This is the story of a remarkable man who has turned a devastating negative in his life into an amazing positive, while inspiring many people along the way. It’s also about a girl who showed remarkable grit in helping him achieve his dream.
Documenting Geoff Holt’s ambition to become the first quadriplegic sailor to skipper a boat across the Atlantic involved shooting a lot of footage, asking a lot of questions and intruding into moments that most of us would prefer remained private, like getting up, or going to bed, or having a shower.
Geoff Holt can’t do these things by himself. Aged 18 and in his prime, a fateful dive into the surf on a Caribbean beach axed any future plans he may have had as a yachtsman when he broke the sixth vertebra in his spine, just below the neck. The result was quadriplegia: paralysis of all four limbs – a devastating outcome for someone so young and full of life.
Fast forward 25 years, a wife, a son and a career later, and Holt is back on the same beach. This time he is waving his national flag after a four-week epic voyage of over 3000 nautical miles (5500km) across the Atlantic Ocean.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
We set off from the Canary Islands on December 10, 2009 – the quadriplegic, his carer and the cameraman. Our ETA was 17 days and the theory was that we would be whistled along on our beautiful 60ft cat, Impossible Dream by the swift and steady Trade Winds. As it turned out, though, the wind beat us on the nose, the engines clogged up with filthy fuel, our wind indicator wouldn’t work and we took a month, spending Christmas and New Year at sea.
Holt was determined to do the sailing himself, and he specifically recruited Susana Scott for her complete lack of sailing experience. Susana’s role, which is normally carried out by Holt’s wife Elaine, was to lift him in and out of his chair, wash, cook and look after his personal needs, and so on.
When Holt was deciding where his 3000-mile journey would end, one place loomed large in his thoughts: the actual beach he dived into with such drastic consequences: Cane Garden Bay, Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands.
Prior to our departure, Holt spoke with warmth and passion when speaking about his condition, his life and his reason for attempting the voyage. “Of course my emotions are going to be all over the place going back to the beach where I had my accident 25 years ago,” he said. “A lot of people are presuming I’ll be looking for closure, but I’m not. To look for closure would infer that I’m lamenting what happened during the following 25 years. But I’m not. Because if I never had the accident, I wouldn’t have met my wife Elaine, or had our wonderful son, Timothy. This is about going back and celebrating the fact that, yes, I can do these things, despite my disability.”
In his teens, Holt, now 43, made three Atlantic crossings, crewing boat deliveries back and forth. He spent a chunk of his childhood sailing at Hamble in the UK and salt water was beginning to pump around his system. But his accident put an end to that career, so he worked for Deloittes, and later in antiques, to make ends meet.
Eventually the salt in his blood saw him sail around Britain in 2007 aboard a tiny 15ft Challenger trimaran; an impressive feat for Holt and his entourage, including wife Elaine and son Tim. Then the subtle sailor’s muse whispered in his ear – “hmmm, wouldn’t it be great to sail across the Atlantic?”
This was a challenging job for anyone, but in all my ocean trips, I’ve never come across a crewmate like Susanna Scott, who suffered so long from sea sickness. The fact that she had to become chief engineer, hanging upside down over both port and star boardengines while sucking fuel through pipes and bleeding the engines for the first week, may not have helped.
I asked her how she was coping after several days at sea and she replied: “I’m finding it really hard. The movement adds a whole dimension and we can’t seem to do anything to make it more stable. I’m really struggling. Geoff’s doing his best to not get me to do as many lifts as possible, but it’s hard – really hard.”
Scott was talking about the technique of lifting a quadriplegic from wheelchair to bed and back. It’s a full body hug, then a heave backwards and upwards, pivoting on your feet to swing your man to the side. There’s quite a technique to it and I winced thinking how easy it would be to damage your back in the process. The problem at sea, of course, is having to do it on a rolling, pitching platform.
Halfway across the Atlantic, after we’d made a detour to the Cape Verde Islands for a superb mechanic, Caesar, to completely drain, clean, bleed and generally expunge all dirty fuel, I asked Scott again how she thought it was going: “I’m a mixed bag of emotions,” she said. “I can’t wait to see land. It’s been horrible sometimes, I just want it to be over. It’s been such a test and I doubt how I’ve lived up to those tests.”
Looking back at how this complete non-sailor took on the task of looking after Holt in the Atlantic, plus how she dealt with endless diesel issues (the generator packed in towards the end, which meant another two days upside down in a dark hole), I can’t help but admire her. New Zealand should award Susana Scott its highest honour, because she toughed it out on the rolling seas and didn’t fail Geoff or herself.
I should mention that, yes, like most passage making trips, we motor-sailed on windless days. But the crucial issue with needing diesel was charging the batteries. Holt was particularly reliant on the self-steering rams and sheeting hydraulics (see sidebar) to be able to sail Impossible Dream.
