The Broadcast / Reclaim The Sea

Reclaim The Sea

The sea should be a haven for joy and excitement, home of soulful connection, a welcome healing hand. Tragically, though, for many making dangerous journeys in order to claim asylum the sea is a place ridden with trauma.

Born out of a desire to right this injustice, Plymouth-based Reclaim The Sea teaches local refugees and asylum-seekers how to swim, paddleboard and surf, transforming the sea into a safe and healing space for all.


4 min read

Words by Tigs Louis-Puttick

Images by Heather Davey

Joy. Laughter. Splashing my sisters, throwing seaweed and running away from the gentle waves breaking on the shore. We ran, giggling - “you can’t catch me!” – but we weren’t really scared. Picnics on the beach, making sandcastles and walking up the cliff at the end of the day, feeling sun-baked and content.

Fear. Noise from a broken engine. Seventy other people packed tightly onto the rudimentary ‘benches’ made of old wood with rusty nails sticking out. Some people with one leg hanging out of the boat because there simply isn’t enough space inside. It’s the first time you’ve seen the sea in your life, and you can’t wait to never see it again once you reach land – if you reach land.

No land in sight. You pray you will see the coastline soon. You’re not sure you’ll make it. The boat is taking in water, sinking lower into the waves with every minute that passes. You wonder if the waves will swallow you, too. Your thoughts flicker to your mum, who you’d hoped could join you in Europe once you’d made it safely across.

Reclaim The Sea
Reclaim The Sea

Not everyone’s experiences of the sea are positive. This fact hit me for the first time when I was volunteering in Lesvos, a Greek island close to Turkey, which became a ‘gateway’ to Europe for refugees fleeing Syria in 2015. I was part of a team providing emergency shoreline response, tending to boats arriving at all hours of the day and night to the rocky shores of the island. We provided food, water, urgent medical care and emergency blankets. We tried to convey a sense of welcome, knowing that people would soon be facing interminable months living in Moria refugee camp, a squalid and overcrowded camp built for 3,000, but hosting over 20,000 refugees at its peak in 2020.

For me, the sea has always been a site of joy, learning and excitement. But for many of those making dangerous journeys in order to claim asylum – be it to Lesvos, Italy, Melilla or the UK – the sea is a space ridden with trauma. Even if people do make it, this trauma is never addressed. Out of my desire to right this injustice and transform the sea into a safe space of healing for all, Reclaim The Sea was born.

Reclaim The Sea is a nonprofit organisation based in my hometown, Plymouth, UK, which provides people who have sea-related trauma with the tools to overcome it and reclaim the sea as a safe space. We teach refugees and asylum-seekers living locally how to swim, paddleboard and surf – showing that they too can feel at home and safe in the sea. In doing so, we hope to introduce people to the healing and therapeutic benefits of the sea and blue spaces.

In summer 2022, we launched our pilot programme. Twelve women from Iran, Iraq, El Salvador, Ukraine and China joined us for a variety of trauma-informed sessions designed by both trauma specialists and outdoor education instructors, from sea swimming to surfing. For some participants it was the first time they’d been in the sea since arriving in the UK. For others it was the first time in their lives they’d ever been in the sea willingly, on their own terms. In order to help people feel comfortable in an already-alien environment, Finisterre provided us with Seasuits, a full-coverage, non-formfitting garment suitable for water sports, which we were able to offer to everyone.

Reclaim The Sea
Reclaim The Sea

The impact of the programme was best captured by Alina, one of our participants from Ukraine, who originally fled Crimea when it was annexed in 2014:

“Through Reclaim The Sea, I met beautiful girls, received new friends, and also made my old dream come true. I learned how to ride a paddleboard. I grew up near the sea, and therefore the sun and sea is my area and it is very important to me. Thanks to this group I began to recover psychologically! Thank you everyone at Reclaim The Sea, thank you girls and for your support and for helping me in difficult times.”

I still struggle with the injustice of the situation. That the sea is safe for some but not for others, based on their passport or where they were born. This is not an inherent fact. It is made this way by hostile, unwelcoming policies towards people on the move. I hope in time that sea borders will cease to exist, and then the sea can become the joyous space that it really is – for everyone.

The team at Reclaim The Sea are currently working on their 2023 programme, which they hope to provide to both men and women from refuge-seeking backgrounds. They are also expanding to support satellite RTS programmes around the world. You can donate to the work of Reclaim The Sea, or find out more through their website.


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