April 11 2021
Mike Wood MBE talk about disabled sailing; what it is, what it can do for people with disabilities and why it is so important to him.
Disabled Sailing, the beginning..
The interesting part of my story began on a sunny October morning in 1978. A motorcycle dealer, I was riding to work from when a tipper truck, laden with dirt, pulled out in front of me. Suddenly, the back end of the truck broke away and smashed into me, knocking me off my bike breaking my neck and causing crippling spinal damage.
The accident left me paralysed from the waist down, with just limited use of arms and hands. I was riding a Honda at the time and it happened at a village called Norton. If you know about motor cycles you will understand the irony.
Following the accident
I spent seven months at Stoke Mandeville, adapting to permanent existence in a wheelchair, and aged 33 was introduce to sport for rehabilitation.
Now I positively, and literally, sail through life, building boats and realising dreams for the similarly disabled people. I am supported by my lovely Russian wife, whom I met on the internet and wed after driving 2500 miles through 11 countries across Europe on my own. That is another story for another day but you can see that if I set my mind to something, I usually get it done.
Within a weeks of leaving Stoke Mandeville (I have not been back to hospital even for a day since) I won the archery championship in the National Wheelchair Games. I went on to become a multi gold medallist and set British records in the discus, javelin, shot and triathlon, which comprises a 400 meters wheelchair race as well as the javelin and discus.
An International Field Sport Competition was postponed because of 35oC temperatures. So I was offered one of my dreams. To go sailing.
That afternoon’s dinghy sailing saw me plonked into dinghy. My ‘formal’ training comprised of “steer with this”, “pull this to go”, “let go to stop”, and, “just bring it back when you’re done”………….! It was a freedom I had not known since my accident. No one to help me or tell what not to do, alone with a boat and the wind. For me it was not a lake, it was Heaven.
I was later invited out on a yacht and sailed in fog, out of sight of land. For me it might as well have been on the moon, it was so far removed from my life in a wheelchair.
It changed my life forever.
If you fall in love with sailing, you can’t find the words to explain it.
Sailing for yourself
What other activity offers you so many choices?
You can enjoy drifting about on a quiet, sunny afternoon, taking satisfaction of perfectly trimming your sails to capture a gentle breeze. Or you can savour the mental agility of navigation and race tactics, and the adrenaline rush of overtaking at a mark in a race. You can be alone, or with a crew. You do not need to be wet or cold, you do not need special clothes or equipment or even special knowledge…unless you want to.
All this can be achieved by a disabled person in well designed facilities!
I wanted more big boat sailing but quickly found out that this wouldn’t be so easy. None of the people that advertised sailing for disabled people would take all types of disabled people. I also found hundreds of disabled people in the same situation. People who wanted to go sailing but were refused because of lack of facilities.
Every one kept saying ‘something’ should be done. So I decided it had to be me. The usual funders suggested that I was too ambitious and there was no demand but they just made me more determined. .
I formed a charity, raised £250,000 (no mean feat) with the help of some great individuals, the UK Grant Making Trusts and the Scott Bader Resin Company. This was enough to built the world’s first wheelchair user controllable vessel, the Verity K. She’s the world’s first completely wheelchair-accessible ocean-going yacht that absolutely anyone could live on and sail. Princess Anne visited and launched it for us.
We want to sail!
In the first year, our research predicted it would take 250 users to make the project viable. In fact we had 496 visitors and had to push bookings into the next year, proving all the ‘experts’ wrong. The market for sailing was there among people with disabilities and we were just catering for the tip of an iceberg.
Five years later we had raised another £250,000, designed and built a big catamaran that could provide 1,000 sailing places each year to help cater for the demand. But it only made things worse, more and more disabled people wanted to come sailing. Schools and day centres wanted to come and people with more and more complex needs.
£5 million and 50,000 people later….
In 2021 (Covid allowing), we are expecting to see our 50,000th person sail with us! We will also have raised and invested £5 million into sailing for disabled people!
But to quote Mr Churchill, whose legacy of the Winston Churchill Memorial Fund (of which I am a Fellow and which gave me confidence and motivation): “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning“.
The future of sailing is in young people and we have learned by experience that if you can capture their imagination when they are young you give them gifts for life. Around 60% of the disabled people sailing our yachts are under the age of 20, with young small hands.
Yachts, however, are usually built for older wealthy people who can stand and walk about. So when you hand full control of a expensive racing yacht to a youngster, tell them it is the fastest sailing boat the harbour, costs twice as much as a Ferrari and weighs 5 tons you can see the change in them. They leave with a new sense of pride and dignity; motivated and knowing that, even for them, adventure and self esteem, fun and excitement are a reality like never before.
So our next project is a proper ‘children’s cat’ designed especially for young people with lower surfaces, lower windows and easier controls. We will capture young imaginations.
We have already captured the imagination of one of the world most respected high performance catamaran manufacturer’s, HH Catamaran. They have donated the full design costs of a new class of catamaran built to our exacting requirements.
Now its down to you. Help us by telling people what we do, by using our facilities, joining the waiting list or helping with fund raising.
Mike Wood MBE, Churchill Fellow, Wheelchair User
Like this blog? Read
Have a question or a comment? Join our friendly forums here.
Write a review here to tell us about local places that do access well.