After my week exploring Cape Town, I was ready for the part of my journey I had been most looking forward to. When I first began planning this trip around the world, I knew I wanted to sail across an ocean on a tall ship as part of the journey. For those of you that don’t, the term “tall ship” refers to the historic type of sailing, think Pirates of the Caribbean. So early on, I began researching possible ocean crossings, I eventually found one that seemed to work in to my schedule. And, as luck would have it, this particular ship fit perfectly into my trip’s overall theme of volunteering.
S.V. Tenacious is operated by an organization called the Jubilee Sailing Trust, a non-profit based out of Southampton in the UK. They operate two tall ships, Tenacious and the Lord Nelson. These are the only two tall ships in the world that are built specifically to accommodate equal opportunity sailing. The ships are wheel chair accessible. They have special a “speaking compass” and similar adaptations for people that may be blind, so they can still helm the ship. They have special alarm systems for deaf people. Additionally, any crewmember that happens to have such a disability is paired with a “buddy” that can help them as needed throughout the journey. They offer both short term voyages of a few days and longer ocean crossings of a few weeks.
On an early April afternoon, I boarded Tenacious in Cape Town to begin my Trans-Atlantic adventure. I brought my bags up the gangway, and was greeted by Ally, the first mate. She called for Lee who would be my watch leader for the next six weeks. Lee then showed me around the ship and brought me to my cabin to drop off my bags and to meet Ian, my cabinmate and “buddy”. Ian was in a wheelchair, so that is why we were in one of the cabins, as opposed to the bunks in the bow of the ship where many of the voyage crew would be sleeping. During those first few days, including a night out in Cape Town, I realized that Ian’s dry and irreverent British humor would get along well with my smart-ass sarcasm.
I found myself in a strange mindset as I met the others on board. Given the nature of Tenacious and JST, instead of just meeting people as in a normal situation, I was trying to observe others that may have a disability of one kind or another. It was a rather disappointing thought process as I reflected back upon it. Almost the exact opposite of what the entire idea of the organization is supposed to be about: moving past disabilities. Even with my good intentions, it was still easy to fall into thinking about labels rather than just getting to know a person.
As it so happened, there was no one else in a wheel chair, and other than one person who had been partially deaf when a young child, but now was enabled with a hearing aid, no one else had any real disabilities, although some of the crew were older and did have issues with mobility or sight or were a little hard of hearing.
Before setting sail from Cape Town, we had a couple of days of training to get better acquainted with the ship and its operations. This included learning how to climb the rigging. I am not a big fan of heights, so I took advantage of this time alongside the dock to practice rather than when we were on the sea rolling around. This was yet another one of the accommodations that the ship had. They had special rigging to help people in wheelchairs go up to one of the platforms on the fore mast, mostly under their own power. After our training, a small group of us helped get Ian set up so he could pull himself up the mast. It was one of the first examples of how people in the crew would work together as a team to help one another throughout the voyage.
Soon enough, we were away from the dock and, after going through immigration at the cruise terminal, we made our way out to sea under power that night. The next day, we set some of the sails, while keeping the engines on, and did some “motor sailing”. But the first few days were still focused on getting used to the ship and the routine. A few people battled with sea-sickness and getting their sea-legs. But after a bit, things became more settled, and we spent more time with the sails set and making our way through the deep blue see stretching out to the horizon.
Sailing the vast expanse of the ocean on a tall ship, a barque, to be exact, was every bit as fun as I hoped it would be. The rolling of the ship, the vast distance from civilization, the sunrises and sunsets and clear night skies, all rekindled my interest in sailing. By far, my favorite place to be was the bowsprit, out at the very front of the ship, where I could enjoy the rise and fall of the ship as it made its way through the ocean swell. Additionally, we were able to anchor or come alongside and explore beautiful and out of the way islands such as St. Helena (the final place of exile for Napoleon) and Fernando de Noronha (which limits the numbers of visitors because of its undeveloped beaches). As wonderful as the pure experience of sailing and exploring these islands were, that is not the purpose of this blog.
