Epic voyage of the veterans

It is a story of adventure in the face of adversity: twelve ex-servicemen, each missing a limb, braved high seas and dodgy prosthetics to cross the Atlantic. Terri Judd introduces the inspiring diary of their journey

With every man on board missing a limb, their journey was an epic of courage and endurance: a dozen seriously injured British servicemen have become the first all-amputee crew to complete the Atlantic Race Challenge. Accompanied by a maimed American ex-para, the members of the British Limbless Ex-Service Men's Association (Blesma) completed the 2,700 nautical miles from Sao Vincente in the Cape Verde Islands, to Bridgetown, Barbados, on the 65ft Spirit of Juno, finishing third.

Among them was Captain Bernie Bambury, 33, who survived Iraq only to lose his right leg competing on the Cresta Run in St Moritz. Capt Bambury, who still serves with the 4th Battalion, The Rifles, says that alongside such seriously injured colleagues, his below-the-knee amputation was considered merely a "flesh wound". Here are extracts from his diary.

2 November 2008, 00.10

So we've formed up. Our youngest member is Lance Corporal Chris "Herbie" Herbert, 21. Shot in the leg in Iraq, he recovered and was deployed to Afghanistan as a sniper, where he was blown up and lost his other leg! A surprisingly mature character. As for the others: Wayne "H" Harrod has a fearsome Viking tattooed across his back in honour of his Royal Anglian Battalion's title "The Vikings". Jonno Lee is sadly still struggling to get on with his prosthetic leg.

5 November 2008, 08.25

After a 22-hour journey, we finally arrived in Sao Vincente, Cape Verde, and set eyes on Spirit of Juno. A few of the more adventurous souls visited the bar at the end of the quay. The locals did not know what to make of a group of amputees suddenly descending on their town. No doubt the sight was a shock, but as ever, people get over it quickly.

The preparatory workload was quickly divided according to ability, with the below-knee amputees working above deck where greater mobility is required, and the more seriously injured looked after the galley and cabin.

8 November 2008, 08.12

One final beer in Club Nautica and we retired to our bunks. I could hardly sleep. We set sail in a couple of hours.

11 November 2008, Armistice Day

Day four of the race; seasickness has kept me from my diary so there's some catching up to do. The two watches work a daily routine: two six-hour watches during the day; and three four-hour watches at night. By the end of the first night we had nothing on the horizon and could no longer see the opposition ahead. Already the sense of being isolated can become overwhelming.

Our second day was Remembrance Sunday. We gathered on deck and Peter, our oldest member at 67, led us in a brief but moving service. We observed the two minutes' silence marked on his bosun's whistle by "Pipe Down" and "Carry On". Dry eyes were not universal. My thoughts were with the families of those outstanding men from my battlegroup who were lost last year in Iraq. The skipper cast one of our wreaths overboard and our position was logged. The other wreath was saved for Armistice Day.

12 November 2008, 14.00

We have set the clocks back an hour and are approaching halfway. During our first watch of the night we were privileged to witness the most incredible meteor – a large yellow highlighter that traversed the whole night panorama. As I write this, Herbie is at the helm for the first time and loving it. Big Chris is about to give it a go, which should be interesting since without a leg to wear, he will have to sit.

13 November 2008, 11.30

The spinnaker is no more! Last night, during a beautifully moonlit moment with Rob at the helm, the spinnaker [sail] split. We are sailing further south in an effort to get more wind for the limited rig we have remaining.

Without the shield of the main sail the sun is suddenly uncomfortably hot.

14 November 2008, 15.45

Having reverted to a direct course towards Barbados, we encounter much bigger waves. Cooking on a slippery floor when the world is shifting substantially brings its own challenges. Today is the nine-month anniversary of my amputation.

16 November 2008, 13.15

I was struck by the size of the swell in the mid-Atlantic. The waves must be between two and three storeys high. In this expanse of water one quickly feels insignificantly small.

As I write, the first mate's watch have just disappeared for their afternoon rest. As H stepped off from the cockpit his entire leg fell off! Tim, our bipedal cameraman, had to ask if he was allowed to laugh!

17 November 2008, 14.52

Only 140 miles to Barbados. The last 24 hours have been manic. A pod of dolphins visited us at 17.30 yesterday. For 30 minutes, they played in our bow wave and wake. Once the dolphins left, my watch went to bed. Sleep was not an option as we were thrown about in our bunks for the whole four hours and kept awake by the heavy rain. When finally we were roused, we emerged to find both the foresail and staysail packed away.

An astonishingly heavy downpour flattened the seas. It came at the cost of a massive reduction in visibility. This should not have posed a problem; after all, in the 1,700 miles we had covered so far, we had seen only two ships.

I was quite surprised when, as the downpour lifted and visibility increased, I spotted a freighter bearing down on us at a range of about 500m. We turned to port. For a moment, it looked as though we had been seen. The ship was changing course. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, only to be stunned to see her turn and bear down on us once more. Our skipper had me turn a full circle to port to avoid the otherwise inevitable collision. We passed with only about 200m between us.

18 November 2008

Barbados hove into view at 02.30. At 06.00, we woke the rest of the crew for our last, short, leg. It seemed appropriate that our most disabled crew member, Steve Gill, should be at the helm as we crossed the finish line at 07.00. The journey had taken us nine days and 19 hours. This would be an impressive time for able-bodied sailors. We have shown, I believe, that disability, certainly in terms of limb loss, is not a barrier to achievement. Any barriers that may exist, exist only in people's minds.

The crew

*Skipper

Colin Rouse, 51, ex-RAF sergeant from Lee-on-Solent, Hampshire. Lost leg in gas explosion on yacht

*1st Mate

Paul Burns, 47, former lance corporal with Parachute Regiment, from Farnborough. Lost left leg in 1979 after Provisional IRA bomb at Warrenpoint

*1st Watch

Charley Streather, 50, Army Catering Corps lance corporal, from Sutton-on-Sea, Lincolnshire. Lost leg in motorbike crash

Captain Daniel Psoinos, 26, ex-101st Airborne, US Army, injured in Iraq

Colour Sergeant Wayne Harrod, 39, 1st Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment, from Melksham, Wiltshire. Injured in exercise on Salisbury Plain

Steve Gill, 39, former private, 2nd Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment, from Cosby, Leicester. Lost legs and eye in bomb in Northern Ireland

Private Johnathan Lee, 25, 2nd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, from Newark. Lost right leg in Afghanistan*2nd MateNigel Smith, 49, Royal Navy Marine Engineer Mechanic, from Aylesford, Kent. Injured in road crash in Cyprus

*2nd WatchRob Copsey, 38, ex-Royal Engineers Sapper, from North Petherton near Bridgewater, Somerset. Injured by mine while on UN duties in Rwanda

Captain Bernie Bambury, 33, 4th Battalion, The Rifles, from Salisbury. Lost foot in Cresta Run

Chris Stewart, 56, former private, Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, from Nottingham. Was shot and lost right leg in Northern Ireland

Lance Corporal Chris Herbert, 21, from Barnsley. Territorial Army soldier, 1st Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment. Injured in Iraq and Afghanistan

Peter Sherston-Baker, 67, former leading seaman, Royal Navy, from Bournemouth, Dorset. Lost leg while in the Merchant Navy

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