The Impossible Dream

For the sake of this blog entry, we join the story well over half way through and leave it well before it is ended. The omitted parts tell an incredible tale, but the section included here encapsulates the spirit of the whole story.  Anyone seriously involved with the world of sailing will know about whom this story is written for it is all true, and he is very well known and respected. My part in his story was, and still is, very small, but it was significant enough that when asked to write the cover blurb for the book from which this extract is taken, he had no hesitation to do so. He truly is one of the most inspiring characters I have ever met in my sixty-odd years on this planet.

The Impossible Dream

  ……… That was in 1984. The horribly injured lad was eighteen years old. The infinite possibilities that should have filled his youth had been cruelly stripped from him. Instead of enjoying life to the full, sailing luxury yachts in the Caribbean he was languishing in a hospital bed in the UK, paralysed from the neck down, his body and his dreams broken. His young life now forever changed. But although it became evident that his spinal cord was damaged beyond repair it also became just as evident that his dreams were not.

Close to a quarter of a century later a white-haired man, visiting from Canada, sat at a table in the sunny, open-plan restaurant of a hotel in the British Virgin Islands. He looked out across the sparkling sea to the harbour on the other side of the bay. With him was a family from England; mother, father and young son, also visiting the island. The two men were drinking a beer and talking about sailing. The mother and son were drinking juice.

After a while the mother said she and the lad were going to wander around town and do a bit of shopping leaving the two men to catch up with the goings on in each other’s lives since last they had met.

The older man didn’t have an awful lot to tell, other than he lived in Canada now and had been trying his hand at writing. But the younger man had many adventures, many incredible achievements to speak about. He did so modesty, almost reluctantly. He played down the comments of respect the older man made, but his unassuming manner could not mitigate the magnitude of the life he had lived. The older man knew some aspects of some of the stories already. He had followed them in the media. But he had not had the opportunity to hear them first hand until then.

Before responding to one of the questions, the younger man raised his beer to his lips, holding it awkwardly with misshapen hands and lifting his arm slowly, a little clumsily and with unusual effort. He stopped smiling just long enough to take a good gulp then lowered his beer with equal difficulty before manoeuvring his wheelchair a little to keep himself in the shade from the fierce tropical sun. Smiling broadly once more he continued the conversation.

The older, while hearing the younger’s words about personal accomplishments most could hardly imagine, studied that unstoppable and contagious smile that seldom left the other’s eyes, projecting a constant air of optimism, positive energy, strength. That smile transported the white-haired man back across a quarter century to a bloodstained hospital bed not many miles to the west of where they now sat. A frightened and confused teenager, badly hurt and in abject pain, stranded in a foreign land was looking up at him. Despite the intensity of the emotional and physical trauma that lad had suffered, the shock, the fear and uncertainty, he was smiling.

The inner light his smile was releasing with such vigour in that restaurant in Tortola was the same as that which had penetrated the darkness and despair all those years ago. He now realised that what he’d witnessed back then was not as he’d thought: a brave endeavour to pretend all was not as grim as it was. It had been the kindling of the potent glow that emanates from an indomitable spirit determined to overcome, no matter how bad the odds may be.

Listening to the stories and recognising that he needed to focus on what was not being told as much as what was, the older man realised how incredibly difficult the journey had been after arriving in England. How long and tormented was the road that had been travelled to rebuild that shattered young life. And just how incredible had been the heights to which that life had been rebuilt.

The irony of that success was that it was largely the very same passions that had caused him to be at Cane Garden Bay on the tragic day of the accident that provided the stimulus that maintained his determination to demolish what for many would have been the insurmountable barriers life had thrown across his path.

 His love of sailing. His love of the sea. His love of adventure.

Not only was he to sail again, he, a quadriplegic, would sail the open seas single-handed. They were small trips at first, in estuaries and staying close inshore. But he would steadily progress until, single-handed, he sailed round the Isle of Wight. He would start to race and eventually, single-handed, would represent his country abroad, as far away as Australia, and return home a medal winner. Twenty-three years after his accident he would embark upon a colossal personal challenge, his personal Everest he called it, and successfully circumnavigate Great Britain ….. single-handed ….. quadriplegic. And while doing so he would dream of sailing single handed across the Atlantic. But as any barnacle encrusted sailor will tell you, such a voyage is just plain impossible for anyone with such disability.

But what he didn’t speak about as they reminisced were the countless numbers of disadvantaged people that had been inspired by his incredible example and helped by the leadership he provided in the field of realising your dreams despite those disadvantages; the lives he changed for the better by not only showing people what could be done, but by establishing the means and encouraging the organisations that allowed them to do so. He had worked with charities and founded others geared toward the disabled and their involvement in sport, especially sailing. He had become an ambassador in that field and for all his work had been honoured many times from many organisations.

From his wheelchair he was accomplishing so much more than most people with no disadvantages would ever think of even attempting.

 Needless to say he had also built a loyal supportive network that had only been too happy to throw their weight behind his initiatives and share some of his dreams in which they too became caught up. This was yet another testament to the depth and breadth of characterand leadership he possessed and the contagious energy he generated. And there was little question in the white haired man’s mind that the greatest of all the supporters who would have facilitated so much of what it took to achieve all that had been accomplished, would have been his wife. But there again, thought the elder man, to have such a wonderful woman so willing to stand by his side during all he had been through was in itself a citation.

 In 2009, a boat named “Impossible Dream” sailed into Cane Garden Bay. It anchored just a little further out from the spot where that eighteen-year-old lad broke his neck ……..