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WATCH: New Nairn charity makes waves to support key workers' mental health through paddling

By Federica Stefani

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Leeanne Mackay and Ali Garrow.
Leeanne Mackay and Ali Garrow.

Can you recall the time when you would be strolling by a beautiful loch or along a stunning northern beach and see only a few very brave souls approaching the icy waters? Back then, not many knew what an SUP (stand up paddleboard) was, and although canoes and kayaks were not exactly unseen, they were certainly far less ubiquitous than they are today.

Post-pandemic it’s hard to be near any substantial body of water water without seeing at least one or two people peacefully paddling their way along. More and more people have found relief from spiralling mental health challenges in water sports.

According to the Watersports Participation Survey 2021, the number of people taking part in paddlesport activities once or twice over the year grew from almost 3800 in 2020 to almost 7,300 in 2021, an increase of more than 92 per cent.

Now, a new Nairn-based charity is on a mission to support people on the frontlines through watersports.

Blue Space Highland is a new initiative aiming to open the doors to water sports such as paddleboarding and kayaking for key workers and the people they support by developing a referral system to enable access to outdoor water sports and wellness sessions.

The new venture is the brainchild of Leeanne Mackay, who runs Paddle Bliss Nairn and has experience working in the NHS, and Ali Garrow, a retired police officer who now runs Moray Kayaking.

“In my last years in the police, I was involved in developing a program called Paddlewell, a well-being program which was really about dealing with members of staff struggling with their mental health,” Ali said.

After retiring, he became a paddleboard and kayak instructor and after seeing Leanne’s posts and her work, he reached out to talk about their common mission: supporting those who support us through the benefits of “blue health”.

Paddleboarding is a great excercise for balance, says Leeanne. Picture: Kenny Macleod.
Paddleboarding is a great excercise for balance, says Leeanne. Picture: Kenny Macleod.

That’s how the duo – soon joined by midwife Jane Geddes and sports coach Christine Hogben – started working on the Blue Space Highland initiative.

“Lots of people that I’ve spoken to when I’ve been on the water talk about mental health,” Ali said. “Maybe they don’t label it as mental health, but they say that the reason that they’re here is because they connect with other people and nature. Everything they were talking about it was about well-being, it was never about a workout or competitivity.

“It’s a tongue loosener. On the water, people feel connected and have to rely on each other. And they really do open up.”

Both Leeanne and Ali are experienced sea leaders and mental health first aiders, which adds an extra layer to their sessions and support, with the focus being on being in the moment, leaving worries behind and learning various skills which can be applied in other real-life situations.

Water sports such as paddle boarding and kayaking, according to them, offers a unique blend of awareness and being in nature, as well as making physical exercise more accessible.

“I’ve spent eight or nine hours on the water when kayaking – and after I realise I have spent most of the time gaining fitness without even thinking about it,” Leanne said.

“It’s about being in the moment, and water is the perfect space that ‘forces you’ to be present.

“It’s the calm it brings to you, and the feeling of being free. The split second before you hit the water – ‘freedom’ is the only way to describe it.”

The charity, which has now built a first layer of connections with emergency services, is now aiming to raise £30,000 to fund its activities. A first fundraising event will take place at the Westerlea Hotel in Nairn this Friday at 7pm, with live music, a raffle and other activities.

They are also looking at connecting with other clubs and water sports providers in the area to grow the opportunities for anyone being referred.

“I think it will grow, because this is not exclusive to the Highlands,” Ali said.

“There is a real demand, and we hope to lead the way and make this service available across the country.”

You can get in touch with Blue Space Highland at bluespacehighland@gmail.com.

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