The Tall Ships Race: Breaking barriers onboard

Tall Ship will be in Sunderland between Wednesday, 11 July and Saturday, 14 July. Ellie Lyall, the University's Tall Ships Ambassador, who is in the final year of her BA Journalism degree, looks back STS Lord Nelson, a tall ship created for people who love the challenge of the sea, regardless of their abilitiy.

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Everybody gets a chance to go up the masts on STS Lord Nelson, regardless of ability.

Wheelchair-bound Jamil Khan was one of those brave enough to venture up the 30-metre mast. He was sitting in a makeshift chair, slightly resembling a hammock, attached to several lines being held by two separate teams on opposite sides.

As he was being hauled up, he broke the silence by bursting into song.

"I believe I can fly," he bellowed at the top of his voice. At this point everyone erupted into laughter and Jamil became a legend on board from that point on.

Moments like this are why ships like Lord Nelson exist: to bring together people of all abilities through sail training.

STS Lord Nelson, also known as Nelly, was the first ship designed by Jubilee Sailing Trust (JST), a charity dedicated to its mission to "promote the integration of people of all physical abilities through the challenge and adventure of sailing tall ships on the open sea".

She is named after Britain's most prolific disabled sailor: Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, famed for his naval victories during the Napoleonic wars that resulted in the loss of sight in his right eye as well as his right arm.

Nelly comes with a variety of features giving access for disabled crew. This includes wider decks and powered lifts for wheelchair users, Braille signs and a speaking compass so visually impaired crew get a chance to steer at the helm, an induction loop and vibrating alarms for hearing impaired crew members, as well as special cabins and bathroom facilities.

Jamil, who was born without legs and only three fingers on one of his hands, had never sailed on a tall ship before, so he had no idea what to expect when he joined the ship in April last year.

"It was a real eye-opener," he said. "I couldn’t really imagine it at first how accessible it would be. But, honest to God, when we carried out our first evacuation drills, seeing how organised that was, it was reassuring that, in the case of an emergency, you would be out straight away. They really took pride in that. It was amazing.

"I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. I’ve been through school, college, university, work, and the accessibility is always kind of there but you never really feel like they’re taking your side as seriously. But it was completely different on that ship.

"The core crew were amazing. They were really interactive and very inclusive, encouraging us all to have a go at things, like the climbing, which nobody had really done before. They didn’t molly-coddle us, which I noticed. They treat us like individuals."

That sense of individuality and independence was something Jamil particularly loved about the ship.

"Very few people in wheelchairs work," he explains. "I’m one of two people in a wheelchair who work in my office. So, we’re a bit of a novelty in that sense anyway, but on the ship that wasn’t the case. There were three or four of us. Since there were more of us in wheelchairs, it meant we all had our own individuality as part of the group.

"I wasn’t really aware of opportunities like this or organisations like JST before. I had lived in the mainstream all my life, having this disability from birth. It is great to know these things are out there for people."

That being said, Jamil doesn't think he will return to Nelly, as he only wanted to test himself to see what he was capable of and believes that kind of experience is "once in a lifetime".

But for some people, once in a lifetime is just not enough. Sunderland sail training ambassador Brandon Barker, who also uses a wheelchair, has sailed twice on Nelly, and plans to return again this summer.

His first voyage was in June 2016 as part of the Tall Ships Race.

"I found it very accessible, especially the clamps for your wheelchair if the ship gets too rocky," said Brandon, who has spastic paraplegia.

"I had no sailing experience before that. Nelly gave me opportunities to try new things that I hadn't done before, like being at the helm and climbing the rigging."

The climbing was one of Brandon's favourite parts of sailing on Lord Nelson, especially when the weather is as warm as it was when they sailed from Cadiz to La Coruna in Spain.

"The first time I climbed the rigging I only made it to the first platform but the second time I made it to the second platform and I was up there for two hours.

"I was given two options: to pull myself up in a seated sling or be hoisted in my chair but I requested to just climb normally and they let me. It was tiring but once you're up there the view is great."

And this year Brandon will be returning to Lord Nelson for the 2018 Tall Ships Race, but this time as a watch leader, in charge of his own team on board.

Sailing on a tall ship was something Brandon never considered a possibility, never mind becoming leader of his own team on board.

"It wasn't something that I thought I could do or was really interested in," he said. "It's one of those things where you have to do it to find out what it's like and I always try anything."

Lord Nelson was purpose-built in Southampton during the mid-1980s, undertaking her maiden voyage in October 1986. By 1989, JST were competing in the Tall Ships Race.

A spokesperson from JST said: "Our mission is to empower people of mixed abilities and circumstances, and unlock their potential through adventures at sea. It's brilliant that we’re able to bring the JST’s inclusive ethos to the Tall Ships Races."

But, as they say, a smooth sea never made a skilful sailor.

"What we do is not easy," they added. "Sailing across oceans with diverse, mixed-ability crews on a totally unique tall ship might sound crazy to many people. But it wouldn't be pioneering or as rewarding if it was easy.

"When our voyages are at their most challenging, is often when our crews achieve things they never thought possible. The more adventures our ships embark on, the more maintenance that is required to keep them in 'ship shape’ condition. This is often expensive and we rely on volunteering, donations and generosity from our supporters.

"We’re extremely proud of our tall ships - they’re unique and the only accessible ships of their kind in the world. But it’s the people who join our crews that make it so rewarding and worthwhile.

"Our voyages change lives, whether someone has a disability or not. We break down barriers and create an environment for people to discover what they can do, rather than what they cannot. We have a lot of fun too, and see many incredible friendships form."

By Ellie Lyall, BA Journalism, University of Sunderland Tall Ships Ambassor


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