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 Peretz and Nicholson had sailed on for three decades, the boat where Nicholson and his wife, Nina, had exchanged their vows in 1977 and spent their honeymoon.
Nicholson used to run seven miles on the beach every morning and race Olympic-class catamarans. Now his speech slurred, and he needed Nina and Peretz to prop him up as he walked onto the boat.
As they sailed into Boca Ciega Bay, Peretz placed his friend’s hands on the steering wheel, and a big smile spread across Nicholson’s face.
“It was like, all of a sudden, he was his old self,” Nina said.
He died a couple months later at age 63. But in 2012, after seeing how the sail put him at ease, Peretz, Nina and a couple other friends founded Soothe Our Souls, a nonprofit that provides free sailboat rides for “seriously health challenged” people and their caretakers.
Over the past decade, the group has organized more than 100 trips for thousands of guests, adopting an expansive definition of “seriously health challenged.” They’ve hosted survivors of domestic abuse, people who lost loved ones and those trying to overcome drug or alcohol addiction — anyone who might 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 away to the side, what the person’s 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 every month, he and a group of volunteers and guests launch into Boca Ciega Bay for a two-hour trip that often includes sessions with volunteer wellness professionals on meditation, yoga, reflexology or nutrition.
For the 72-year-old captain, every ride carries memories of his old sailing partner.
“It’s hard not to think of him, and it’s not in a bad way or a sad way,” Peretz said. “Sometimes I think to myself, ‘Look at what you created, Art.’”
Born in Tampa, Peretz grew up in Riverview and attended the University of South Florida for electrical engineering. He dropped out with one semester left and learned to sail by reading books.
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His first sailboat was small, a 26-footer. In the 1970s, he and his wife started working at a coffeeshop in a St. Pete Beach hotel and would go sailing after work.
When Peretz realized that people would pay for boat rides, he started doing sailing charters full time and opened Dolphin Landing in 1986.
Peretz acquired the Phoenix in 1976, around the time he met Nicholson, who would often be sailing near Sunset Beach in an uber-fast Tornado catamaran. As a professional woodworker, Nicholson helped refurbish Peretz’s boats. The two started sailing together, venturing as far out 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.
Soon after, Nina noticed him dragging his foot when he walked. A doctor said he had a glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor. Nicholson had about four months left to live.
“Part of you just doesn’t believe that can happen to somebody that close to you or somebody that’s as healthy as he was,” Peretz said.
As Nicholson’s symptoms worsened, he became “zombie-like,” Nina said. But on the water with his friends, he returned to his old self, grinning, carefree, at home in the wind and waves.
After he died, Nina and Peretz organized a sailboat ride for a friend with terminal pancreatic cancer and noticed the calming effect it had — on her and on her friends, family and caretakers.
That’s when Sooth Our Souls was born.
Peretz’s charter business, with its three sailboats, provided a natural base for the organization, which rapidly expanded as Nicholson’s friends spread the word.
People sign up by filling out a form on the Soothe Our Souls website or over the phone. Then a staff member from Dolphin Landings Charter Boat Center will ask about the applicant’s background and explain the mobility requirements to ensure guests can board a boat.
If the weather’s nice, one trip might draw 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 organize yearly fundraisers. The organization also generates money through a facility in Treasure Island where people can rent out space for birthday parties or other events. Once a month, the facility hosts wellness classes that are donation-based, said Kerry Kopasek, marketing director for Soothe Our Souls and the group’s only paid staffer.
Peretz had to put the rides on hold during the pandemic, but they have started to bounce back in recent months.
On a Sunday morning in early July, Peretz hopped around the 51-foot Magic, hoisting sails and guiding the boat into the bay. Nine guests and a handful of volunteers crouched in their seats, bathed in wind and sunlight. Behind the Magic, the Phoenix and the Fantasea rolled over the waves with another dozen guests.
Cole led the group in a breathing exercise, and everyone closed their eyes. They heard waves lapping against the hull and the occasional caw of a seagull.
One guest, 53-year-old Maureen Boland, has been a Soothe Our Souls regular since 2015. Her husband is a volunteer. For Boland, who developed viral meningoencephalitis during college and has difficulty walking and speaking, sailing is about freedom.
“I get a break from the (wheel)chair,” she said. “Sometimes you can just sit and just be quiet. It’s just a way to reset yourself.”
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 has been craving company. Sailing seemed like a perfect way to get out of the house.
“I’m tired of being alone,” she said. “I talk to my dog, and she’s sick of me.”
Ramos, Boland and the other guests took turns at the helm, gripping the large metal wheel to guide the Magic. Peretz stood next to them, his blue visor tucked over a shock of silver hair, at times yelling out if they needed to correct course.
But mostly he watched. He saw them smile and thought of his friend Art.