Sophia’s tall ship Atlantic adventure

Having a disability needn’t hold anyone back, as Sheena Grant discovered when she met a young woman who has sailed across the world.

AS 2011 dawns Sophia Adams will be sailing on a tall ship around the Canary Islands, taking her turn at steering the ship, climbing the rigging and cooking the meals for everyone on board.

It’s not the first time Sophia has completed such a voyage.

Her home in Bungay is full of momentoes from past trips: pictures and maps line the walls and her photograph album is stuffed full of snapshots from journeys around the globe on board The Lord Nelson.

It doesn’t take long to realise that Sophia is an adventurer. As well as the voyages, she takes part in sailing races, has been in a hot-air balloon, is planning her first fund-raising parachute jump and goes horse riding regularly.

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But after a few minutes in her bungalow home, with its extra wide doors and corridors, it also doesn’t take long to realise something else. Sophia is disabled.

She was born with cerebral palsy, which affects her mobility and means she often needs to use a wheelchair.

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But with that disability has come something else: a determination to prove that she can do things that able-bodied people often think is beyond her. And that is why she loves to take on challenges, particularly on board The Lord Nelson.

“The first time I went on the tall ship was in 1996,” says Sophia. “It was amazing. You are part of the crew so have to do everything: steer the ship, cleaning, cooking, whatever needs doing.

“They did not treat me like a disabled person - and that is how I feel people quite often treat me in everyday life.

“Since 2000 I have been on the ship every year. I don’t go for less than seven days and the longest trip I have been on was 12 days. My favourite was when I went to Antigua.”

Sophia’s latest adventure is due to begin after Christmas, when she will join the crew of Lord Nelson for an eight-day voyage around the Canary Islands.

Sophia will be part of a crew of up to 40 other amateurs on board the ship, which is owned and operated by Southampton-based charity, Jubilee Sailing Trust (JST).

The ship is one of only two in the world that has been designed and built to enable able-bodied and disabled people to sail side by side as equals. The other ship, Tenacious, is also owned and operated by the JST.

Everyone on board has a part to play no matter what their level of experience or ability.

With facilities that include wheelchair lifts between deck levels, a speaking compass and the option for joystick steering or the usual ship’s wheel, but with hydraulic power assisted steering, everybody has the chance to fully participate in the action on board.

The aim of the charity is to promote integration between able bodied and physically disabled men and women through the adventure of tall ship sailing.

Crew members are put into one of four teams, called Watches, that take it in turns to be responsible for various tasks on board including keeping watch, even at night.

Each watch includes an experienced watch leader, who is the formal link with the permanent crew. Between them, they ensure that crew members are given tasks that suit their individual strengths and that they have the information necessary to fulfil them whether it is handling the sails, galley duty or ship cleaning.

Often, people are assigned a ‘buddy’: another crew member who is their companion on the voyage. Together they discover how to sail the ship.

Organisers say they aim to buddy everyone up into physically disabled and able-bodied pairs as this integration lies at the heart of their mission.

JST has been in operation for nearly 30 years and in that time has taken over 34,000 people to sea, including more than 13,000 people with physical disabilities and 4,800 wheelchair users.

Those in the know says that for many people sailing with the JST has been a life-changing experience. At the very least, it is a simply a fantastic adventure holiday.

For Sophia, it has definitely been life-changing.

The 32-year-old, who is a wheelchair user, has been sailing with the JST since 1996 and completed her gold Duke of Edinburgh Award residential on her first voyage. She was bitten by the sailing bug and since 2000, she has been on at least one voyage a year.

A few months after welcoming the New Year in the warmth of the Canary Islands she will be back aboard the Lord Nelson, sailing in the Tall Ship Race from Waterford, in Ireland, to Greenock, in Scotland and hoping to improve on her previous best placing of second in a race from Cadiz.

“Doing the sailing has made me get out and talk to more people and be more confident,” says Sophia. “It has taught me that I can do so many different things.”

The ship sails all year and has a permanent crew of 10, including a captain, cook, engineer and medical purser, which is bolstered by a complement of disabled and able-bodied sailors on each voyage.

“When I first took part I did not know what to expect,” says Sophia. “I am always seasick for the first 24 hours but even that doesn’t put me off.

“I have been on board during stormy weather but I have found I can cope with that too.

“I don’t let my disability, which affects my legs and my left arm, stop me.

“It has probably made me more determined to try new things and I have got so much confidence from it. There is a real sense of teamwork on board. It makes me feel so independent.”

Because there are only eight wheelchair berths on the ship Sophia has to book early and always starts planning her next adventure well in advance.

She has completed car boot sales and other events to raise money for the JST and to help fund her trips and next year plans a parachute jump in aid of the Trust.

“I will probably be nervous when it comes to jumping from the plane but I am also really looking forward to it,” she says.

“I know I am ok with heights because I have been in a hot air balloon and have climbed the rigging on the Lord Nelson.”

And she has the photographs to prove it. In her treasured albums are pictures of Sophia smiling, high above the ship’s deck as she helps stow the sails and perform other vital duties.

“Heights don’t bother me,” she says simply. “And I am determined to do anything.”

Sophia puts some of her inspirational attitude down to her parents, who have always supported her and encouraged her to try new things.

“My mum and dad have always said that since they knew I had got cerebral palsy they have had to fight for me.

“It’s impossible to say what my character would have been like without cerebral palsy but I know that having it makes me want to prove I can do things for myself. That is why I go on the ship really.

“Some parents of disabled people wrap their child in cotton wool and tell them they can’t do things but my parents have never been like that. They have always encouraged me.”

When she is not sailing Sophia, who has completed college courses in business administration and small animal care, does voluntary work at a local school.

She also has a PAT (Pets as Therapy) dog, called Muffin, which she takes to local hospitals and care homes to help brighten the day for patients.

Sophia says: “I would say to anyone like me who is looking for a challenge, go and have a look on the JST website. I’m certainly glad I took the opportunity to find out more.”

Details of all JST voyages are available on the JST website at:

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