..Donald Owens..

The Concept of Disabilities Disappears

One of the first ships to sail into New York harbor was Great Britain's 182 foot, squared rigger, Lord Nelson. Aptly named for England's heroic Admiral Horatio Nelson, a man who in battle, suffering the loss of not only his right arm but his right eye, went on to command Britain's victorious Navy in the 1805 battle of Trafalgar.

Though admiring fans could see its majestic sails unfurled, from waters edge, they had no way of knowing that the Lord Nelson crew was composed of an equal number of able bodied and physically disabled people. A crew equally sharing the challenges of sailing a tall ship on the high seas.

The UK-based Jubilee Sailing Trust (JST) owns and operates the specially designed tall ship,Lord Nelson. The aim of JST is to integrate able bodied and physically disabled people through the medium of tall ship sailing. The special facilities onboard ensure that everybody has the opportunity to participate fully in all aspects of tall ship sailing. These include lifts between decks to enable wheelchair users full access to the ship, and a speaking compass with a large digital read-out screen that enables blind and visually impaired people to helm the ship. There is even an induction loop in the lower deck to assist those with hearing impairment.

While berthed at Pier 16 of New York's South Street Seaport, The New Sun publisher joined me in a fascinating tour of the Lord Nelson. We were warmly welcomed by our host, Niall Tarrell. A crew member since its maiden voyage, Mr. Tarrell is also a member of the Jubilee Sailing Trust board of directors.

He told us how 40 voyage crew, under the guidance of the ship's professional crew of 10, set sail from Cadiz to Bermuda on May 7th along with 30 other vessels for a 5 week voyage. "This is the first time ever," Mr. Tarrell explained, "that a crew of both able bodied and physically disabled people has competed in a transatlantic tall ships race on equal terms." Final results from the race organizers, the International Sail Training Association, placed Lord Nelson 5th in class and 23rd overall. "Our philosophy is to promote integration of people from every walk of life. It's like a working holiday." Each individual comes on board with their specific disability and perhaps for the first time in their lives will have to learn how to get along with people uniquely different, with disabilities unlike their own.

"Once aboard the Lord Nelson their role and standing in life begin to change. You watch them growing, developing new skills, becoming a team. We focus on a person's abilities. For example, someone in a wheelchair generally has great upper body strength. Since working with block and tackle requires tremendous arm and shoulder strength, these crew members are well suited to this work. With keen powers of concentration, a sightless person frequently sails the truest course. They are excellent at the helm. One grows stronger when learning from those with different strengths. The concept of disabilities disappears.

"When they finally go ashore, that's when we really see the change. They leave with a new independence, a drive and a spirit. A third of our former crew members come back and sail with us again. Many others become involved in our fund raising and scholarship programs. Our relationships become ongoing."

Passage on Lord Nelson is always in high demand. About four years ago Jubilee Sailing Trust commenced building it's second square rigger tall ship. Christened the "Tenacious." She is 212 feet long with a 36 foot beam. Tenacious will set sail on her maiden voyage in September 2000.

As our tour ended I still had a couple of questions for this man who so obviously loved his profession. "When did you take up sailing?" I asked. Mr. Tarrell responded by telling us that he became seriously interested at the age of 15. I then asked if he'd always been in a wheel chair. "No," he said. "When I was 25 I broke my back in an automobile accident." There was but a moment of silence as Lord Nelson sat moored at Pier 16. From his position at the helm, Niall Tarrell looked around the ship and added with a broad grin, "I've been sailing the high seas now for about 17 years."