- November 30th, 2009
- in Yachting
"A wind blew, from what quarter I know not, but it lifted the half-grown leaves so that there was a flash of silver grey in the air." − Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
On a Tuesday in September, muffling wind off the English Channel blows into Geoff Holt’s mobile phone, and I get a chill as I imagine the grey autumn scenery that surrounds him in Southampton, UK. A mysterious gust riffles through my office in Road Reef Plaza. I feel the need to step outside and dip my toes in the Sir Francis Drake Channel and warm my skin in the tropical sun. But Southern England is abuzz with activity, at least if you’re a sailor. Geoff’s busy week includes appearances in Weymouth, at the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta Southampton, and at the PSP Southampton Boat Show.
The boat he plans to sail across the Atlantic, Impossible Dream, a 60-foot, specially equipped catamaran designed by Nic Bailey, designer of the London Eye, is on display at the show before it leaves for the Canary Islands where Geoff will meet it in December to make the journey from Lanzarote to Cane Garden Bay.
Photo by OnEdition
In his autobiography, Walking on Water, Geoff describes Cane Garden Bay as “an idyllic sandy beach with turquoise waters.” He continues, “It was my favourite spot on the island, and I could often be found there, relaxing under the shade of a palm tree.” Geoff had spent time in Tortola when, at age 18, he worked at The Last Resort in the winter to spring of 1984. After the season, he went home to the UK, but he yearned to return to the BVI and was soon offered an opportunity to come back when he was hired as first mate on a charter yacht.
On his second day on Tortola, a thrilled-to-be-back Geoff wanted to show his favourite beach to a friend from the UK, so they drove over the hill to Cane Garden Bay. Unable to resist the beckoning waters, Geoff ran into the sea and dived head-first into the shallow waves. Then he felt his neck break. “Fully conscious, unable to move, holding my breath, eyes wide open, staring at the sandy bottom only inches below my face, shafts of daylight piercing the water all around me…Instinctively, I tried to turn myself over but realised that I could not. No matter how hard I tried, I could not make any part of my body move,” recalls Geoff in his autobiography. He had broken his neck and left Cane Garden Bay in an ambulance, never to walk again. That was twenty-five years ago.
When Geoff, now 43, arrives in Cane Garden Bay at the end of December, he will be the first quadriplegic sailor to have crossed the Atlantic, unaided, accompanied only by a non-sailing carer and a cameraman. “I left there in an ambulance, and I’m turning back up as the skipper of a yacht,” Geoff tells me on the phone. His dream of being the captain of a luxury yacht in the Caribbean will finally be realized. This will be Geoff’s fourth Atlantic crossing, but the first one since his accident. “It took seven years after the accident before I got in a boat again,” Geoff says. “I’d shut sailing out of my life. It was like a bereavement. When I started sailing again, the first time I was in the boat, I felt that I had left my disability behind on the jetty.” In 2007, Geoff was the first quadriplegic sailor to sail single-handed around Great Britain. According to his blog on www.geoffholt.com, Geoff began thinking about crossing the Atlantic after the circumnavigation of the UK, but I have a feeling that he started thinking about it during his journey, on those long, solo sailing days from port to port.
Photo by OnEdition
The overriding emotion I sense from Geoff about his upcoming trip is one of excitement. Sure, he tells me about the challenges of the voyage, but he honestly doesn’t seem that worried about them. “Sleep deprivation while being at sea for three weeks,” says Geoff. “That’s not something you can train for. And then there’s the weather. That’s always an unknown.” But mostly Geoff focuses on his eagerness at being out on the open sea. “I like the solitude,” he says. “You realize how insignificant and small we are when floating on a piece of plastic in the middle of the ocean,” he says. The solitude does not extend to other life forms, though. “Every time I’ve crossed, I’ve seen whales, dolphins, marine life. People think it’s a big, blue desert, but it’s not. It’s a whole different world out there.” He is excited, also, to sail back into Cane Garden Bay. “The thoughts of arriving in those beautiful, blue waters. It’s paradise. I have no sad memories of the place whatsoever, even though it’s where I had my accident.”
Though Geoff calls the trip his “Personal Atlantic,” the journey is far from a self-serving, ego-building endeavour. His crossing will raise funds for the Ellen MacArthur Trust as well as inspire future sailors. Geoff admits that he returned to sailing “for selfish reasons—I wanted to go sailing again,” he says, “but things have changed. This whole sailing part of my life has changed. In some small way, it’s helping other people. It’s challenging people to look at their lives.” Geoff began working with Princess Anne and Sailability in 1995. “It’s a wonderful charity,” says Holt. “In the UK alone, there are over 20,000 disabled sailors. Disabled people get a sense of freedom being on the water.” He considers himself lucky that he gets to sail and promote sailing for all. “I’m almost embarrassed that I continue to get pleasure and it’s helping other people, too. I’m a very lucky man.”
I’m hesitant to ask Geoff about his future, considering he hasn’t yet begun his crossing, but I have a feeling he’s already making plans. “I am looking that far ahead. I wouldn’t normally admit to that,” he says. He explains that he would like something more constant than the spikes of activity he’s experienced the last few years. “I have to start from scratch again, and I don’t want to. I can’t take sailing out of my life. If you do that, you take away my spirit. I might want to do some racing,” he muses “I love the idea of being a sports ambassador or maybe doing commentating on sailing.” I ask what his ideal would be, keeping with the idea of something more permanent. “I feel like I’d like to have a sailing school to teach people to sail and race. Some place on the beach.” Maybe the BVI, I suggest as another gust blows into his phone. “Now, that’s a good idea.”
Geoff is scheduled to leave Lanzarote, Canary Islands on December 10 and plans on arriving in Cane Garden Bay, Tortola, BVI on December 27. To follow Geoff’s journey, visit www.geoffholt.com
GEOFF HOLT'S TENTATIVE BVI SCHEDULE
December 27: A welcome flotilla including all Sailability BVI & Special Olympics BVI Athletes.
December 27: Fundraising party at Myett’s Cane Garden Bay where Geoff and his family will be staying. Ticket proceeds go to Geoff's choice of causes and to Sailability BVI.
December 31: Joint meeting of the three BVI Rotary clubs at Mariner’s Inn at The Moorings where Impossible Dream will be on display. Geoff will help to christen three Squibs Hope, Faith and Charity.
January 2: The Holt Family and Governor David Peary and his family sail Impossible Dream to Cooper Island.
January 3: Casual Beach Barbeque and Jam Session at Elm's Beach Bar in Cane Garden Bay.
January 5: Cocktail party at the Governor’s House for Geoff’s invited guests.
January 7: Geoff to speak at St Thomas Rotary Club.