I’m not a sailor, I don’t go on boats unless I have to and my only skirmishes with the sea otherwise are paddling in the gentle waves that lap the beautiful beaches of Jersey on a hot sunny day. So volunteering for this was definitely not driven by a love of the sea or sailing.
The seeds were probably first sown way back in Boston, partly from knowing the proud heritage of the first Pilgrim Fathers in 1607, whose later attempts helped found what we know today as North America. From a Council house in the aptly named Mayflower Road, where I spent some of my youth, and most definitely from that first meeting with my late Grandfathers second wife Jean, whose life inspired me to do this. Jean’s battle with TB had left her badly disabled from an early age, restricting her growth and condemning her to a life of painful leg calipers. built up shoes, crutches and wheelchairs. Yet until her death aged nearly 90 she never gave in – and inspired the many people who were lucky enough to share her warmth, intelligence and wicked sense of humour. To me she was Jean, my loving, feisty, independent Grandma. When you learn to see the person, the disability just vanishes away.
The Jubilee Sailing Trust and the STS Lord Nelson.
There is literally tons to read about the Charity and the ships….go to https://jst.org.uk/ – they tell it best. The key point here is that the Lord Nelson has been fully modified to be able to carry people with the most severe of disabilities making it pretty unique, and enabling such life changing journeys as I am going to describe. The other key thing is that it looks like an old sailing ship, it has rigging, and sails – and that stirred my imagination.
Barclays Bank had decided that it would support the circumnavigation of Britain commencing in London on 3rd May and via an anti-clockwise passage spread over 11 separate legs, return the Lord Nelson to London on the 2nd June. As I write the ship is preparing for the last leg of that journey. Every leg included “selected” volunteers from Barclays staff all of whom raised enough money to pay for their own passage plus that of a buddy with disabilities, chosen from their local communities. So in Jersey for the 8 months before the trip, a succession of fundraising events from car washes, to packing shopping, cake baking, sky diving, raffles has driven most of Barclays Jersey to financial ruin.
The day had finally arrived and the warm sun, blue skies and light winds bode well. The ship had been the center of attention in Jersey harbour for 24 hours, and why not, these types of ships don’t visit often. It simply heightened the sense of privilege.
My buddy – Ray
Originally I hadn’t been pre-assigned a buddy, but a late change paired me up with Ray, who I hadn’t really met before but would be my crew mate for the voyage. I made a conscious decision not to ask Ray about his condition – I could easily see how it manifested itself – but I’d concluded that he had far more courage than I did in simply getting on the boat. Why not escape for a few days? Ray proved to be everyone’s equal, and interestingly the way he had learned to cope with balance issues on dry land were a bonus on a swaying ship, he didn’t get seasick (like some) and it simply reinforced the quote I’d heard – “disabled people cope better because they always have to cope”. Ray was a star who everyone took to heart. And an utterly brilliant helmsman – seeing him hunched over the magnetic compass, nose an inch from the dial, squinting intently at the readings and making small adjustments to the wheel – was extremely touching – keeping that big old ship smack on course in the vast expanses of the English Channel. We never had the conversation about his condition – wasn’t needed, it dissolved away just like that of my Grandma. Just two blokes having a whale of a time.
The evening tide turned and we were out of harbour. Because this was a comparatively short sail (3-4 days) we anchored overnight in Jersey’s beautiful St Brelades Bay. Somewhat frustrating to almost be able to see my flat from the boat, and giving up home comforts, but nevertheless a stunning vista of Jersey’s finest beach. Day 2, brought the most superb weather, nary a cloud in the sky, light winds and heat – what a day to be aboard. We spent the day being sailors – learning about the masts, learning about rope work and the highlight – going aloft. Which meant climbing the rigging up to the yardarms on the masts. Even for the able bodied this is a challenge – requiring dexterity, a touch of strength, an ability with heights etc. For those less able – everything and anything is possible, from assisted climbing through to being hoisted by ropes. As it turned out this presented probably the most popular and memorable moment of the trip.
