same direction, Brightwater Stormbird is on course for an exciting voyage of discovery.

  •  To find out more about Plane Sailing For Heroes, contact Bob Marshall at bob@planesailing.org

THERE were plenty of admirable performances among those who turned out in bitterly cold wind and hail-storms for the inaugural North East Autism Society (NEAS) Golf Day at Rockliffe Hall last week.

But the undoubted star was Stevie Mawhinney, a non-verbal autistic man, who started the fundraising tournament by teeing off on the first hole.

The Northern Echo:

Stevie, 30, who accesses day care services provided by NEAS, has had his life transformed by being introduced to golf by Sharon Cotterell, Programme Support Worker for the charity.

When everything else failed, the magic of hitting a golf ball proved to be the key to unlocking happiness in his world.

The honour of teeing off first in a golf tournament, in front of officials and other competitors, can be a daunting task.

But Stevie stood up tall, remembered what Sharon had taught him, and hit the ball straight down the fairway.

"You did it, Stevie! I'm so proud of you," shouted Sharon before giving her protege a high-five.

Stevie was clearly proud too, because he gave himself a well-deserved little clap of satisfaction before striding off in pursuit of his ball to finish the hole.

With due respect to the intrepid teams that took part in challenging conditions to raise money for a great charity, Stevie and Sharon were the real winners in my book.