I can and I will. The story of Phil Haydon, founder of Sail For Epilepsy, and his 550 Shipmates

April 18, 2024

By Kate Somers

Grey sailboat sailing upwind

In life, there are moments that define us, shaping our character and purpose. For Phil Haydon, an unfortunate encounter with a brick at the age of 15 set forth a journey that would not only transform his life but inspire countless by sailing thousands of miles offshore including in this year’s Newport Bermuda Race. 

Phil's journey to our starting line began when his injury as a teenager resulted in post-traumatic epilepsy. Tonic-clonic and absence seizures became his reality for four years until the proper medical intervention granted him control over his condition. Enduring through academic challenges due to exhaustion caused by medication side effects, Phil drew strength from his grandmother Lil's unwavering mantra cut from a self-help book and stuck to the fridge: "I can and I will."

Fast forward four decades, Phil recently retired as the Chair of Neuroscience at Tufts University School of Medicine and has completed thousands of miles of shorthanded offshore sailing all while seizure-free for 40 years.

Yet, Phil's journey is not just about personal triumph; it's about paying it forward. Armed with a mission to educate the public about epilepsy and empower those living with the condition, Phil embarked on his latest endeavor: Sail for Epilepsy.  

Central to this effort is the "One More Step Challenge” which asks his followers to do something they have not before with the necessary safety measures in place, what he has termed “safety guardrails.” 

Phil's passion for sailing, a sport that epitomizes freedom and adventure, has allowed him to fear his condition a little less. Naming his vessel "Fearless," as an ode to that idea, he sails alongside his crewmate, Alex Kraebel, in the SunFast 3300. As a duo the will be tackling the 53rd Newport to Bermuda Race in the doublehanded division, followed by the Bermuda Short-Handed Return.

But this isn't Phil's first rodeo. Having completed the Bermuda 1-2 three times 2017, 2019, and 2021 he's no stranger to the challenges of offshore racing shorthanded. What sets this journey apart, however, is its deeper significance. Phil aims to inspire those with epilepsy to shed layers of fear and embrace new experiences.

For Phil, each participant in the "One More Step Challenge" isn't just a participant but a virtual shipmate, and he has collected close to 600 of them. Leveraging technology, he connects with them via satellite during the race, sharing powerful moments and messages of hope. And in return, they inspire him to keep going through the sleepless days and nights, tough conditions, and reminds him to soak it all in. 

"It's more than sailing for me," Phil shares. "I want to show these kids and adults alike that epilepsy doesn't have to define their lives."

To amplify his message, Phil and his dedicated team have curated resources and insights on Here, they document his journey, provide educational materials, and foster a community of support and understanding.

As the SunFast 3300 undergoes routine upgrades and maintenance at Safe Harbor New England Boatworks, Phil and Alex hope to get sailing soon. Safety training will then become their focus through May and June, ensuring that sailing offshore remains not only a passion but a safe endeavor.

Navigating the waters of epilepsy and doublehanded sailing demands vigilance and preparation. With a Seizure Action Plan, medication schedules, and adherence to proper sleep patterns, Phil and his crew demonstrate that with the right precautions, ie “safety guardrails” anything is possible.

Phil Haydon's journey is a testament to the power of resilience, community, and unwavering determination many sailors and patients of epilepsy share. We do not always know what is over the horizon but we will not know unless we try. So when he crosses the starting line on June 21st, he will be reminding us all "I can and I will” is a mantra to live by and there's no limit to what we can achieve.

Follow Phil and his journey at

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