One of the buddies, Nick, was the only wheelchair bound person aboard. He decided he would like to see the view form the platform on the first yardarm of the main mast. This would involve a full wheelchair lift, overseen by the crew and powered by the volunteers and other buddies. That meant lots of rope pulling. It was a truly magnificent few moments to see Nick’s smooth ascent to the Platform, and his obvious enjoyment of seeing a sight that his condition would never ever had allowed. If the entire rationale for the journey could be captured in one small moment – this was it. I have no idea why, but the roof scene from Shawshank popped into my head and Morgan Freeman saying ” we sat…..with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men”. I think everyone caught something of that – Nick’s smile made the effort worthwhile. I gave a small nod to the sky and thanks for the life I have been blessed with.
And then we were off on the tide – sailing at last – goodbye Jersey. And in the style of skipper Barbara, the sails were up – more rope pulling….and so began the “race for the Race”. Our routing took us north-east towards the tip of France before a hard turn to Port and then northwards through the Alderney Race, a notorious and treacherous stretch of extremely fast water and brutal tides. Timing had to be everything. There has been many a sailor come unstuck in these waters. I was lucky enough to be on the
20.00 – midnight watch – which coincided with the passage through the Race. You could cut the tension on the Helm with a knife, we knew via the Crew’s activity that this was tricky – so helming had a real element of pressure, particularly in the darkness. To add to the difficulty the ship had to “sail close to the wind”, funny how many everyday phrases emanate from sailing – but this involved effectively sailing almost against the wind, at the tiniest of angles, to the extremes that the sails could handle. Any deviation from course would cause the ship to stall, the wind be on the wrong side of the sails – and big trouble. It is to the credit of the Crew that they would entrust a large part of the helming to a group of absolute amateurs. My recollection of that shift – cold, dark, bumpy, stubbornly windy, tense and particularly tiring – yet enthralling and deeply satisfying when we left the Race.
The watch that followed – midnight to 04.00 – had even more stress as they helmed a sailboat through one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and had a rather narrow escape with an uncommunicative super tanker – I was thankful to miss that, trying to grapple with getting an hour or two’s sleep.
The 3rd day dawned much calmer and we were making good progress towards the UK mainland. The skipper decided on a bit of “sailing” which meant effectively turning the ship around and sailing into open sea for a few hours, again almost against the wind. The time then to head back to moor overnight coincided with our evening watch and I was at the helm when the order came to turn. That required “all hands on deck” to brace the yards and re-configure the sails, this manoeuvre would be done using nothing but the wind. As helmsman I was excused the rope pulling but had to steer the ship – lucky I thought – until the skipper came onto the bridge…..big pressure. What followed was a master class (well I think so anyway) – skipper leaning over the side shouting the mast changes, and then coming to the helm and barking co-ordinates at me – steer 030, now take it to 045, OK so head due North, 10 to Port on the Rudder, hold at 040, we need to make 5 knots, the tides running at 17, steer 050….and so on. Give me a set of financial statements and a cashflow forecast any day of the week. And in the distance all I could hear was the cries of ” 2, 6 heave”, ” 2, 6 heave” as my pals put their back into shifting the rigging. To see the ship gradually turn 360 was a magnificent sight. Skipper again – “I bet that yacht is wondering what the hell we are doing”, me – “eerrrrrm what yacht”? Skipper – “yes we must make sure we don’t hit him”…me (very timidly) “eerrrrrm where is he”? Skipper – “it’s OK 50 metres to spare”……!!! On reflection, what a time to have a 1:1 sailing lesson.
We moored for the night in the gorgeous Warbarrow Bay, just off the Jurassic coast. The night watches were treated to a phenomenal thunder and lightning storm, whilst the rest of us tried to scramble some sleep.
Day 4, bit cool and misty and it’s off to Poole, navigating the final few miles into harbour. First mate Lesley came looking for a volunteer who had been in the RIB on Day 1. As I had been a lines-man and assisted with bringing up the drawbridge, I volunteered. Basically the job would be to go with 3rd mate Chris and motor alongside the boat and assist with mooring in Poole – what a bonus. It did though mean donning a very glamorous oilskin suit……Captain Birdseye eat your heart out.
