From a crew member who travelled on the Kochi voyage in India aboard Lord Nelson…
How many times have you walked passed a blind person or someone in a wheelchair and felt a pang of sympathy? How many times has this made you think about doing something to help those in need? As a result you may have chucked a few quid into a donation box or even set up a direct debit to a charity. And that may have helped, sure. But has it changed your perceptions of the disabled? Has it taught you anything about their lives, about their attitude towards you or your attitude towards them? Probably not.
When I was a kid, I watched a program on BBC 2 about a young deaf lad trying to make his way around London on his own. Being a fairly sensitive child, I was really choked up when a bus driver got aggressive towards him because he couldn’t tell him where he wanted to go or understand a word the bus driver was saying. I could not believe that this lad was being treated so badly. My mum, watching me get upset, told me not to be so sensitive and that I couldn’t feel sorry for everyone. I was, at the time, utterly stunned that she could be so hard-nosed about it and thought that she was as bad as the bus driver. But between us – me, mum and the bus driver, nobody had any real experience of dealing with the disabled, so we were in no position to judge, direct, sympathise or impose our view on anyone – least of all someone with a disability we had no comprehension of.
I guess, what I’m getting at, in my roundabout way, is that all of us – that’s everyone on the planet – should be making an effort to get involved and meet as many people from as many different backgrounds and abilities as possible so that we can broaden our ability to interact, understand and become friends with as many people as possible.
This view hasn’t just come from a one-off incident watching a speciality broadcast on BBC 2 twenty five years ago – I’ve had a much more recent experience that has helped me see the bigger picture. I went to India. To sail a Tall Ship. It sounds pretty cool and in reality it’s even cooler than that because the ship that I was to sail on, is run by the Jubilee Sailing Trust. The JST is a charity that has custom-built two tall ships that have been specifically designed to be manned by both able bodied and disabled crew. So when you sail with them, its not a pleasure cruise, its kind of a job – you are responsible for helping the ship get to where it needs to go.
So, I arrive in India with my partner in crime for the voyage and we eventually (after a hellishly long stop over in Delhi) reach the coastal city of Kochi. It is beyond hot. There is jungle everywhere and a lot of bureaucratically inspired Indian natives that we need to negotiate in order to firstly find out where the ship has been parked (or berthed to use the correct vernacular) and secondly to show our ID’s and VISA’s so we don’t get thrown out of the country. With a head full of jet lag, some serious heat to contend with and a language barrier that’s not even remotely workable, we find ourselves a little stuck. Just when I start to think that we’re having a hard time and this will never work, we bump into Bill.
Bill is completely blind.
He’s very nearly 70 years old and he is as cool as cucumber. We correctly guessed that he was going to be on our voyage and approach him to check he’s ok. “Oh aye” he says in a soft scottish accent. A brilliant greeting on all manner of levels. Our first question, of course, was ‘How did you get here?’ – naturally thinking that it was some gargantuan task. In typically droll fashion he replied ‘In a taxi.’ What we really meant to say was ‘How on earth did you get here unscathed on your own when you can’t see a bloody thing?’ Which tells you much more about our attitude than his.
It turns out that Bill, having gradually lost his sight over the last 20 years, was keen to do something for his 70th birthday and having enjoyed a bit of local sailing decided to take the plunge and come on a three week voyage with the JST. We would be with him for seven days. Afterwards, he and our ship, the Lord Nelson, would go on to Singapore. Bill was on his own. No travel partner. No guide. Just Bill. Balls of steel comes to mind. Especially when I had been fretting like a little girl about seasickness (sorry ladies, turn of phrase).
So, within an hour or so of finding our feet in India we had met Bill. He is completely blind and completely unhindered by the process of getting a plane from Glasgow to Dubai, from Dubai to Kochi and then making his way to the port where we are now sat trying to establish where our pirate ship was being hidden so we could board and meet the rest of the crew.
In the process of trying to board the ship we decide to get to know Bill a little better and it speaks volumes of our perception that every question began with ‘But aren’t you worried about…’ or ‘How did you manage…’ or ‘Weren’t you afraid that…’
It turns out that Bill isn’t afraid of anything. He had concerns of course, but the way he tells it, what else are you going to do? Sit in? Stay Still? Wither away? Balls to that. Sail the seven seas.
Inspirational isn’t a good enough word.
Eventually we get to the ship. The Lord Nelson. I have never truly sailed any kind of boat. I have two boat stories and both involve being sick on the ferry from Fishguard to Waterford – and one of them was at night. Hardcore, I know. Despite having read a ton of literature and having seen hundreds of pictures before the voyage, nothing quite prepares you for stepping aboard a tall ship and realising that this is your home for the next seven days. It’s intoxicatingly exciting, even if you are way more petrified than the blind guy you have just arrived with and more so than several wheelchair users who are bombing about like the boat is a giant swaying skate park.
There is a very structured system aboard the ship. Everyone is put into a team called a Watch. Each watch has to perform specific duties and within each watch there are a mix of abled bodied and disabled crew. What’s more, each disabled crew member is partnered with an able crew member. I was partnered with Bill, which was a brilliant coincidence. Over the course of the voyage I am privileged to say I got to know Bill really well and we had a really good laugh. It was an incredible insight into the way his life works now that he can’t see and it was the perfect way to discover how I made assumptions about how his attitude would be effected. I assumed he would have lighter duties, would get less involved and be kind of standoffish. No way José. Bill did everything. And he did it out of pure lust for adventure. Out of a desire to experience everything. The most astounding part about this was that the permanent crew on Lord Nelson weren’t surprised at all. They fully expected him to get involved. They made sure it happened. No kid gloves. No speciality handling. Just a gung-ho attitude and a real, honest-to-god fair treatment of all on board. I have never seen anything like it. Ever. They made allowances where they had to – you can’t just say ‘Bill, pick that rope up’ you have to tailor it somewhat – but once you get your head round that, it’s business as usual.
When you meet people like Bill it utterly flips everything you think you know on its head. I consider myself a worldly guy. Someone who would try pretty much anything and who has more guts than a lot of his mates. But compared to the majority of those I met on Lord Nelson, I’m a grain of sand in the desert. But you don’t feel small when you talk to them and learn how they have come to be so cool – it’s one of the most empowering, inspiring things you can experience. I honestly believe that there should be some kind of national service to make people experience this.
What you learn is that your own problems, your own attitude is shaped by your own perceptions. You have no physical impediment that imposes itself on you – and yet all of us moan all of the time – about absolutely nothing most of the time. Meet someone who has every right to be pissed off with their lot in life, who should be feeling pushed around by their condition and you will see that it is your mind that needs freeing and if you could have one tiny speck of their bravery, you could change your life forever.
Do something amazing. Learn to sail a tall ship with some people that will change your life. You’ll come back richer.