The many physical issues facing a quadriplegic skipper sailing a 60ft boat included getting about, staying upright, getting ropes around winches, even pushing buttons, and, of course, journeying so far away from any help. On the windier and rougher days, Holt had a job to simply stay in his chair. A large catamaran can bounce around in chop and swell as it hurtles over waves, but Impossible Dream, made from carbon and totally rigid, had a particularly unforgiving see-saw motion.
A great name for such an innovative prototype, Impossible Dream is a 60ft carbon catamaran designed by Nic Bailey for Mike Browne. Browne, the founder of the UK retail chain Snow & Rock, was paralysed in a skiing accident and commissioned Bailey, the architect who designed the distinctive pods on the London Eye, to come up with something he could sail with family and friends.
Built in 2003 by Multimarine in Plymouth, Impossible Dream is striking in many ways. The interior cabin and deck are all on one level, with a gentle slope around the outside up towards the foredeck. This makes getting around in a wheelchair easier.
There is a steering position outside on both hulls, but the whole ship can by operated from inside, with hydraulic winches and lines coming right into the ‘command module’, which looks like a set from a Star Trek film.
“As a boy,” says Bailey, “I used to love Dan Dare comics. We built a full-sized mock-up of the saloon in our studio and I spent a lot of time in a wheelchair to get a feel for how everything should work.”
The height of the galley worktops is an example. They’re low and awkward to use when standing (I know), but pull up a chair and everything makes sense, with fridge, cooker, sink and utensils to hand. Actually, it was a super place to cook.
Bailey says his main design challenge was sail handling. “Sailing from a chair means no leaping up to the base of the mast to bounce halyards, so every line is powered by hydraulic winches. Sheets presented a particular problem. How can you ease a sheet from three steering positions (one inside and two outside)? Commercially available captive reel winches were too heavy and expensive, so we devised a hydraulic ram system connected to the sheets through blocks, which could all be operated by simply pressing buttons. We also used hydraulic rams to control the mainsheet and the coachroof-mounted traveller.”
Other clever touches include a fold-out lift platform to raise or lower a wheelchair user to the dock and back. This works from a remote control and in operation is another sci-fi touch.
You can see Bailey’s London Eye influence in the cockpit windows and the amazing view from inside to almost 360 degrees outside; a key element when sailing from a chair at the command position.
Overall, Impossible Dream is a clever and complex boat and without her, and without Mike and Martine Browne’s generosity in lending her to Holt, this trip would never have happened.
Holt has limited movement in his arms (30 per cent bicep, no tricep, wrist or fingers), so he types with a prodding action. It takes him a while, but he perseveres. Some days, though, there was no point even trying, and I could see the sheer force of the brutal seaway causing him real trouble (me too, come to think of it).
We did a great deal of broadcasting onboard. The BBC fitted out our boat with the best sat-coms available to feed live pictures back to London, and BBC technical boss Mark Tyrrell, who makes sure news comes in from every corner of the globe, used our project as a test exercise for a new system. It worked brilliantly for all the live crosses, video uploads and ISDN radio interviews, which was just as well, because over Christmas Geoff Holt’s story gained significant traction.
Eventually, after the many diversions, delays, a general lack of wind and a month of slog, we made the destination of Cane Garden Bay in Tortola. This was Holt’s moment. He was full of adrenaline, emotion, relief and delight at seeing his family. Boats tooted and crowds cheered as Holt circled just off the beach – the most significant landmark in his life.
“Incredible,” said Holt. “Twenty five years in the making, a year in the planning, and what a marvellous reception. What an emotional return to Cane Garden Bay. It feels like a celebration of life. What a great finish to a great project.”
The Governor of the British Virgin Islands welcomed Holt on land with a heartfelt speech, and the local government has made Geoff and his family honorary citizens. It was an emotional and happy ending to a difficult voyage.
Sitting on the sand of Cane Garden Bay a couple of days later, I asked Holt what he thought the moral of the story was. “Princess Anne summed it up for me when she said that disability need not be a barrier to achieving your dream,” he said. “In fact, anyone, regardless of their ability, if they really set their heart on it, can achieve what they set out to do. There’ll be hardships along the way, sometimes painful ones, but there’s no feeling like completing a journey against all the odds. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
But I’d like to leave the final word to Tony Tromans, consultant surgeon at the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Centre in Salisbury, one of 11 such rehabilitation centres around the UK that do incredible work. Tromans was Holt’s doctor 25 years ago.
“The fact that Geoff, who can only get about in an electric wheelchair using a joystick, sails around Britain and across the Atlantic, is a very useful story for us to say to patients that life hasn’t stopped. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. Disability will shut some doors, but it will open others.”