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Sailing Tall

Clare Cupples is in the unique position of being one of the two female skippers (Barbara Campbell is the other) of the only two tall ships in the world designed specifically for able-bodied and physically disabled people to crew together. Her experience in working for the Jubilee Sailing Trust, the UK charity organization behind these tall ships, is what first brought her to the Caribbean, and Antigua in particular, now considered her second home.

Clare has always loved the sea and her first encounters go back to when she was ten years old, sailing with her father on his yacht. She went to an all-girls boarding school and the idea of uniform, which solved the eternal problem of “what to wear,” appealed to her so much that she joined the Merchant Navy—and spent the next six years in a boiler suit.

Choice of apparel notwithstanding, she traveled all over the world on tankers, which she enjoyed hugely, until she was made redundant in the early 1980s. Her continued affinity to life on the ocean wave prompted her to volunteer to work with the Ocean Youth Club (OYC), a charity organisation operating out of Northern Ireland teaching eager would-be sailors from 12 to 25 years old. She found herself in a position with a ticket but no boat, and with her usual determination, self-taught herself to obtain her Yachtmasters.

She worked for various self-training organisations in the 80s until eventually, in 1990, she took over the 72ft 1914 gaff yawl Duet, which belonged to the OYC, and spent six glorious years as the longest-serving skipper. Always very hands-on, she managed to mend all the leaks except one (the head continued to leak on the port tack).

Up until this time, Clare’s sailing had been limited to the seas around the British Isles, particularly off the south coast of England, in the Cowes and Gosport area. Joining the Jubilee Sailing Trust (JST) in 1995 changed all this and Clare signed on as 2nd mate with the tall ship Lord Nelson, which offered winter sailing adventures to the Canary Islands for people of all physical abilities, with trips to northwest Europe in the summer.

Her outgoing and friendly temperament and natural aptitude for this very proactive type of life led her to work her way up the promotional ladder until she took command in 2005—the same year she met her husband-to-be, who came on board as a volunteer assistant and relief cook for two to three months a year.

Along the way, however, she worked for two years as a bursar relief mate on Tenacious, the sister ship of Lord Nelson, which is skippered by Barbara Campbell. Tenacious offers similar trips to Lord Nelson, but in the Caribbean, and more specifically, out of its Antigua base. Clare so fell in love with the island that she ended up acquiring property and now has a house within easy reach of historic English Harbour and Falmouth Harbour, where Tenacious berths.

Clare finds working for the Jubilee Sailing Trust to be both very rewarding and great fun—the ideal job in the minds of many! Trips on the steel Lord Nelson and the all-wood Tenacious offer two of the few opportunities for adults seeking a working holiday to sail on a square rigger. Most training ships these days are geared toward youngsters—no bad thing, but these tall ships represent an ideal singles holiday for people from all walks of life, from the age of 16 to 98 years old.

Once on board, origins become irrelevant and the challenge of sailing the ship together is all that counts. Both ships are specifically-designed to accommodate the blind and otherwise physically-disabled, including wheelchair users and those with walking disabilities—affectionately referred to as “wheelies” and “wobblies” by Clare and her small, permanent crew, just as affectionately known to the former as “wankers.” Able-bodied people are known as “walkies.”

Clare maintains that in order for this type of working holiday to be successful, it must be above all fun. Joking is the order of the day, and this helps people both relax and enjoy their trips, as well as leveling the playing field with respect to background and origins. It is also essential for surviving the very communal environment from which there is little if any escape once on board. However, under Clare’s lively and humorous command, it is hard to imagine any holiday not being a winner!

Biologist and former Eurocrat Gilly Gobinet took up permanent residence on Antigua in the Caribbean in 1984. She has been painting and writing—and sailing—ever since.  Her work can be seen at originalcaribbeanart.com

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