The trip of a lifetime for Gerard Mcgrath.
When Gerard McGrath and his "buddy" Simon Forster boarded the Tall Ship Lord Nelson at the Port of Las Palmas de Gran Canarias last February it was just the beginning of what would become an unforgettable experience.
The road to the Tall Ship voyage began back in November when a group of Gerard's friends on the Costa Blanca pulled together a fund-raising plan with the aim to collect enough money to send Gerard and his buddy for a week's sailing on the Lord Nelson, a 55 metre Tall Ship especially designed for people of all types of disability and run by the Jubilee Sailing Trust. An overwhelmingly generous response from residents and organisations in Javea, Calpe and surrounding areas meant that the target was reached in record time, and plans could progress to send Gerard and Simon on their adventure.
A motorcycle accident at the age of 25 had left Javea resident Gerard with tetraplegic spasticity. In spite of being in a coma and in a vegetative state for over five months Gerard has made enormous progress, and now shuns the wheelchair in which he was confined for the last six years, in favour of a walking frame which he is learning to handle with increasing confidence. He is also learning to speak again after a tracheotomy and a prolonged period with no speech at all, and it is his ability to communicate which will be his greatest challenge in the years ahead.
Gerard and Simon joined the Lord Nelson in Las Palmas on Valentine's Day 2011. Amongst their 34 fellow crew members from all over the UK were 3 marines who had been supported by the Help for Heroes Charity organisation following injury in the Afghan war. Gerard was one of several disabled crew members, four of whom were in wheelchairs. On board a moving ship Gerard needed the security of his chair. A full time crew of 12 very able bodied seamen and officers completed the contingent for this 7 day cruise.
New crew members were allocated bunks and split into groups of 8 headed by a Watch Leader. A rigorous safety drill was completed for all newcomers before setting sail towards the island of Tenerife and onward to the beautiful island of La Gomera. Gerard and Simon's Watch Leader was Allen Chubb, a veteran sailor who has completed 12 voyages with the JST and has a wealth of anecdotes and experiences. His log contained the following notes on some of his watch team:
"There was Mike, a cheerful ex-diver, who was paralysed in a water-skiing accident and has since completed 141 marathons in his wheelchair, averaging about 11 a year, in spite of his deformed hands. There was brave Jamie, one of several injured Royal Marines who were with us – he was in a building in Sangin, Afghanistan, when a Chinese rocket entered and exploded behind him, spraying his back and buttocks with shrapnel. Fortunately, he was blown out of the building, because it collapsed. Several of his friends have been killed in Afghanistan. He has learned to live with death and with the prospect of being killed. He is looking forward to returning to active service.
"There was Gerard, who had a serious motorcycle accident five years ago – he was in a coma for six weeks. Now, he is in a wheelchair, partially paralysed and is now learning to speak again, but he understands everything and enjoys life as much as many able-bodied people – he particularly enjoyed helming the ship and hosing the decks (and some of his crew-mates!) He also made the difficult climb up the foremast, to the first platform. There was Tilly, a retired lady who is blind apart from some peripheral vision and who has won six gold medals in national ladies archery events. I could go on…"
"During the first evening all newcomers dined out in Las Palmas and as Gerard and Simon were the only Spanish speakers on board they quickly became known and popular amongst the group!"
Gerard soon settled into life on board ship and with his Watch Team participated in shipboard activities from raising the sails, of which under full sail the Lord Nelson has 19, to cleaning the decks in what is termed "Happy Hour". Simon commented that Gerard was involved in every aspect of crew duties, although he did manage to escape the job of cleaning the "heads" (toilets!) Simon also took the opportunity, with the help of the ship's engineer, to service Gerard’s wheelchair, taking it apart and thoroughly greasing it, giving Gerard an even better form of transport!
During the voyage through the Canary Islands Gerard took the helm of the Lord Nelson, assisted in maintaining a log and took barometric readings, but undoubtedly the highlight of the week was when he left his wheelchair and climbed the "ratlines" to the Crow's Nest. Ably assisted by Leslie an experienced crew member, it was a great achievement for Gerard, and as all the crew were watching it was in Simon’s words "a very emotional experience for everyone."
There is no doubt that sailing with the JST really is a life changing experience, and
it is something that Gerard will treasure for many years to come. His next challenge is to get further medical assistance in speech therapy with the help of the funds generated through the great support of the Costa Blanca residents, which will further help improve his quality of life. Thanks should also go to his buddy Simon whose support and help during this week was invaluable and who also returned from the trip with a vow that he will do it again one day.
The neurologist's prognosis for Gerard is that he will continue improving all of his life, although very slowly. He has a tremendous determination and stubbornness, qualities that have no doubt been fundamental in what has already been a remarkable recovery from a catastrophic accident, and it is hoped that his Tall Ship experience will have been another big step on the long ladder to his rehabilitation. Fundraising will continue to ensure Gerard’s future needs are met.
Thanks to everyone for making this trip happen.
For more information about the Jubilee Sailing Trust visit the website www.jst.org.uk