Travel: Setting sail for France... in a wheelchair

Sandra Britton finds that it is just about possible to negotiate life on a square-rigged sailing ship - even when you are confined to a wheelchair

Until recently my seagoing experiences had been confined to mackerel fishing five yards offshore at Torquay and a tour of the replica of the Golden Hind at Brixham. There my acquaintance with all things nautical ends. So how do I find myself at sea in the Lord Nelson, the world's first square rigged sailing ship designed for able- bodied and disabled sailors?

A memorable sentiment was expressed in the joining instructions from The Jubilee Sailing Trust: "We deal in dreams. We do not deal in fantasies."

For the first 48 hours, I wondered if my dream was going to turn into a nightmare. After drawing foul weather gear, signing articles, practising evacuation procedures, duties started as soon as we left Southampton. We were split up into four watches each of 10 people, a mixture of disabled and non-disabled crew from all backgrounds, from 18 to 78. Some were complete novices like me and others were experts sailing for the twentieth time, brought back by love of the ship, the sea and the camaraderie.

Our watch bonded surprisingly quickly into a team, rotating look-outs and taking turns at the helm. As I have trouble with "left hand down a bit" on land I was predictably useless, but the officer on watch was unfailingly patient whilst I steered 15 degrees off course.

At the end of the first day, completely exhausted, I manoeuvred into my bunk thinking this had not been one of my better ideas. There is no denying the cramped conditions below decks, especially for those with mobility impairments. Although there are lifts between decks, trying to negotiate wheelchairs in narrow, sloping gangways and transferring to toilets and showers is much more difficult than moving about on land, with the result that initially I felt more disabled than at home.

There are other aids including an audio compass and tactile surfaces for visually impaired people and flashing lights accompany loud alarms for those with hearing impairments. The Lord Nelson is due for a major refit in November when facilities will be improved even further, and a second ship currently under construction will be some 15 to 20 per cent bigger.

The next day passed in a similar blur of permanent nausea despite pills, a mill-pond sea and acupressure wrist bands. An incentive to get over seasickness is Bill's cooking. He produces massive breakfasts, delicious three course lunches and dinners, often using local produce, as well as home baked scones and flapjacks.

Wind and tides meant that we were on something of a mystery tour, but Captain John Fisher told us we were heading in the general direction of the Channel Islands. All the permanent crew are superb; not just in terms of their seamanship, but in their good-humoured willingness to teach the most dedicated landlubbers like me.

On watch during the second night it was ghostly on the bridge, watching the stars and a beautiful eclipse of the moon, the only other light coming from the green glow of the radar in the Chart Room. The sails filled gently and everything was quiet except for the creaking and soft splashing of waves on the hull. I had stopped feeling sick and realised with some surprise that, after all the frenetic activity of the last two days, I actually felt, if not happy, at least peaceful. Could I be getting the bug? Or would my reservations return with the new day?

When we woke, we were manoeuvring into harbour, not at Alderney, but at Fecamp in Normandy. Some of us went ashore for a disappointing dinner at a fish restaurant on the quay, and wished we'd stayed on board. Those who did had a good old- fashioned singsong in the bar, complete with guitar and mouth-organ for the sea shanties. You don't have to join in the social activities - the bar - if you don't want to, because the ship is big enough to lose yourself with a book if that is your preference.

After Fecamp, the Captain tells us we are going to head through the Dover Straits in what he euphemistically calls "a bit of a bouncy sea". Although I still have a problem with fatigue, I've conquered sea-sickness and I am beginning to enjoy myself.

At Zeebrugge, after negotiating one of the biggest locks in the world, we dock, disembark and set off for Bruges. Medieval streets are not wheelchair- friendly, so it means a bumpy ride for me and a hard slog for Claire, my "buddy" from Swansea.

Initially, I refused the invitation to be hoisted up the mast in my wheelchair. Non-disabled new friends had scampered up venturing out on the yards to unfurl sails, swaying precariously on the foot ropes. I am scared of heights, but I also resisted because I felt if I couldn't do it properly then I didn't want to do it at all.

But compromise prevailed as it usually has to, and I found myself swinging skywards, encouraged by the rest of the crew hauling on the ropes. Bosun Piers was there to guide me onto the platform and when I tentatively fluttered my eyelids open, I found it was just as big a buzz as everyone had said it would be.

Our final call was to Middelburg in Holland, reached by a long narrow canal which goes right into the centre of town. Wherever she goes, the Lord Nelson attracts hordes of sightseers. Sea Scouts leapt into dinghies to escort us, families on bicycles waved from the towpath, bikers waiting at raised bridges saluted us.

Middelburg is a wonderful place for wheelchair users. There is little traffic and smooth flat pavements have appropriately lowered kerbs; all the shops and cafes are accessible. Add Dutch friendliness and cleanliness and you have a definite must for a revisit. We browsed in the fleamarket and then sat in the sun at one of the cafes lining the main square, eating hot cherries and listening to a carillon of Beethoven pealing from the tower of Middelburg Abbey.

And so back to the reality of the Thames Estuary, through the Flood Barrier, past Docklands and on up the river under the raised Tower Bridge to London Pier, all completely foreign, fascinating territory to me. We waved regally to watchers on their warehouse balconies, though nobody waved back.

If you're severely disabled take someone who knows your specific needs to help you. The Trust acknowledges this may not always be possible, so a "Buddy Bank" to help those unable to find someone with the time and cash available is currently being compiled.

There are shorter voyages and on reflection, as a first-timer, I think it would have been better for me to have started with one of those rather than a nine day trip, mainly because the routine of the ship and disrupted sleep can be very tiring, but also because I discovered I'm a rotten sailor.

Thousands of disabled and non-disabled people have met the Lord Nelson challenge and thousands more will enjoy adventures on the new ship due to be finished in 1999. My own feelings are ambivalent, but I do have one abiding memory which made everything worthwhile.

As dawn broke on one windless 4am to 8am watch, a flat milky turquoise sea merged into the sky, the horizon only distinguished when sea and sky were split by the rising of a brilliant pink sun. It was truly breathtaking.

voyage fact file

The 1998 Voyage programme is obtainable from:

The Jubilee Sailing trust, Jubilee Yard, Hazel road, Woolston, Southampton, SO19 7GB.

Tel: 01703 449138, Fax: 01703 449145

E-mail: jst@jstorg.uk. Web site: http://www.jst.org.uk

Prices from pounds 245 but if money is a problem grants are available and JST can advise on how to obtain sponsorship.

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