Tenacious Brings the
Handicapped World Together

By Matthew Brown

It was with great anticipation that I walked this sunny November day of 2007, along the marina filled with 1500 boats, searching for the vessel that would take me from these Canary Islands off the Coast of Africa across the Atlantic in the trade wind route to the Caribbean. I paused from time to time, seeking out the Barque silhouette with three masts, the forward two having yardarms. Her profile should have been easy to spot among the sloops and ketches readying themselves for their own Atlantic crossing. Owned, built, and operated by the Jubilee Sailing Trust (JST) in Southampton, England the Tenacious, at 215 feet, is one of two Barques JST owns dedicated to sailing for people of all abilities.

I finally spotted her frame in the distance. As my excitement grows, so do a few questions and doubts.

Teamwork helps.
Teamwork helps.

Arriving on board, I am greeted by several crewmembers and soon realize that one of my questions has been answered: of the 43 passengers on board, I will be the only American. Tenacious’ Irish ship doctor, a lone Dane, and I join 40 others from England and Scotland.

This is my fourth crossing of the Atlantic, my first since suffering a stroke in April of 2005. I am used to boats under 50 feet in length and not accustomed to the comforts of a larger sailing vessel like Tenacious. My bunk rests in a spacious room with nine others that boasts two showers available at all times - even with hot water. The galley has ample space, the freezer is huge, and the mess hall below has large tables and a dumbwaiter that bring our plated meals to us. On deck, the maze of ropes aloft in the rigging is dizzying. Supporting the yardarms and sails above, we spend our first few days bracing and setting.

SV Tenacious Voyage 208

After a briefing by Captain Barbara Campbell, we are walked through the safety and routines of the ship by the first and second mates and the chief engineer, a man also in charge of the ‘courage bar’, the local watering hole in the lower mess, open one-half hour during lunch and dinner and four hours every evening. The lower mess was soon to become the meeting place for meals and a place for us to share our stories of yesterday and today, along with our dreams of tomorrow.

Part of our training includes going aloft into the rigging, each of us donning a full body harness with two tethers connecting us to the ship. The view and experience produce more than a few gasps and sighs as we venture up the masts and out onto the yardarms to practice harbor stows of the sail, a practice in securing the sails to avoid flapping so the ship looks her best as she pulls into port. To my amazement, going aloft is accessible to everyone - whether they climb the ratlines slowly or have their wheelchair hoisted skyward.

 Tenacious has 13 permanent crew in addition to the 30 voyage crewpersons, three of whom are confined to wheelchairs.

Tall ships are always fun when you can get up high and play in the rigging.
Tall ships are always fun when you can get up high and play in the rigging.

Among us is also a blind crewmember; several type one diabetics, and folks with various other disabilities. Our voyage crew is organized into four watches, or groups. It is with these seven people that I’ll share watch and eating times, daily information, cleaning duties, trivia nights, and other activities during our crossing.

Each watch has a trained volunteer leader, and mine is named Dave. He is wheelchair bound, and although he’s spent time on several sailing trips, this is his first ‘trans At’ as the Brits say. He has been involved with the JST since its founding and was prominent in every step of the Tenacious’ construction. His knowledge of her every inch proves to be welcome and interesting conversation on even the longest four-to-eight-am shifts.
After topping the main engines’ diesel tanks and generators and shopping for last minute provisions, we are ready for our 3000-mile journey to the French Caribbean Island of Guadalupe. With the wind coming over the stern of the boat at dock, Captain Barbara uses the engines to nudge us clear of the wharf as the crew sets the upper and lower courses. Sailing out of the Las Palmas harbor, it appears to onlookers that we do this sort of thing everyday.

We began around 26 north latitude and sail a southwesterly course in varying wind speeds and direc

Tenacious overview
Tenacious overview.

tions to 23 north latitude to catch the trade winds, which blow east to west each November following hurricane season. By sailing down to these lower latitudes, we are able to give ourselves a buffer zone that would protect us from any storm driven winds that might occur above 25 north.

Now at sea, we are on our watch schedule that will remain intact for the duration of the voyage: four hours on and 12 hours off, with each of us sharing galley duty every seven days, time spent preparing, serving, and cleaning up after each meal. While on watch we take turns at the helm of the boat, sail handling and checking to see that our course is clear.

Our watch consists of varying sailing abilities - from people like Bill, who has been confined to a wheelchair his entire life with Spinea Bifida, on his first sailing trip, to Peter, a 72-year-old retired physical therapist who went blind in his early 50s but continued his practice until his 60s, who is on his second crossing onboard Tenacious.

The boat and her crew bring out the best in everyone as she blurs ability lines. Everyone participates in all sailing duties and activities day after day, around the clock, it is truly inspiring to see folks walk or roll their chairs in seas of up to 15 feet with the boat healed over in stiff winds or below deck serving dinner and washing dishes. We are encouraged to push ourselves to the point not only to where we feel comfortable, but just beyond what we think we might be able to do.

Our crossing takes us seventeen days at an average speed of 6.7 knots, as we’re under sail alone for seventy two percent of the time, thanks to the steady trade winds. While everyone enjoyed the sun rises, sun sets, and dolphins and whales swimming around Tenacious’ hull, we are all happy to reach our destination and have six days to sail around the islands before our trip ends in Antigua.

Rope on Tenacious

Now home…it was a wonderful experience to see people of all abilities working toward the common goal of a fun and safe journey out into the ocean - a place where very few people, especially those with disabilities, venture to take on Mother Nature and all she has to offer. Sailing can be inclusive - it’s just a matter of finding your ship to sail away on a afternoon, week-end or month, or, as the Brits would say, “Which ever is your cup of tea.”

Matthew Brown lives in Grand Marais, MN. He works at North House’s Folk School and Superior Marine Training. A slide show of the Atlantic Crossing trip is available. Contact Matthew at 218-387-1741.