Geoff Holt is used to challenges – the bigger the better – and as a sailor, he has a logbook of amazing accomplishments. Most have come from overcoming an accident that confined him to a wheelchair but did not prevent him from sailing.
Holt arrived in the British Virgin Islands on January 7, an eventful 28 days after his departure from the Canary Islands, concluding a 2,700-mile solo Atlantic Ocean crossing. When the 60-foot catamaran Impossible Dream appeared on the horizon, approaching the pass between Peter and Norman Islands, a flotilla was there to greet him with his wife Elaine and seven-year-old son Timmy, who had flown from England. The well-wishers escorted the English sailor on a momentous passage full of emotional history.
Twenty-five years ago, Holt had arrived on Tortola at age 18 to crew on a charter boat for the season with a bright future before him. All of that changed in an instant when a shallow dive in the waters off Cane Garden Bay crushed his vertebrae, paralyzing him from the chest down.
As Impossible Dream sailed down the Sir Frances Drake Channel, rounded the west end of Tortola at Soper's Hole and made a tack for Cane Garden Bay, the emotion on board and ashore was palpable. Holt maneuvered his wheel chair from the helm position to the deck, unfurled a huge Union Jack and took in the crowds that lined Cane Garden Bay with noise makers and cheers as he made his triumphal pass by the beach. Even rain clouds that skirted the mountaintops could not put a damper on the sailor's heroic welcome back.
After bowing his head to wipe the tears away, Holt reflected on the past. "When I was last here, that beach was all sand with only one small restaurant; now, to see all these people cheering me on is really moving. Many think I made this journey to put old ghosts to rest, but that is not really true," he explained. "Yes, I would prefer to not be in this wheelchair, but then I would not have met my wife Elaine (a nurse in the spinal unit of his hospital) or had my son Timmy. I have a lot to be grateful for and I do not regret these last 25 years."
His gratitude extended to the use of a special yacht for his solo crossing. The catamaran is a purpose-design boat configured for a wheel chair helmsman with push button controls. Paraplegic sailor Mike Browne, who Geoff met in England, agreed to the loan as long as he didn't "mash it up." "You have to realize, I have responsibility for a three million dollar yacht," Holt laughed, "and getting it here in one piece was a priority of mine."
The challenge took more than a year of planning, including raising $100,000 in sponsorships needed to fund the journey. Raymarine supplied the needed specialty electronic components and Dame Ellen McArthur (a renowned yachtswoman who sailed around the world) also gave support. A personal friend and philanthropist, Peter Harrison, donated over half the money needed for the project from his foundation.
Holt needed a caregiver on board to attend to his physical needs: lifts, washing, and dressing each day. With 40 percent use of one muscle group in his arms and only slight finger control, Holt's physical limits are daunting. His wife Elaine was not a candidate, as she gets severely seasick, so they advertised and found Susanna Scott, 28, a New Zealander who worked with spinal injury patients and had no prior sailing experience. The only other non-sailing crew was freelance cameraman Digby Fox, who documented the trip on film and used his chef talents to whip up meals in the galley.
Holt's website (www.geoffholt.com) was the nexus for disseminating information throughout the crossing. With his background in marketing and his mantra, "drive traffic to your site," it was not a wonder that thousands from all over the world followed his daily blogs, tweets, video clips and the GPS tracking map of Impossible Dream along the journey.
Problems plagued the voyage from the beginning. Three days out, engine problems due to contaminated diesel fuel forced a stopover in the Cape Verde Islands. Then the prevailing winds dropped, causing the boat to stay virtually becalmed for a few days. After winds picked up, the pitching and yawing of the boat became extremely difficult for both Holt and his caregiver. Finally, just 500 miles out from the Virgin Islands, the generator failed, a disastrous consequence for a boat that depends on electricity to run electronic and hydraulic systems.
Holt also had to overcome personal challenges such as sleep deprivation. He had to stay hydrated and avoid bed sores that could become infected from being in one position too long. However, he recalls feeling totally free out in the Atlantic watching schools of dolphins and 'green flash' sunsets. "I was amazed. There I was in the middle of the Atlantic skippering this yacht, but I was also even more aware of my handicap, as every activity required was magnified by being on a boat."
Holt faced a similar challenge in 2007 when he entered the record books by completing his "Personal Everest" as the first yachtsman with a disability to sail single-handed around Great Britain. It took him 109 days with 51 ports of call. His desire to encourage other would-be athletes led to his association with Princess Anne and the start of the RYA Sailability programs that encourage others with disabilities to sail. This program is now available in the BVI as well.
Geoff Holt spends much of his time now as an inspirational speaker. His dream is to inspire sportsmen and women with disabilities to push for their personal best. In the meantime, it is the nature of what he does and how he does it that ends up inspiring the rest of us. Holt's autobiography, "Walking on Water," gives an account of his voyage around Britain and the story of his life. It is available at Amazon.com.
Jane Bakewell is a freelance writer who has called the BVI home for the last 15 years. An active supporter of the KATS program, she also ran a day charter and snorkeling business for five years.