Today we have a guest blogger, Kris Gibson, who is a member at Southampton Sight and is visually impaired.

I‘d be the first to admit that, when offered the opportunity to join the crew of the tall ship Lord Nelson by the good folks at Southampton Sight and the Jubilee Sailing Trust, the word ‘daunting’ barely covered my initial reaction. Having had no experience on the water save for the odd ferry passage here and there, I couldn’t begin to comprehend what a visually impaired land-lover as myself could offer an expedition like this. The mere notion of being in unfamiliar environments with unfamiliar people was, quite frankly, terrifying. And yet, less than 24 hours after boarding on a particularly blustery, rainy afternoon in Oban, Scotland, I found myself at the ship’s helm, piloting her and the 50-something crew out of the harbour and off into the Sound of Mull. My own personal voyage of discovery had begun.

As anyone with a progressive visual impairment will know, adjusting to the constantly shifting goal-posts of physical challenges is only half the story. Living in a world of the normally sighted, it is all too easy to believe that you are somehow lesser, somewhat inadequate, and something unnecessary. The constant reminders of what you, personally, may not achieve or participate in, the ever-present fear of missing out, can take its toll on both confidence and self-esteem. Before embarking on my sea-faring adventure I had spent almost a decade hiding from the world, too anxious to even contemplate stepping outside alone. Perhaps something inside me shifted, or perhaps the stars aligned in just the right way at just the right time, but for the past year, with the help of some wonderful people from the Sensory Team here in Southampton, I swallowed my fear and, cane in hand, strode out of my front door. I will not say it was easy, but it was oh-so necessary and oh-so liberating.

Still, confidence is a fragile thing, and the many years of self-imposed isolation cannot be counted in a handful of months. And so it was that, with the hope of building on the foundations of my newfound fortitude, I agreed to broaden my horizons and set sail, literally, for a brighter future.

The first thing that strikes the amateur adventurer upon arrival into the labyrinthine bowels of a 150-foot vessel is the compact nature of the living quarters. Accompanied by my ‘buddy’ – who just happens to be my soul-mate and wife – we settled into our snug cabin still uncertain as to what was to come. Surely, that cynical little voice in my head began, I can’t be an integral cog in this bewilderingly alien mechanism. With her 3 masts, some 12 miles of intertwined rigging, and an abundance of sails, the Lord Nelson – Nelly to her friends – is a behemoth of a ship requiring skilled and co-ordinated crew to tame. Such tasks belong to the sighted, or so I assumed. The first meeting of my watch soon shattered my illusions.

Watch card in hand, it soon became clear that, unlike the all too often tokenistic inclusiveness that can mar the other-abled person’s experience, here my role in all things maritime were not only encouraged but necessary. Nelly boasts a miniscule permanent crew, boson’s mates, and volunteers to oversee the general running of the ship, but without the assistance of the newly acquired crew, sighted or not, she would be unsailable. Over the coming days I would find myself in the thick of it, coming to grips with such terms as ‘sweating’ and ‘tailoring’ as Nelly unleashed her giant sails to the elements. Me and my fellow adventurers eagerly embraced the ‘2-6-Heave!’ of ship life, at first learning then independently mastering the ropes. There would be night watches and mess duty, piloting and anchoring, and of course the opportunity to climb the rigging. It is hard to describe the feeling of accomplishment and joy of having just scaled some 30 feet to stand high above the deck and staring out towards a misting horizon. Having been labelled ‘blind’ from such an early age, physical achievements in particular have too often seemed out of reach as much as out of sight. But here, for the first time in, I don’t know how long, I was equal, I was needed, and I was crew.

Of course, as when all good sailors duties are complete, there was a little on-shore fun to be had. The sublime untouched beauty of the Isle of Rum was surreally contrasted by what can only be termed a performance tour of Kinloch Castle. The vanity project of a miller’s heir, built in the late Victorian age, this ‘castle’ hosts an eclectic assortment of artifacts from far-flung lands. From a Steinway piano to the earliest form of hot-tub complete with waterjets firing from all angles, we were treated to tales of high society high-jinx and eyebrow-raising insights into what went on within its halls and ballroom, perfectly accompanied at one point by a music box rendition of the Monty Python theme. It was truly an experience to be remembered.

Another saw us sailing into Tobermory bay, dropping anchor and heading into the most picturesque town imaginable. A warm welcome, good food and wee tipple at the local Whiskey distillery certainly took the edge off any tiring limbs. And once back on ship we were gifted with a most fantastical sunset the like of which I have never seen. Sheer beauty written large across the sky.

But beyond the joys of nature and the exhilarating thrill of sailing, it was the people of Nelly that made the voyage what it was. From the Captain and her permanent crew, through the hardworking galley mates who kept us all well fed and watered, the watch leaders and the assorted volunteers and buddies, I have never felt so welcomed and so included. The kindness and warmth shown throughout, the willingness to help when needed and step aside when not, the camaraderie and trust is, for me, indelibly carved into my heart. I cannot express the gratitude I feel to all those involved. This was not just a vacation from home, but a vacation from myself; my sight-loss and the constant day-to-day limits that can weigh you down. My confidence, my esteem, and my faith in human nature have sincerely risen beyond all expectations. My true journey took me from an oft awkward and uncertain fish out of water to an able seaman.


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