Sailing on the sea with a SCI

Róisín Hackett was awarded a sailing bursary through Spinal Injuries Ireland and Sail Training Ireland to go on adventure of a lifetime last summer

At 4am on July 27th this year, myself and my best friend Róisín Neville, who is from Cork, were swept away in a dark grey taxi to Dublin airport to begin an adventure we would never forget.

I met Róisín two years ago, prior to my spinal cord injury, on board the Morgenster tall ship and we were excited to once again be heading away to sail together.

I sustained my spinal cord injury in 2015 when I was 17, following a spinal fusion revision surgery that went wrong, resulting in sustaining L1 Cauda Equina Syndrome. For the past two years I’ve been focusing on balancing my recovery and academics, such as sitting my leaving cert a month after being discharged from the NRH and starting my undergrad in Trinity. This was the first time I was taking to the sea on board a ship since my injury.

Myself and Róisín were heading to Corner Brook, Newfoundland, to sail on board an accessible tall ship called The Lord Nelson, which is owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust (JST).

The Lord Nelson is unique in that she is one of the world’s only two accessible ships, the other being JSTs second ship – the Tenacious.

The many special facilities of the Lord Nelson include wide decks for wheelchair users, hoists to enable wheelchair users to climb the mast, assisted climbs for those with mobility impairments, stair lifts, a speaking compass to enable blind people to helm the ship, power assisted hydraulic steering for those with limited strength and much more.

All of these facilities allow disabled crewmembers to take an active part in the running of the ship. The Lord Nelson is a place where disability does not exist and she has inspired me to get involved in making the non-sailing world more accessible too.

Spinal Injuries Ireland and Sail Training Ireland worked together with JST to develop a bursary scheme to provide funding for people with spinal cord injuries, and a friend, to sail on board the Lord Nelson. The ship is a fully accessible tall ship that caters for wheelchair users and people with visual impairments, hearing impairments or learning disabilities. 

The plan was to set sail for eight days and finish up in Nova Scotia, Canada. We had no idea what we were in for!

The journey to Newfoundland was half the adventure in itself! We flew to St. John’s, on the East coast of Newfoundland and stayed there for eight hours. We made friends with a local taxi driver who dropped us to all the local sights.

We then headed to Halifax, Nova Scotia and after 24 hours of travelling, we finally ended up in a small town called Corner Brook on the West Coast of Newfoundland.

We ended up staying in Corner Brook for five days. The first two days were spent recovering from the journey, wandering around the Canadian wilderness while keeping an eye out for bears, and making friends with almost everyone in the village – they were very excited to have tourists around! We also explored the local culture which was strangely familiar, with common songs played in shops and pubs such as the Auld Triangle, Dirty Old Town and The Black Velvet Band.

Having sailed on a tall ship prior to my injury, I was apprehensive over how I would fare with my new disability on a tall ship. I was worried I would feel left out, or worse, be babied by the other crew.

I could not have been more wrong, as we were welcomed on board with open arms. Feeling at home immediately as the first person we met was a bubbly Cork woman.

The other three days in Corner Brook were spent giving the locals a tour around The Lord Nelson, our new home. The tours we were giving of our tall ship were an interesting way of interacting with locals from all around Newfoundland and it was a great way to hear all about their Irish heritage. People had travelled from near and far to visit our beautiful ship. We were joined by the Barque Europa and The Bowden, an American maritime college schooner, all taking part in the Rendezvous 2017.

These three days on board the Lord Nelson were slow as we were still in port. We started with the basics, as most of the 40-voyage crew had no experience of life on board a tall ship. However, the three days were great as they allowed us to get to know each other before the hustle and bustle of sailing together.

Our last night in Corner Brook was celebrated with a beautiful firework display and a music concert on the docks. Afterwards we headed to a local bar to engage in a local tradition which may or may not have involved kissing a cod, learning a Newfie tongue twister and taking a shot of local whiskey.

After the three days of training were completed, we set sail on August 1st, with a busy schedule ahead. We got our watch timetables which consisted of two 4hr shifts per day. Included in these shifts were tasks to keep the ship running such as helming (steering the ship), lookout duty (watching for any nearby ships that might not use a radar), mess duty (helping the ship’s cook to prepare the Michelin star worthy meals), setting up for dinner and waiter duty. We also had to clean the ship everyday, with jobs suited to everyone’s ability.

The days at sea blurred into one, as we were sleeping twice a day, between watches. Considering I have bad balance on dry land, the rocky sea was another level of bad balance altogether, but it was do-able, with the help of the stair lifts on board.

As I had spinal surgery three months before our voyage, I couldn’t help with bracing the sails (by pulling heavy ropes), so I spent most of my working days up at the helm, steering the ship to the first mates orders, whilst everyone else worked up a sweat tugging away on the ropes.

We visited the coastal fishing village of Burgeo, in Newfoundland with a population of about 600 people who had the strangest accent we’ve ever heard, a sort of Kerry-Texas hybrid. We spent the day wandering around its fairy-tale landscape, enjoying the local cuisine which was deep fried everything, and we finished the day on one of Burgeo’s beautiful secluded beaches.

On our last day, we arrived into Nova Scotia on a scorching day with the locals all waiting eagerly for our arrival. We spent the day giving tours and that evening we headed to a local Irish pub for a meal together with the crew from another ship called the Bowden, who we had made friends with whilst in Corner Brook.

Sea shanties sung and many pints later (bought for us by our older crewmates), we headed back to our ship for one last night of being rocked to sleep. The next morning, we tearily said our goodbyes to our new worldwide friends, promising we’d be on their couches before they knew it.

Myself and Róisín then caught a flight to Toronto for a more relaxed time than the previous eight days, where we went to Niagara Falls, Toronto University – to scope it out for a possible Erasmus year – and many a market.

The people we met on board the Lord Nelson were an eclectic mix – there were British army cadets, Yorkshire bakers, French-Canadian scientists, people with autism, people with MS and people with spinal cord injuries. But we all had one thing in common – our passion for sailing.

Each able-bodied person on board was paired or “buddied” with someone with a disability. This experience was life changing in itself as it allowed us to help able bodied people understand the ins and outs of a disability that often seem so alien to them. I was so lucky that my buddy was my best friend Róisín. I’m more or less independent, but she helped hugely with travelling to Canada, navigating airports, carrying my bags, and most importantly making me pace myself and rest whenever she could tell I was pushing myself too hard.

To narrow down my favourite time on board to one moment, it would have to be when we were sailing out of the bay at Burgeo. There was a pink sun setting and a Lord of the Rings-esque mist descended on our recently discovered fishing village. At that moment, we were joined by a pod of dolphins swimming alongside us and there were also a few whales in the distance! Being up on helm whilst all of this was unfolding, the rush of the sea breeze mixed with the independence and power I felt in that moment is something I don’t think I will ever forget.

My time on board was surprisingly emotional. After my injury, I had completely ruled out the option of returning to tall ship sailing at any point in my life because I knew how physically taxing it was even as an able bodied person. Climbing the stairs, let alone the mast, heaving the ropes and the early mornings were things I thought I would not be able to do, however, the Lord Nelson allowed me to do all of these things.

Returning to sail on a tall ship made me feel like I had regained a chunk of my pre-SCI life that I so often mourn. It made me feel powerful, independent and able, but most importantly it gave me memories that I will never ever forget.