My colleagues thought it hilarious that probably the only person on board that couldn’t swim was actually going to be bombing about in a RIB in Poole harbour…..interestingly at no time in the process of doing this voyage had anyone ever actually asked me if I could swim….such is the high standard of safety these days I suspect. My poor old PT teacher Mr Dunn will be rolling his eyes now – the time he invested, the number of lessons I had – and I still can’t to this day. Anyway Lesley did say – take your camera if you can…..so armed with my IPAD…..I descended the ladder onto the RIB. Chris thought this hilarious and warned me I’d get very wet, and could lose the thing overboard….etc. And he duly obliged on the first issue, providing an absolute tank slapper into a wave that completely soaked me and ruined my perfect hairdo..!!! And much to the approbation of the rest of the crew who cheered….bah!
Seriously what a stroke of luck – seeing the ship from a completely different perspective, dodging around the harbour and getting a real sense of freedom. Two of my best pictures came from that – considering these were shot on an IPAD bouncing around at 4 knots – I’m happy.
And then it was over all too quickly. The ship came alongside at Poole which delighted the locals, we had a little bit more work to do in erecting the gangplank, we dashed on board to have a final small meal and then we were free to go and say our Goodbyes.
This blog is very much from my own perspective. The beauty of these trips is that whilst when afloat we are all a small community, everyone’s journey is different, everyone get’s something that others may not. We all start and finish in the same place, but different bonds are made, different stories are formed, people react differently to sailing.
The ship is brilliantly resourced for the disabled buddies, but it is cosy. Sleeping in a bunk bed is not the height of luxury particularly if you are used to a King Size. I did promise Ray (lower bunk) that I would endeavour not to stand on him whilst exiting (upper bunk) and I managed to do that. Facilities are practical not plush. Everyone has a Watch card – which means they are on the bridge – I thought the later Watches – 20.00 – midnight, midnight – 04.00 and 04.00 – 08.00 were particularly hard on those that did them. Getting enough sleep is a challenge. Sea conditions overall weren’t that bad, but a few bumpy bits – so a small few felt a bit queasy but otherwise most people coped. Everyone did Mess duty, which meant shifts covering lunch, dinner and breakfast, serving, clearing up, washing up etc. Smoko – everyone’s favourite – an old word for a cig or coffee/tea break – where twice a day the cook laid out 2 trays of cakes/biscuits – and as if by magic they disappeared in 5 seconds flat…..I think Smoko is definitely coming to my Risk team….! The flip side of that is I will never consider “Happy Hour” in the same light again – as basically this is where you clean and scrub the ship. There is a bar, albeit for those going on watch or leaving watch, or too sleep deprived, not really in play, but it was a good place to socialise and everyone was very sensible. Shippovich even played Barman.
The brilliant volunteer crew, watch leaders, cooks etc all ensured that the ship ran smoothly, providing a watchful eye, and a hand on the tiller if required to keep things straight – and it a remarkable testimony to them that they hand the ship over time after time to disparate groups of people, many disabled, and undertake the most amazing voyages around the world. This ship has sailed over 52,000 miles – just over the circumference of the planet.
4 days previously we fell out of our lives, our routines, a disparate set of people, some who knew each other, some strangers, most of us going into a world we didn’t really understand. How many people reading this have sailed such a ship before? And the magic of the human spirit then fashioned a community – no rank, no privileges, everyone doing their share, no special treatment etc. Our crew for instance included the two Barclays chief country officers in the Channel Islands. In the real world of Barclays very senior people but on Leg 10, just two of the lads, mucking in, having a great time, enjoying the banter. And everyone looking out for everyone else drama free. And as I’ve described some “life changing” and “life enhancing” moments, new friendships born, photos to be shared, blogs to be written and when Leg 11 comes to a close, many hundreds of people across Britain that can say “job well done”.
When we trooped off the boat in Poole, stowed the bags and found an appropriate hostelry, I mused about being returned to my former life of 4 days prior, but something has definitely changed I just can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe the power of the ocean, maybe understanding how blessed my life has been, maybe feeling a tad smug that I volunteered and definitely having enjoyed the people I was privileged to sail with. Whatever it is I am sure it will come out. In the meantime, I can close the lid on this particular treasure chest of memories, safely banked. I hope that the reader also may have taken something from my humble blog.
As the last few lines go down on the page one final thought for my Grandma whose memory sparked this off – I hope somewhere out there in the vast expanse of the Sea she may have touched her forelock and given an approving nod – not just for me but for all who sailed the Lord Nelson.