My week at sea was the best experience of my life

The Lord Nelson is one of two ships in the world designed for people with disabilities

Majestic tall ship The Lord Nelson motored up Cork harbour in the evening sunshine, giving us a new perspective on familiar sights like Roches Point lighthouse, Spike Island, and the beautiful port buildings. It was the end of a week-long voyage for the crew of 30 previous strangers, returning from a wonderful ocean adventure.

A random encounter in a Cork cafe had led me here. Eavesdropping on a conversation at the next table, I was fascinated by a woman’s tales of tall ships and high seas. I have no sailing experience, but something about the elegance of a tall ship captivated me. Learning more became almost a compulsion, which eventually led me to Portland Dock in the south of England, looking up at the three mighty masts with a gaggle of equally wide-eyed fellow travellers.

While many of the sailors were, like me, on their first trip, others had made multiple tall ship journeys, to South Africa, Bermuda, New Zealand, Iceland and everywhere in between. Paul, a second-year student from UCC and a wheelchair user, was on his ninth trip. Lee, a retired teacher from the north of England, was on his 28th.

The first day on board was spent getting kitted out with waterproofs and harnesses, and making our beds. Accommodation was in curtained bunks, in dorms with shared shower and toilet. Full disabled facilities were provided. Each person with a disability had a buddy, who helped them with anything they needed. Wheelchair lifts allowed access to every part of the ship, and everyone, no matter what level of ability, was responsible for running the boat, under the direction of the permanent crew of seven.

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Next, they trained us. Looking at all the “string”, as they call it, is pretty daunting. Each rope corresponds to a part of a particular sail. We were told the names of the structures of the boat, the sails, and the lines attached to them. We were shown how to “sweat” and “tail”, to heave, ease and “come up”. All became familiar terms. At 56, it was very empowering to learn a whole new skill, especially one so physical. I had worried my lack of fitness, arthritic knee and age-weakened back might show me up, but everyone worked as a team.

We saw sunsets and sunrises, tankers making trips from the other side of the world, dolphins, a Minke whale . . .

We were divided into four “watches”, and these were the people we spent most time with as we did our duty on the bridge: helming (steering), looking out for boats, fishing nets and other potential obstacles at sea, and filing hourly logs on the weather, conditions, and anything relevant that happened during our watch.

The helm was adapted for those with limited dexterity, and there was a talking compass for the visually impaired. We saw sunsets and sunrises, tankers making trips from the other side of the world, dolphins, a Minke whale, gannets and shearwaters, and the full moon gleaming on the black sea.

In the galley, everyone did a day of chopping, preparing and serving food, setting tables, and washing up. Dave, the cook, directed us, and we were fed well and often, from a full breakfast, through lunch of homemade soup, salad or pasta, to dinner of roast lamb or fish, always followed by dessert. “Smoko” was one of my favourite moments of the day, when we enjoyed morning tea and homemade cake on deck.

Before we set sail, we were all given the opportunity of “going aloft” or climbing the ladder up the main mast to the crow’s nest. Fitted with a harness attached to a safety rope, off I went, only to cry off on the third rung. Before I joined the ship, this had been a big deal to me – I wanted to overcome my terror of heights and climb the mast. But I made my peace with it, climbed down, and enjoyed watching everyone else reaching the platform high above deck.

To see one of the men, Frank, who has had his leg amputated from below the knee, climbing the ladder with his prosthetic, filled me with admiration. Wheelchair users were hoisted aloft in a specially designed brace which went under the chair. Enya, a gorgeous young woman from Cork, could be heard squealing with delight as she surveyed the world from on high.

Happy Hour, I was sad to learn, didn't involve half price margaritas, but a bucket and cloth and your assigned cleaning job

The permanent crew of this ship are a very special band. People of all abilities are included in every activity, and no distinction is made between those who use a wheelchair, crutches, are blind, deaf or physically impaired. Some of the duties were exciting and physical, like setting the sails, and some were mundane but necessary, like cleaning the toilets. Happy Hour, I was sad to learn, didn’t involve half-price margaritas, but a bucket and cloth and your assigned cleaning job.

There was a bar for a welcome glass of wine at the end of the day, although with a night watch coming up, there wasn’t much time for boozing.

The beauty of the ship, the drama of the sails full of wind, the vastness of the ocean, the camaraderie of working together with a great crew, the awe-inspiring energy of people overcoming adversity made my voyage on the Lord Nelson the best experience I’ve ever had. On my last night watch, looking out at the glittering river of moonlight on the dark sea, I remembered that this was what I had looked forward to – being out in the middle of the ocean at night. It was wonderful to see, but the voyage had become about so much more.