A charity founded by the first disabled man to sail across the Atlantic is giving people with complex disability the chance to experience the open water.
Last year, thousands of disabled people, many of them living with severe neurological conditions and complex disability, were given a rare opportunity to experience the freedom of the open sea.
The voyages were organised by Wetwheels Foundation, a charity founded in 2011 by disabled yachtsman Geoff Holt MBE. Holt was the first disabled person to sail around the British Isles and the first to sail across the Atlantic.
He was already helping disabled people access the joys of the ocean as chairman of the Royal Yachting Association’s Sailability, a project that has allowed 20,000 disabled people to experience sailing. But there was a gap for people with more complex and severe conditions.
Wetwheels sought to take things further by developing specifically designed powered boats designed for accessibility. Each boat has five accessibility doors, a ramp into the helm position and a completely flat deck with space for three wheelchair users.
Andy Fell, an independent disability and assistive technology consultant, was one of the first to get involved with the charity and became chair of the organisation a decade ago.
“Our ethos is to be barrier-free,” Mr Fell said. “People often just see what they think is a disability but [we] know that profound and complex needs are a subset of that and you just can’t find activities for them to do.”
Wetwheels has seven boats across the country which, this year alone, have taken 6000 people out to sea. For 80 per cent of these participants, it was their first time in the open water.
The project began in Portsmouth with Wetwheels Solent making its debut in 2011. Six further boats have been added to the fleet over the last decade across Jersey, Hamble, Whitby, Dover, Falmouth and, most recently, Edinburgh. The foundation will unveil its eighth boat next year in Torquay and has launched appeals for boats in Wales and East Anglia.
Each boat can take three wheelchair users, including those with heavy, specialist chairs that most vessels are not equipped to carry. It enables disabled people to “leave their disability on the shore” for 90 minutes.
“Once they’re out there. You get the spray, you get the wind, you get the sound and you get the freedom,” Mr Fell said. “Absolutely key to what we do is they get the opportunity to go up onto the helm position.
“If they’ve got upper limb movement, they can steer themselves. If they haven’t got the upper limb movements, often what we’ll do is help them be in charge of the vessel; a quarter of a million pounds worth of boat.”
At the centre of what makes the Wetwheels experience so powerful is the sense of independence it offers participants and the long-lasting memories it creates for both them and their families.
“It’s not just the individual in the chair,” Mr Fell added. “It’s their relatives, mums, dads, grandparents and carers. They all get the opportunity to take part and be in charge of that vessel.”
The organisation works with a wide spectrum of conditions and ages, including people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, acquired brain injury patients, people with sensory impairments, stroke victims, dementia patients and veterans with PTSD.
“We offer a unique opportunity for disabled and disadvantaged [people] of all ages and that’s key to us,” Mr Fell said. “We enable people of all ages with multiple profound and complex impairments to access the water with active participation and empowerment.”
This active participation for people with complex disability is unique to Wetwheels. There are many sailing disability organisations offering experiences to disabled people but in most cases, participants cannot use their own chair and people with profound and multiple learning disabilities are generally not eligible due to the severity of their conditions.
The impact of the experience is plain to see, Mr Fell said. “Pretty much every trip where we take somebody out with PTSD or mental health issues, you see how it impacts them being on the water.
“We get a fantastic reception with participants smiling and laughing. Quite often we’ve had people who have been quite withdrawn; very nonverbal communicators. But you can see that communication and just how much they’re enjoying it when they’re out there.
“We have examples of people with dementia who are pretty much uncommunicative in the care home come out onto the boat and for 90 minutes talk about when they used to be on boats, when they used to drive boats or when they used to be at sea. That has given the care home staff experiences they can take back and talk to them about.”
Recently, Wetwheels Foundation expanded its experiences to include trips for disabled sea anglers, giving former fishermen the chance to get back out to sea.
Last year, a group of disabled anglers used a Wetwheels boat to compete in the Sea Angling Classic, the UK’s biggest sea fishing competition.
Competing against able-bodied anglers, the group took third place.
“On a completely open, level playing field against some of the world’s top anglers, we were in the top three,” Mr Fell said.“It was absolutely fantastic to see a wheelchair user on the rostrum getting a prize.”
By 2026, Wetwheels aims to have 10 boats across the country and double its number of yearly participants to 12,000.
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