At St. Pete Beach, Free Sailboat Rides Provide Welfare for Souls in Need
When Captain Dan Peretz found out his best friend Art Nicholson had been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2011, the two did what they had always done. They went out for a sail.
They took Peretz’s 41-foot yacht, the Phoenix. It was the same boat that Peretz and Nicholson had sailed on for three decades, the boat where Nicholson and his wife, Nina, had exchanged vows in 1977 and spent their honeymoon.
Nicholson used to run seven miles on the beach every morning and pilot Olympic-class catamarans. Now his speech was slurred and he needed Nina and Peretz to support him as he got on the boat.
As they cruised through Boca Ciega Bay, Peretz placed his friend’s hands on the steering wheel and a big smile appeared on Nicholson’s face.
“It was like, all of a sudden, he was himself again,” Nina said.
He died a few months later at the age of 63. But in 2012, after seeing how comfortable sailing made him, Peretz, Nina and a few other friends founded Soothe Our Souls, a nonprofit that offers free sailboat rides for “serious problems.” health”. people and their guardians.
Over the past decade, the group has organized more than 100 trips for thousands of guests, adopting a broad definition of “serious health problems”. They have welcomed survivors of domestic violence, people who have lost loved ones and people trying to overcome drug or alcohol addictions – anyone who could benefit from a morning on the water.
“You can see the stress melting away, a lot more smiles,” Peretz said. “You don’t completely forget, but you put it aside, what the person is dealing with.”
Peretz, who owns Dolphin Landings Charter Boat Center in St. Pete Beach, provides the sailboats for the nonprofit. On the first Sunday of each month, he and a group of volunteers and guests set out into Boca Ciega Bay for a two-hour journey that often includes sessions with volunteer wellness professionals on meditation, yoga , reflexology or nutrition.
For the 72-year-old captain, every trip carries memories of his former sailing partner.
“It’s hard not to think about him, and it’s not in a bad way or in a sad way,” Peretz said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Look what you’ve created, Art.'”
Born in Tampa, Peretz grew up in Riverview and attended the University of South Florida in electrical engineering. He dropped out with a semester left and learned to navigate by reading books.
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His first sailboat was small, a 26 footer. In the 1970s, he and his wife started working in a coffeeshop at a St. Pete Beach hotel and would go sailing after work.
When Peretz realized people would pay for boat rides, he started doing full-time sailing charters and opened Dolphin Landing in 1986.
Peretz acquired the Phoenix in 1976, around the time he met Nicholson, who often cruised near Sunset Beach in a super-fast Tornado catamaran. As a professional carpenter, Nicholson helped refurbish Peretz’s boats. The two began sailing together, venturing as far as the Bahamas. They became inseparable, closer than brothers. They even looked alike, with the same bushy mustaches and beards.
Then one morning in 2011, Nicholson passed out during a run and woke up lying on the sand.
Shortly after, Nina noticed him dragging his foot when he walked. A doctor said he had glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor. Nicholson had about four months to live.
“A part of you just doesn’t believe it could happen to someone this close to you or someone who is as healthy as they were,” Peretz said.
As Nicholson’s symptoms worsened, he became “zombie-like,” Nina said. But on the water with his friends, he became himself again, smiling, carefree, at ease in the wind and the waves.
After his death, Nina and Peretz arranged a sailboat ride for a friend with terminal pancreatic cancer and noticed the calming effect it had – on her and her friends, family and caregivers.
It was then that Sooth Our Souls was born.
Peretz’s charter business, with his three sailboats, provided a natural base for the organization, which quickly grew as Nicholson’s friends spread the word.
People sign up by filling out a form on the Soothe Our Souls website or by phone. Next, a Dolphin Landings Charter Boat Center staff member will ask about the applicant’s background and explain mobility requirements to ensure guests can board a boat.
If the weather is good, a trip can attract a dozen volunteers and 30 guests ranging from children to retirees, said Beth Cole, a volunteer who teaches yoga for Soothe Our Souls.
Peretz and his team hold annual fundraisers. The organization also generates money through a facility at Treasure Island where people can rent space for birthday parties or other events. Once a month, the facility hosts donation-based wellness classes, said Kerry Kopasek, marketing director for Soothe Our Souls and the group’s only paid staff member.
Peretz had to put rides on hold during the pandemic, but they’ve started to bounce back in recent months.
On a Sunday morning in early July, Peretz jumped around the 51-foot Magic, hoisting the sails and steering the boat into the bay. Nine guests and a handful of volunteers crouched in their seats, bathed in wind and sun. Behind the Magic, the Phoenix and the Fantasea rolled on the waves with another dozen guests.
Cole led the group in a breathing exercise and everyone closed their eyes. They heard the waves lapping against the hull and the occasional croak of a seagull.
One guest, Maureen Boland, 53, has been a regular at Soothe Our Souls since 2015. Her husband is a volunteer. For Boland, who developed viral meningoencephalitis in college and struggles to walk and talk, sailing means freedom.
“I’m taking a break from the (wheelchair) chair,” she said. “Sometimes you can just sit back and be quiet. It’s just a way to reset.
Another guest, Barbara Ramos, 64, chatted with some of the volunteers at the bow. Retired from law enforcement, she lives alone in St. Pete Beach and craves company. Sailing seemed like a perfect way to get out of the house.
“I’m tired of being alone,” she says. “I’m talking to my dog and she’s fed up with me.”
Ramos, Boland and the other guests took turns at the helm, gripping the metal Ferris wheel to guide the Magic. Peretz stood beside them, his blue visor tucked over a tuft of silver hair, occasionally shouting if they needed to course-correct.
But he was mostly watching. He saw them smiling and thought of his friend Art.