A ship designed and built to enable people of all physical abilities to sail alongside together as equals will leave on its first ever round-the-world trip in October.
This month its sister ship Tenacious, which has recently returned from a voyage with a crew of young disabled and able-bodied German students, sailed into the Docklands in time for the Paralympics – and EastLondonLines talked to the crew.
The ships, both built and operated by the Jubilee Sailing Trust, are the only two tall ships in the world built for both disabled and able-bodied crews.
The nautical event was also attended by Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman.
Each voyage on Tenacious carries around 50 people. Eight are permanent crew, forty are voyage crew and twenty of those are disabled. The vessel can carry up to eight wheelchair users.
Each person has a role to play, whether it’s sail handling, navigation, keeping a look, maintenance, scrubbing the decks or galley duty.
Ship tour guide Terry White, 59, is blind and has sailed on both the Lord Nelson and the Tenacious in his 20 years of volunteering for the JST.
White said his first experience of sailing was “fantastic”, letting him make new friends and meet people from entirely different walks of life. He said: “I found I could do things that I never dreamt I would be able to do.”
His biggest challenge, apart from avoiding seasickness, he joked, was dealing with heights. “Although I’m blind, I can still sense the height when I’m climbing the rigging. On a couple of occasions, I had to stop and hold on tight. I’m not really good with heights.”
When he had his first sailing experience on the Lord Nelson, he still had part of his sight. But, he said, since then, he’s had to “start again”.
He said: “Although I completely lost my sight, I found that with sailing, I could still do it. Losing my sight didn’t stop me from continuing and enjoying it.” Sometimes, he’s so caught up in shipboard duties that he simply forgets his disability: “There are so many other things to think about.”
One of the best things about sailing a ship, White added, was helming – steering the ship, as the vessel is fitted with a talking compass.
Some of the other features on board the Tenacious include wheelchair lifts between deck levels, signage in braille, guidance tracks, raised directional arrows on handrails and hydraulic power-assisted steering to enable people with limited strength or mobility to helm the ship.
JST volunteer Natalie Osborne, 32, said she became “hooked” after her first voyage in 2003, when she sailed to Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon.
Osborne is a partial wheelchair user, which means that she is able to move around for herself, but can’t stand up for too long and needs a lot of care and attention. Her greatest fear going on a voyage was whether she would be able to cope. “I knew about the buddy system, where you are paired up with an able bodied crew member on the trip, but that’s not the same as being at home with people who know what you need.”
But the desire to have a go outweighed her fear. She added: “I wasn’t disappointed. People were always there to help me, but what I found was, even in my condition, I could help other people as well. I was doing things that I never thought I’d be able to do.” One of those things was climbing the mast.
The ship’s crew is split into four ‘watches’ or teams, and works across a 24-hour schedule where each watch takes turns in to helm and man the ship night and day. Osborne’s main role when she’s out at sea is as a watch leader, which was something she strived to do from the start of her sailing experience.
Osborne said that attitudes on board the ship are very different to what she experiences on land. “I try to live my life with a ‘let’s have a go’ attitude, but it’s the attitudes on land that people have that put you off.
“There’s a lot of preconceptions, like ‘you won’t have the strength to do that’ or ‘we’ve got to be careful with you’. Health and safety, in particular. It’s all too much. Let us breathe.”
The Jubilee Sailing Trust was set up in 1978 by school teacher and sailor Christopher Rudd, who wanted to give disabled children he taught the same experience as his able-bodied pupils had. Lord Nelson was built in 1984.
Tenacious, which was launched in February 2000, has taken nearly 12,000 people sailing around different parts of the world. 3,000 of those have been physically disabled and 1,000 have been wheelchair users.
Both ships are three-masted barques with a square-rig sail-plan – a design used by sailors throughout the centuries.
Neil Mildenhall, 43, who was left in a wheelchair after being involved in a road accident with a drunk driver, is another watch leader on Tenacious. He took his first voyage in 2009, four years after his accident, because he wanted some adventure.
He said: “Everyone’s all in it together. Sailing at night. Full moon. Staring up at the stars. It’s just exhilarating.”
JST volunteer Mark Newton, 61, who once stood on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar square dressed in a mock Georgian uniform to raise awareness for the charity, said his first voyage was “terrifying”, but loved every moment of it. “It’s an invaluable experience and it’s quite sad when you all part.”
The next big voyage will be aboard the Lord Nelson in October, as it makes history by becoming the first ever tall ship crewed by a mix of able-bodied and physically disabled people ever to sail around the world.
Simon Catterson, 45, captain of Tenacious since 2005, said: “One of the things that make these trips work is that there is always an element of risk and challenge involved.”
To find out more about sailing with the Jubilee Sailing Trust, click here.