In the grand reception room of a storied and opulent New York City nautical club, the Florence, Italy-based watchmaker Officine Panerai kicked off its North American Circuit of the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge season with an event to honor the non-profit Sailing Heals and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The summer-long racing series, which began on May 23, is the largest international circuit of regate for classic yachts.
Sailing Heals, a philanthropic organization, backed by Panerai, creates special sailing experiences for patients by taking them on sails with professional yachtsmen and women. “At the very crux of it, we offer a day of sailing for cancer patients and their caretakers,” said Mylissa Tsai, a Sailing Heals board member and cancer survivor who is regrettably once again a cancer patient.
Over a stately spread of fine wines, cocktails and antipasti, she discussed her experience with the charity. “How often do I get to go out on a boat and get on the water and wash away all my responsibilities and sort of put life into perspective?” Ms. Tsai asked rhetorically. “It’s a special experience.”
The launch was a casual but moneyed affair. Attendees milled about the yacht club, exploring the model ships that adorned the gilded walls, schmoozing as Duran Duran’s original “Rio” music video ran on loop overhead. (Apparently it was filmed on Panerai’s restored 1936 ketch, Eilean.)
“In Boston, we’ve committed to at least ten sails with Mass General [Hospital’s] Cancer Center—that’s significant! Newport, Marblehead, Nantucket…” gushed Ms. Tsai about Sailing Heals’s 2012 calendar. “Ambitious,” The Observer noted, especially considering that Panerai fleets will compete from May through September in the Atlantic North East, British Isles and Mediterranean (see the slideshow for the full details).
“How do patients and their entourage get to these posh locations?” The Observer wanted to know.
“We personally reach out to people who have registered through our VIP guest registry form at sailingheals.org,” Ms. Tsai explained.
The Observer was fortunate enough to see what a “VIP cancer sail” entailed. On a sunny and sweltering day this Memorial Day week, Panerai’s Michele Gallagher invited us aboard a 1938 vintage yawl called The Black Watch. It won the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge North American Circuit in 2011.
“That’s my mortgage!” yelled one guest, marveling at the immense yacht before hopping aboard. As the vessel drifted out into New York Harbor, participants were offered Dramamine pills or wristbands to avoid seasickness. The Observer, a hearty seafarer, passed. Before we knew it, a dashing young man was passing out glasses of wine, seltzer and beer. Next, gourmet amuse-bouches including prosciutto di parma, seared yellow fin tuna, shrimp and Aberdeen Angus beef with black truffle oil were passed around. More wine was poured. Indeed, Panerai’s Sailing Heals voyages are VIP.
The Black Watch sailed past Liberty Island, Ellis Island and southwest of Governor’s Island. “The city’s skyline is so different from this perspective,” commented one voyager. For several on board, the evening marked their first sail ever.
“This is such a unique time to just meet fresh faces that have all been touched by cancer, but the focus is sailing and the beautiful views—not cancer itself,” said one woman in between sips of her beer. A widower, whose wife had recently passed away after a bout with cancer, brought his daughter, who had served as her father’s caregiver—he, too, had battled cancer. Others came solo, knowing no one else onboard, but understanding that cancer is a common denominator that does not discriminate, no matter who you are. A young social worker at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center spoke openly about her experiences at the hospital, supporting patients and their loved ones. Angelo Merendino, who lost his wife to cancer in 2011, talked about how he launched a photography website in her memory to detail her fight against breast cancer. It is an emotional study of their experience and the reaction of others.
As the scorching sun began to set and The Black Watch headed back to the North Cove Marina, we felt a blanket of panic about our return to reality. We weren’t alone.
“Can we go on another one?” asked one eager caregiver, a man well into his retirement years. He was told that Sailing Heals opportunities are popular and rarely happen more than once a year for individuals—but you never know. (The last time The Observer was aboard chartered sails this nice, there was a $10,000 tab!)
The Observer left in awe—not only of the marvelous views and sumptuous grub—but of how truly therapeutic a few hours at sea can provide the right dose of escapism for someone in a constant fight for their life.