Making sailing history

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The Independent Online

When yachtsman Geoff Holt, from Shedfield near Southampton, became the first quadriplegic to sail singlehandedly around Britain in 2007, he caught the public’s imagination. Spurred on by that, he’s recently gone one better, by conquering the Atlantic, again the first quadriplegic to do so.

Proving that disability needn’t be a barrier to incredible sporting achievement, Holt, 43, took four weeks (arriving on 7 January this year) to complete the 2,700-mile transatlantic crossing. His 60ft purpose-built wheelchair-accessible catamaran was fitted with special equipment so he could control it unaided and he had a carer and cameraman on board (neither of whom helped with the sailing), but he grappled with power failure, contaminated fuel and light winds along the way.

Holt had spent some time in Lanzarote getting the boat ready before setting off, but couldn’t know that the fuel he would start the crossing with was contaminated. Faced with a choice of going back, with the winds against him, or carrying on, he detoured to the Cape Verde islands, which cost him around 10 days. By the time he was back on track, the weather patterns had changed and unusually – and disastrously – there was hardly any wind.

Generator problems meant that Holt spent a lot of time steering the boat by hand, which he found very tiring, living on just chocolate and crisps by the end because they couldn’t cook food without the generator.

Looking back on the voyage, he says: “I expected to do it quicker and I expected the sailing to be much harder, but the sailing was easier. The really difficult thing was coping with my disability.

“This may sound strange, but I don’t feel disabled. I don’t take any notice of my disability, it’s just something that’s there. It was different on the boat because every aspect of it highlighted and magnified my disability, making everything 20-30 times harder than on dry land. It took a lot of energy for me to stay upright in my wheelchair during the crossing.”

Holt finished his voyage in Cane Garden Bay on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, chosen because it was where he had the swimming accident that left him paralysed from the shoulders down at the age of 18. Incredibly, he sees going back there as a celebration. “I’d sailed the Atlantic three times before the accident and if I was going to do it after being paralysed, Cane Garden Bay was where I wanted to go,” he says. “I didn’t do it to get closure, I wanted it to be a celebration.

“I really do see it as a celebration – if my accident hadn’t have happened, I wouldn’t have met my wife [she was his nurse] and had my son. If I could go back, I wouldn’t change a minute of it because I’m the luckiest man alive.”

He was helped on his way by Great Britons, a competition run by British Airways to help talented individuals and groups achieve their dreams by giving them flights to BA destinations all over the world. Fortunately for Holt, who couldn’t find a sponsor and had to fund the crossing himself, at a cost of around £50,000, he won flights for his family to the British Virgin Islands and flights for both him and them back to the UK.

The competition is ultimately decided by a public vote and Holt got a lot of support, something he’s become used to. “When I sailed around Britain in 2007, I learned that lots of people followed me, took an interest in what I was doing and were inspired by it and wrote to me,” he says.

“And it’s not just disabled people – most of them were people having a difficult time in their lives and they told me that what I was doing gave them the strength to carry on. I didn’t know most of those people – that’s a big responsibility, which I take really seriously, and I’m delighted to help people if I can.”

While Holt will be enjoying a much-deserved rest for the time being, he’s already thinking about what his next challenge could be and is considering going global. He says: “Sailing around the world would be a massive undertaking, but I’ve proved during this crossing that a high-level quadriplegic can exist on a moving platform at sea.

“I’d need a bigger and faster boat, more carers and a sponsor, but it’s there to be done – no quadriplegic ever has – and I’m the man to do it.”