Great Yarmouth to Sunderland on the Lord Nelson, by Rob Kinsman
So it started out as something that sounds like the pitch for a sitcom. Some sailors, some bankers and a group of people with disabilities take a ship into the North Sea. Hilarity / adventure / a civil war ensue.
My first sight of The Lord Nelson was, of course, one of awe.
“Look at all the strings,” said my friend.
“Hmmm,” I replied.
It clearly wasn’t the kind of awe easily put into words.
Despite the obvious risks of a journey on a Tall Ship – woodworm, pirates, Kraken attack, etc. – the thing people seemed most concerned about was the fact there wouldn’t be any wifi or mobile phone signal onboard, apparently because we’d be charting a course straight to the 1980s. Eventually this settled into a sanguine, happy calm at a return to simpler, more meaningful times. Needless to say that when we did occasionally stumble across a signal this attitude was the first thing overboard.
Once we’d signed in blood to join the crew we were shown to a long corridor that looked a bit like the sort of little tombs you see in the catacombs in an Indiana Jones movie. These turned out to be the “bedrooms”. The disabled people were all matched up with a buddy, which I took as shorthand for butler. We were then given a briefing by the permanent crew on the various things we’d need to know, the key phrase being that everything was ‘fluid and ‘dynamic’. For those the seasickness tablets didn’t help this quickly became a prophecy.
Once we were underway it was time for those of us with disabilities to start facing up to the realities of getting about the ship. Before we left we had to fill in a medical questionnaire which asked things like, “Are you able to use a toilet and shower unassisted?”. The answer to which is yes, but they’re not normally moving when I try. As a wheelchair user this basically meant that I was like a bowling ball on a seesaw, alternately hurtling towards the sea and then then struggling to move an inch up a hill that had suddenly formed in front of me. This was where my butler / buddy came in, as it does turn out to be quite helpful to have someone that can get from the bridge to your bunk in under five minutes when it turns out some vital item has been left behind.
During the voyage we had various tasks to perform. One of these was lookout, which sadly didn’t turn out to mean that I could just yell, “Iceberg, dead ahead!” every ten minutes until someone threw me overboard. When we were anchored the lookout shifts involved using the radar by turning two little knobs that moved a circle and a line until they reached the correct squiggle in what looked like a low-definition X-ray of a croissant. If this was 1986 it would have been a sure-fire hit on the ZX Spectrum.
Another thing we were tasked with was steering the ship. The wheel looked impressive, though I assumed it wasn’t really connected to anything and that a grown up was doing some proper steering somewhere out of sight. It would certainly explain the delay between turning the wheel and the ship moving, which the crew explained away as physics.
No sailing trip would be complete without pulling on lots of ropes, and this trip certainly didn’t shirk on that front. Not that I could follow quite what any of them did because to further complicate things each rope has a different name, a consequence of it being very lonely at sea. I think rope duties perhaps best exemplify the best qualities a journey like this entails: team-work, something that everyone was able to get involved with to some degree regardless of their disability (ability), and borderline incomprehensible nautical language.
The clear highlight for most people was the chance to climb the mast, mainly because it was cheaper than buying tickets for Go Ape. This, surprisingly, turned out to be something that people with every level of ability / disability were able to do. For wheelchair users with the upper body strength to do it we were able to haul ourselves up the main mast on a kind of pulley system. As someone who’s not keen on heights this initially seemed daunting, but when I saw the faces of my crewmates staring at me like the villagers from The Wicker Man I was more than glad to be swinging wildly out of reach of them and their pitchforks. Other wheelchair users were able to be hoisted up in their chairs, meaning everyone got a chance for the most spectacular view of the sea glistening in the brilliant light of the sun. Pure, natural magic. In the other direction was Sunderland.
In the evenings people retired to the atmospheric bar, which reminded me of the scene in Jaws where the heroes discuss previous deadly encounters with a fearsome predator. We discussed the bedding in the Premier Inn some of us had stayed in the previous night, which was possibly less inspiring. But I’m sitting typing this in the bar on the last night, and there’s been a constant stream of people coming and going; talking; drinking and playing games together. And it’s something that bankers, sailors and disabled people have all been participating in together like old friends. Which, I suppose, is the point.