Running a tight ship – sailing with Mel Harrison

by Editorial Team

Words by Mel Harrison

Sailing has always been a love of mine. The freedom of being on the water, especially since ending up in a wheelchair at 14 years of age, attracted me to the journeys offered by Jubilee Sailing Trust. The charity’s unique mission is “to give people of mixed abilities and circumstances the freedom to explore their ability, potential and place in the world through inclusive adventures at sea.” I experienced all of this and more, making it a life-changing voyage for me. 

A fellow crew member of Mel’s aboard the Tenacious. Credit: Mel Harrison

Knowing my adventurous personality, a work colleague told me about Jubilee Sailing Trust’s wooden tall ship Tenacious, which was touring Australia in 2017. A total of 17 voyages were on offer for people of all abilities. This beautiful ship – 65m long and 42m high – is designed for people with disabilities to be active crew members and sail the vessel alongside people who don’t have a disability. Lifts on the ship enable crew with a mobility restriction to reach the bridge, the under deck and the bowsprit. Braille signage throughout the ship assists people with vision impairment to navigate their way, and accessible bathrooms and individual cabins makes the ship inclusive for all. A sling attached to the bed means you can strap yourself in when you sleep for safety during rough seas, and a ceiling hoist can be provided for those needing it for wheelchair transfers.

The beautiful tall ship is set up to accommodate mobility restrictions. Credit: Mel Harrison

Tenacious offered the perfect set-up for me, and it was not long before I decided to set sail on the voyage from Hobart to Sydney. The idea of sailing over the Bass Strait both excited and terrified me. But in February 2017, after convincing my close friend Michelina to join me, we sailed for 10 nights. I’ve travelled extensively, but I can honestly say that this sailing voyage was by far the best holiday I have ever had, despite working for a lot of it!

Life onboard is indeed very structured, and as a full member of the crew I had to do my share of work to make the ship move. The crew consists of 9 permanent members and up to 45 volunteers. Most voyages will have 4 watches and up to 10 people participating in each one. On our trip we had about 24 volunteer members divided in 3 different watch teams. During a watch, duties include being a lookout, steering the helm and filling in the log book. The hardest watch for me was the one from 4am to 8am – not only is it early to get up, but it’s also the coldest time of the day. When not on watch duty, jobs include helping to set and pack up sails.

When I heard about happy hour, I was excited, thinking we were going to get a drink or two. But the reality was disappointing – happy hour on Tenacious involves everyone on the ship cleaning for an hour! Not a drink in sight.

Look at that view! Nothing but ocean and sky on board the Tenacious. Credit: Mel Harrison

The 10-day trip over the Bass Strait concerned me initially, as I knew if I couldn’t handle it I would be stuck onboard the whole time and unable to leave. The only sailing I had done previously was out of my wheelchair on either an 2.4m dingy or a 7m ship – and that was only ever for a few hours at a time. 

Balance for me was definitely different; my core had to be switched on the whole time as controlling the wheelchair was harder, and at times I had to rely on people to assist me – for someone who likes independence, that was hard. There was also the fear that I was going to fall out of my chair, especially when the winds became rough. But the ship’s accessibility and the way people accommodated me made the whole experience enjoyable, and I thrived on the voyage.

Everyone is part of a team on Tenacious, and people with disabilities are encouraged to participate and meet their full potential, making this a wonderfully inclusive experience. Not once did I feel different, nor that I couldn’t do something. With assistance, I helped set sail, participated in the watches and go to the top of the crow’s nest. As they hoisted me up, sitting in a wheelchair, I had an amazing view of the harbour. I was also able to climb out onto the bowsprit with my cabin mate, a French girl named Annabelle. It was exhilarating going over the Bass Strait in almost full sail with Annabelle calling the dolphins in French, me in English, and much to our delight we spotted 8 dolphins below us. Although amazing, it’s quite scary too when you are hanging over the ocean with just a rope net under you. I burst into song with Rod Stewart’s famous ‘I am sailing’. Despite that, lasting friendships were made and I’m still in regular contact with people I met on that sail. 

Aye aye, captain! Credit: Mel Harrison

I recently flew to Europe to sail Tenacious for the second time. Loving the first trip so much, I couldn’t wait to return to my happy place. On the voyage from France to Holland, I was joined by my previous cabin mate Annabelle and my good friend Jane, a first-time sailor. The experience was just as great and it was amazing to be able to participate in the Tall Ship Regatta, along with 50 international ships. The festivities continued with parades and crew parties, and we could see the impact of the inclusiveness of Tenacious on the sailors from across the world.

Since my first trip there have been improvements to the ship – the main being the different types of assisted climbs now available. Some of my fellow crew members who were wobblier on their legs still got to climb with support, others who have limited use of their arms and legs were hoisted in their wheelchair. I had the opportunity to sit in a sling and pull myself up with my arms. I didn’t believe I could do it, but the staff and crew members encouraged me to give it a go. It was an amazing feeling using just my arms to climb the 20 odd metres, something that without this ship I would never have tried. It’s wonderful to see people with disabilities enabled to participate within their ability, but also to see them push their limits and fears as well. 

The experience for me was life-changing. It helped me feel more confident in myself and forget that I had a disability, and I made lifelong friendships. Those sailing without a disability also benefit from seeing how, with a little thought and time, barriers can be removed, and they see that at the end of the day people with disabilities can be included in everyday activities and adventure sports.

The Tenacious, and Jubilee Sailing Trust, tour the world over. Credit: Mel Harrison

I highly recommend sailing on Tenacious or Lord Nelson through Jubilee Sailing Trust. It not only caters for people with mobility impairment but also vision impairment, hearing impairment and cognitive impairment. If you want to experience adventure, inclusion and fun at the same time, this is your trip!

Writer Mel Harrison is the founder of Sitting Low Reaching High. Learn more at sittinglowreachinghigh.com.

This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

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