7 mins

Sailing adventures for all physical abilities

Captain Barbara Campbell on how the Jubilee Sailing Trust enables people of all physical abilities to sail side-by-side as equals


The Jubilee Sailing Trust is a registered charity that owns and operates two square-rigged three-masted barques, Lord Nelson and Tenacious. They are the only two tall ships in the world designed and built to enable people of all physical abilities to sail side-by-side as equals.

People undertaking JST voyages are involved in almost every activity on board, from taking the helm, setting the sails and keeping watch, regardless of physical ability or previous sailing knowledge. One of the Trust's most experienced captains, Barbara Campbell, explains to Peter Moore how it all works.

Who can undertake one of your voyages?

Our mission is to enable almost anyone to sail on a large square-sailed sailing ship as part of the crew no matter their physical disability. There is a minimum age limit of 16, but we don’t have an upper age limit. People over 70 have to get a letter from their doctor to say that they can sail on a voyage with us. We very rarely turn anyone down.

Each person is graded in terms of their physical abilities. And we need to have at least as many abled bodied people as those with disabilities. We take up to 40 Voyage Crew on each voyage. Up to 20 of the Voyage Crew may have a disability and, of these, up to eight can be in wheel chairs.

What does a JST voyage offer?

Everyone who comes onboard is able to play a meaningful part in the running of the ship. Everyone joins in together pulling on ropes to set sails or tack the ship. We operate a watch system and everyone takes turns at steering and keeping a look-out. Some of our Voyage Crew who are blind or deaf, a diabetic or an amputee for example, don’t really consider themselves as disabled and on our ships they are not treated as having a disability and they play a full part. On another sailing ship this probably would not be the case.

For the Voyage Crew, sailing with us is a working holiday. Able bodied Voyage Crew get to associate with, talk to and mix with people with disabilities, something many of them have never done before. They’re all thrown in together on the ship and they work together onboard, eat together and in port, go ashore together.

How does the buddy system work?

When a new crew comes on board we buddy up everyone. We buddy most able bodied Voyage Crew with someone with a minor disability, unless they've had experience looking after a severely disabled person. They may buddy somebody who is blind or maybe a paraplegic in a wheelchair, who is strong and can get themselves dressed without much help.

Voyage Crew who need a lot of help are asked to bring along their own buddy, someone they know or a carer. Severely disabled crew may need two buddies.

We divide the new crew into watches. Each ship has four watches of ten people. One of them is designated as Watch Leader, usually someone who has sailed with us before and we’ve asked to come back. They don’t need to know how to sail, they just have to be good with their watch.

Do new crew members receive training?

We actually do quite a bit of training before we sail. New crew generally board the ship between two and three in the afternoon, and we’ll spend the rest of the afternoon and the early evening training.

It’s not just putting on a lifejacket and lining up on deck, either. It’s learning how to pull on ropes, knowing how to put the ropes back, learning how to brace the yards. We show them all this and then we go to sea.

How do the watches work?

We work a four watch system so that the crew work one watch and, in theory, would have three watches off. Having said that, we need everybody on deck when we set or hand sails. Our sails are big – and there are lots of them – so there is plenty of work for everybody. Even those who have got very little strength join in.

What sort of things are crew members expected to do?

All sorts of things. Some people in wheelchairs are very strong pulling on ropes. Somebody who has had a stroke or somebody with MS might not have much strength, so they can let ropes go. Every time a rope is pulled there is at least one rope to let go or ease off and those with little strength can do this. There are enough jobs to involve everybody. We also have 'Happy Hour' most days when everyone joins in scrubbing the decks and cleaning the accommodation.

Each crew member gets a feeling of achievement, that they’ve helped sail the ship. Everyone can steer the ship because the steering is power assisted and we have a talking compass for blind crew. And everyone takes a turn keeping a look out, keeping the log and taking the weather measurements like temperature, pressure and wind direction.

What does the usual voyage involve?

On a seven day voyage, we usually go and anchor somewhere for the first night and then have one or two nights at sea. Then we’ll go to a port, usually foreign – Brittany in France or somewhere in Ireland – then we’ll do a bit more sailing before heading to a second port. Everyone joins in as much as they can.

Is there any reason the Jubilee Sailing Trust chose square-rigged ships?

Yes. The sailing of a square-rigged ship involves more people for setting the sails, handing the sails and tacking the ship. There's also a lot more jobs for people with less strength.

In that way, a square-rigged ship is ideally suited for taking people with not much strength into an environment where they can play their part. Every time a rope is pulled, there will be at least one rope to let go. The 'Let Go' side, is the thinking side. They've got to figure out the timing of the letting go. Of course, we’re always there to give instructions.

What about the practicalities for people with certain disabilities? How do you make a tall ship a wheelchair-friendly, for example?

Actually, wheelchairs can go everywhere on our ships, except for the engine room. The alleyways and the decks are wide enough for wheelchairs and there are lifts going between all the decks.

