I fell off a wall at the age of 16 and broke my neck at C4/C5 level. As a result I’m paralysed from the chest down with no use of my hands and limited use of my arms. My disability was one of a whole host of reasons why I was both excited but also nervous about joining a Jubilee Sailing Trust voyage. I had heard of the JST but had never had the motivation or finance to get up and apply for one, until, one day while at work I received an email stating that Spinal Injuries Ireland and Sail Training Ireland were offering a bursary for a voyage. I have an attitude of “never let an opportunity pass you by” so I applied and to my surprise and great delight I was successful!
I was excited because I wanted to work on an accessible tall ship, alongside crewmates whether able bodied or not, where your best is expected from you, and an accessible tall ship where the focus was not on the word disability anymore but on the word ability. I wanted to be on those tall ships because I knew that on the voyage people wouldn’t be worried about what I can’t do but what I can do. I knew also that if I did use my abilities to carry out a task I wouldn’t be patronisingly applauded for it I would be expected to do it again shortly and to do it better next time.
That certainly proved to be the case. While I was unable to assist in any great way with pulling ropes for bracing or hoisting sails (I wished I had my power chair at times to show exactly what I could do) I was still required to: learn about the ropes and sails and sometimes remind those pulling as to which rope was which, to carry out all watches (where I watched out for anything in our path other than water) to work in the galley (or kitchen) drying dishes for Chef Simon and his assistant Roxie, and the greatest task of all, to avoid getting seasick. I was excited to prove that there is more to me than just a disability and I think I did just that.
I was nervous about joining a JST voyage because at home I have always used the best of facilities and technology in order to make life easier. I use a profiling bed, a large sturdy hoist, a spacious bedroom, a fast power wheelchair which can raise up into a standing position, and a laptop and phone the settings of which can often allow me to navigate them without even touching the screen. I was nervous because I knew the voyage would be stripped back to the bare essentials and I was not sure how I and my girlfriend Anna, who was acting as my primary buddy, would cope with a tiny cabin, a tiny bed, a tiny portable hoist, and my own manual wheelchair. However, we quickly fell into the routine of the ship and learned to deal with any challenges that came our way.
What helped alleviate some of my nerves were my Forward Starboard watch team. All voyage crew were divided into different watch teams directed by watch leaders who were directed by the Captain and often by other members of the permanent crew like “Nursey” Mandy. We were a complex blend of abilities and personalities but we bonded pretty quickly thanks in no small part to our watch leader Jim Haig, a man who, let’s put it like this, was “quite a bit wiser” than the rest of us. Despite his wisdom, however, Jim was livelier, fitter, and more determined than the rest of us put together. Jim was the perfect watch leader and had the distinct and hugely important skill of being able to balance leadership and companionship. He would give his morning briefings and dish out any necessary orders in his broad Scottish accent but all with a smile on his face and often followed by a charming joke to make us feel at ease.
The Jubilee Sailing Trust were aware of the extent of my disability and assigned a second buddy to me as a result, a Kildare man named John Ward. At first I was unsure about having a second buddy, I was wary that if we didn’t get on in such an intense and confined setting it would make the voyage awkward and uncomfortable. I needn’t have worried. John had a similar sense of humour to mine and it was instantly comfortable, another Irishman amongst many Englishmen and women. John was also a great help. Without John assisting Anna to manoeuvre me around the ship during the rough seas I would have had to remain in the one spot all the time or even worse I’d have ended up overboard! I think it would be fair to say that John was out of his comfort zone assisting a person with a disability for the first time but like most things on the ship John took to it like a duck to water. He seemed to have an innate skill for anything he put his hand to whether it was clamping a wheelchair to the floor or climbing a mast or helming the ship into Port. I know we will remain friends.
I joined the JST voyage for another very personal reason, recently I have passed the point at which I am now using a wheelchair longer than I had been walking. I was 16 when I had my accident, now I am 32 and enough months to mean I’ve rolled around on this planet for longer than I had walked on it. There have been different points since my accident where I have realised like a puppy, it’s not just for Christmas it’s for life. This has been one of those points. I had hoped that a voyage on the JST would help to prove to myself that there’s still life in the old dog yet! That was in my mind as I sat on the first platform midway through my assisted climb on Lord Nelson’s main mast. I sat there chatting with Nick and DD, two members of the permanent crew, and enjoying the beautiful views of La Gomera and Lanzarote in the distance and realised that I have probably achieved and done more in those sixteen “disabled” years than I ever would have had I not had my accident and that I have many many more adventures yet to come.
Having returned home everyone asks “how was the holiday?”, my response is always the same “it wasn’t a holiday… it was an adventure”. On Lord Nelson we worked hard and we played hard. We had holiday experiences too. We stopped over on islands, ate great food, enjoyed the sun, did bus tours, Anna swam too, and I went up the mast. We slept like babies throughout. It was definitely one to tick off The Bucket List but it was still an experience that I would be interested in repeating.
I must express my deepest appreciation to Spinal Injuries Ireland and Sail Training Ireland. Without that email that kicked me into action and, more importantly, without their financial support of a bursary for me and Anna to join a voyage I never would have had an unforgettable experience!