Throughout the journey, as we learned more, and became more adept at whatever needed to be done, whether it be cleaning the ship, or galley (kitchen) duty, or setting/handing sails, we needed to work together as a team. This also meant being able to fill in and make adjustments. It may be figuring out the best place on the line for someone that may has limited mobility when we are setting a sail. Or if someone is sick, covering them when they have galley duty, or giving them a slightly different job. This is important to the ethos of the ship that everyone is a contributing member of the crew. This teamwork also manifested itself in fun times such as shore excursions or when we went swimming off the ship while at anchor, when we may have needed a group of people to help hoist Ian out of the water, or onto a boat. This teamwork was facilitated by the many days spent at sea, getting to know one another over meals or during the hours on watch.
Given the nature of sailing across the ocean, the possibility for tedium and boredom are high. Luckily, aside from the variety of tasks needed to keep the ship running smoothly, there were activities to keep us entertained, such as quiz nights, an egg toss competition, and the requisite Neptune ceremony upon crossing the equator, among other activities.
One recurring activity were talks by members of both the permanent (official) crew and the voyage crew. The talks from the permanent crew would usually be on topics related to sailing: types of ships and sails, navigation, weather patterns and currents, identifying and avoiding crossing ships, and the like. The voyage crew would give talks about their daily lives. These talks were interesting and wide ranging given the diverse jobs of the people travelling. The topics of these talks included raising soft fruit (raspberries, strawberries, etc.), the basics of dark matter, the psychology of language learning, among many others.
As the nature of my journey, and this blog, was discovering people and organizations that are doing amazing work on behalf of a cause. Therefore, I was especially interested to hear talks related to these topics.
One woman spoke about the work she’s done with different organizations dealing with wildlife. She especially focused on Antarctic wildlife and whales. She gave in-depth perspective to the variety of threats and work being done to protect these animals. Another talk was given by the voyage’s ship doctor. He and his wife had gone on a medical trip to Nepal last year as part of an organization called “Show You Care” which was founded, and is run, by a former monk. He described the various issues facing this remote part of Nepal. But also how the efforts of the organization providing education and proper medical care to the people.
Later in the voyage, after he became more comfortable with the idea of it, Ian gave a talk about spinal cord injuries and how people, and their families, cope when they occur. He also spoke about his work at the National Spinal Injuries Centre in the UK where he works with people that have relatively recently suffered a spinal cord injury. Hearing his talk helped bring so much more into focus, such as the immediate despair that victims suffer and the timeline of about 3 years on average for them to “settle” into their situation. But he also pointed out how effective disabled employees are in the workforce, that they often take less sick days and are found to be amongst the most productive in their teams. Yet so many people, only see the disability and not their capability.
But one important lesson that he imparted, that everyone should take away, is how true growth occurs when you push out of your comfort zone. He said that he had been giving that advice to his clients for years, and when he heard about JST and the possibility to sail across the ocean while in a wheelchair, he decided to take his own advice and push himself to do something that scared him. Towards the end of the journey, during one of our many conversations while on watch, he told me that despite the struggles he had at the beginning, this had been one of those deep life experiences that he will always be able to look back upon and say “I did that.”
After six weeks, and almost 6000 miles, an equator crossing, and stops at three different islands along the way, we arrived in Antigua. We had some end-of-voyage celebrations to top off an incredible journey. Then the day came when we had to disembark the ship which had been our home for a month and a half. There were the hugs and goodbyes and promises to keep in touch as crew members made their way to the airport or to their accommodations. Eventually, it was my turn to grab my bags and leave as well. Walking away, the sight of the ship was still as impressive as it was when I first saw it in Cape Town. But I now I could look at it and say, “I did that.”
Jubilee Sailing Trust: The UK-based charity that operates SV Tenacious and her sister ship SV Lord Nelson, the only two tall-ships in the world designed for equal opportunity sailing. The website shows their upcoming voyages, ranging from a few days to a few weeks.
United Nations Environment Programs: During the talk about Antarctic wildlife and whales. This oversees many specific programs
International Whaling Commission: Organization that oversees studies, conservation, and management of the world’s whale species
Show You Care: Organization in Nepal that our ship’s doctor joined for a medical volunteer trip last year
National Spinal Injuries Centre: UK center offering support for spinal injury victims, where my sailing buddy, Ian, works.