As I mentioned earlier, the steering is power-assisted, so Voyage Crew can sit in their own wheelchair and steer, or we have another chair we can slide behind the wheel. It’s a bit higher off the deck so it’s easier to see.

When it’s rough and the ship is heeling over, we have securing points on the deck that are very similar to securing points in ambulances. When the ship is heeling we also have two crew helping move Voyage Crew in wheelchairs, not just one. Pushing uphill is not too bad. But pushing downhill can be scary. We have a very good safety record and wheelchairs rarely fall over.

What does someone in a wheelchair or with a disability take away from one of your voyages?

They take away the fact that they are treated as a crew member, not someone with a disability. They have actually played their part in sailing the ship. They’ve steered. They’ve helped set the sails. They’ve helped tack the ship. We also set aside a few hours in port to haul those crew in wheelchairs up the rigging. We also help crew climb the rigging who need a bit of extra help. Climbing the rigging and climbing out on the yards provides a great sense of achievement for our Voyage Crew, though is not compulsory.

Do able bodied people come away with a different perspective on disabled people?

Definitely. A lot of people are scared of people with disabilities. And if somebody hasn’t worked with people with disabilities before they don't know what level of help to give them. We try and encourage anyone with a disability to tell their buddies what they would like help with. They can be independent in some things but may require help doing certain other things. We try to get them to work together so that the person with the disability doesn’t feel like they’re being mothered, but that they’re both getting as much out of it as they can.

It's not just disabilities either. It promotes understanding between generations too. I've had young people coming away saying ‘I didn’t realise old people could do so much!’

I guess everyone enjoys the thrill of getting to sail a ship.

The ships look absolutely stunning under full sail and the crew are inspired by the fact they are actually sailing as crew onboard and helping to work the ship.

It’s quite amazing to see what people get out of it. We don’t teach Voyage Crew so that they could sail the ship themselves, but we teach them to do individual things like setting sails or bracing yards. Some crew will never fathom out how the sails get set, though others will.

What is your role as captain?

As the captain I try to shape the way the voyage goes. I personally choose where the best sailing is going to be because that’s when the ship is most comfortable. We don’t want our crew to get seasick. So I look at the forecasts and where the wind is coming from and choose a route with good ports. It all helps make for a great voyage. I also put a lot of effort into all the crew getting on together.

You spoke of sailing to Brittany and those kind of places, but I notice on the website that the ships do head further afield.

Yes, we sail all over. I’ve just sailed Tenacious back from Bermuda, a voyage of over 3,000 nautical miles and we called into the Azores and Jersey on the way. The voyage was full and was great fun. In the summer we largely do voyages of five, six or seven days where the Voyage Crew join the ship in the UK and we sail to Irish, French, and European ports. We also take part in the Tall Ships' Races which can be anywhere from the Baltic to Portugal. In the winter months we go further afield to find good weather. One ship goes to the Canary Islands or the Mediterranean or the Caribbean or somewhere nice and sunny. Voyages further afield tend to be of ten or 11 days duration.

We usually choose ports that have an airport near them that are fairly cheap to fly to from the UK. We try to keep flight costs down, because if somebody spends all this money just to join the ship they’ll think twice about sailing with us.

I notice that your ships also take part in Tall Ship races around the world.

Yes, this year the races call into St Malo, Lisbon, Porto, La Coruna and Dublin. In 2013 Tenacious will be taking part in the Races in the Baltic and Lord Nelson will be taking part in the races in Australia and New Zealand.

And Tenacious took part in the Jubilee Flotilla on the Thames.

Tenacious was docked on the Thames as part of the Jubilee Pageant. She had a really good position next to Tower Bridge.

What's on the horizon?

In October 2012, for the first time ever, Lord Nelson is setting off on a Round The World Voyage, though some of these are longer voyages. We hope to have a crew member in a wheelchair for each of the passages. Clearly, for some of the big ocean passages Voyage Crew with physical disabilities would have to be physically strong enough for the expected conditions.

Finally, what do you love most about your job?

Probably the satisfaction of knowing that I helped shape the voyage to enable all the crew to get as much out of it as they could. Some people will only come and sail once, others come back every year. I want to see them all walking down (or wheeling down!) the gangway at the end of the voyage looking very, very happy.

Jubilee Sailing TrustLike to take part? The Jubilee Sailing Trust subsidise the costs on every voyage to make their tall ship adventures as affordable and inclusive as possible. They also offer extra bursary funding and fundraising advice for those individuals who might struggle to afford the full voyage cost. For more information visit  the Jubilee Sailing Trust website.

More like this

Disabled campingAccess All Areas: disabled travel

Travelling with a wheelchair has its challenges – but follow accessible travel expert Gordon Rattray's advice and you'll have an adventure More


Disabled snowboardingTop 10  trips for disabled travellers

Travelling with a wheelchair has its challenges but here are ten top trips you CAN take, says accessible travel expert Gordon Rattray More


Disabled racingDisabled charity challenges UK airports

Disabled travellers are still facing discrimination at UK airports, according to charity Leonard Cheshire Disability More

Related Articles