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Impossible Dream

When quadriplegic sailor Geoff Holt arrived in the British Virgin Islands earlier this year, he arrived on a 61‑foot long catamaran christened Impossible Dream. Those who visited Impossible Dream while she was docked at Sopers Hole or Nanny Cay may have assumed that the boat had been built for Geoff’s historic journey across the Atlantic, but the catamaran was actually designed for paraplegic adventure seeker Mike Browne by Nic Bailey, renowned British designer and naval architect who also designed the pod-like capsules of the London Eye.   

I spoke with Mike and his partner Martine on board Impossible Dream as they prepared the boat for a few weeks of cruising. I learned that the boat’s maiden voyage had been a transatlantic crossing a few years back, when Mike and Martine had been accompanied by two yachtmasters who coached the couple both in sailing and seamanship. As I admired the spacious, space-age cockpit, I asked Mike how Nic Bailey got involved in the project.

“I went to the London Boat Show in 2000, looking for an architect,” he said, “and there was a catamaran hanging up on the ceiling of the exhibition.” The boat was CoolCat, a 26-foot catamaran, and according to Mike, “It was absolutely fantastic.” Mike met with Nic Bailey, but after hearing that he was working with groundbreaking boat designer Nigel Irens at the time, Mike didn’t think Nic was going to be interested in the project.

When I spoke on the phone with Nic, he recounted his initial meetings with Mike. “He was interested in a boat that could be modified to suit his needs, but modification wasn’t what it was going to be about.”

Mike gave Nic his drawings, notes and a model that he’d designed. “Within a week, he was sending sketches and ideas,” Mike said. “The whole gangway around the boat was absolutely his idea, and it’s solved so many problems on the boat in terms of access. And, of course, his artistic merit is superb.”

 

I asked Nic about the challenges that he faced when designing this one-of-a-kind catamaran, and he surprised me by mentioning something that most sailors take for granted—the ability to adjust sightlines. “There are small changes in levels everywhere; you’re always changing your level, whereas when you’re in a wheelchair, your eye-line is fixed at a certain height.” So Nic kept that in mind when designing the deck and gangway. Walking around the boat felt organic to me. Every part flowed into the next. Even the lifts down to the cabins functioned smoothly. “It’s actually the floor that lifts,” Martine said as she directed me onto the ascending and descending plank.

Another engineering challenge was how to get Mike and his wheelchair from the boat’s deck to the dock. They dismissed the idea of a crane and, with the help of engineer Roger Scannell, came up with the concept of a lift that adjusts to the appropriate height then folds out onto the dock, making a ramp so wheelchairs can roll off the boat.

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Nic also mentioned the task of designing the sail-handling systems. “The biggest challenge,” he said, “was designing a boat so Mike could steer and sail the boat from inside and outside.” The systems were not only duplicated, but triplicated, so that Mike can steer from inside the main cabin, behind the double-curved glass that’s reminiscent of the London Eye, or outside from mini cockpits on each hull. When I asked Mike where he is usually stationed, he said he prefers navigating outdoors. “Over here [in the BVI],” he said,  “you don’t really want to be inside the boat, but you don’t always get these wonderful conditions [in the UK or Mediterranean].”

After the successful collaboration on the boat, Mike asked Nic to check out a property he was considering purchasing on the Beaulieu River. One thing led to another, and Nic ended up completely revamping the futuristic mansion. “We now have a boat and a house designed by Nic,” Mike said. “I don’t know what’s next.” Well, Nic Bailey’s designs do look a bit helicopteresque.

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