It was an amazing nautical feat. A goal most people would not have set for themselves if they were in this sailor's position. But Geoff Holt decided he had a "Personal Everest" he wanted to accomplish. And that challenge involved a solo transatlantic crossing to Tortola, more specifically to Cane Garden Bay, the site of the accident that paralyzed him 25 years earlier.
It had been a warm sunny day that September in 1984 when Geoff arrived at Cane Garden Bay for a swim. It was his second day on Tortola and he was excited to start the season as crew on a well-known local charter boat and escape the dismal English winters. A simple miscalculation on the depth of the water changed his life forever. His friend found him, as he lay stunned after a shallow dive unable to move his body – paralyzed from the chest down.
The next two decades took Geoff back to England, where he had to come to terms with the fact that his spinal cord injuries would effectively leave him a quadriplegic, with only 40 percent use of one muscle group in his arms. However, an indomitable adventurer's spirit lay dormant in a body that no longer responded to his demands. So his quest to set sail again soon had him back on the water where he accomplished his first goal – to be the first disabled sailor to circumnavigate the Isle of Wight.
By 1995 Geoff's sailing reputation was well known around England and with the help of Princess Anne he set up the charitable organization RYA Sailability, with the purpose of encouraging disabled sports men and women to push their own boundaries. Setting personal goals had now become a way of life. In 2007 Geoff entered the record books again as the first disabled sailor to accomplish a single-handed sail around Great Britain. It took 109 days with 51 ports of call and a willing and faithful back up crew. "It was the biggest thing I'd ever done," Geoff admits.
As mountain climbers always look for that next peak, so Geoff had his eyes set on another ocean journey, "I wanted to do a transatlantic crossing and it seemed to make perfect sense that I set my course on returning to Tortola. Many think I made this journey to settle a score or put old ghosts to rest, but that is not really true," Geoff explains. "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. There is a lot I have to be grateful for."
The challenge was daunting, and took Geoff over a year of planning and then raising $100,000 needed to fund the journey. First of all Geoff required a caregiver to attend to his physical needs – lifts, washing, and dressing each day. Geoff 's physical limits are great and would be heightened in the confines of a boat. His wife Elaine his main caregiver was not a candidate, as she gets severely seasick, so he 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 and producer, Digby Fox, who documented the trip on film and was also able to coordinate live BBC news feeds.
He then needed a boat that could accommodate a wheelchair and have the electronics sophisticated enough for push button sailing. Geoff serendipitously met through his Sailability contacts, paraplegic sailor Mike Browne, who had a 60-foot purpose built catamaran called Impossible Dream. Sponsor Raymarine outfitted the boat with all the necessary electronics. Now the dream did look possible, however not without risk. "You have to realize, I had responsibility for a three million dollar yacht," Geoff laughs, and getting it safely to Tortola was a priority of mine."
Although out in the middle of the Atlantic, Geoff kept contact with family and well-wishers through his website (www. geoffholt.com), which served as the nexus for disseminating information throughout the crossing. The site generated such interest, it was not a wonder that thousands from all over the world followed his daily blogs, tweets, video clips as well as the GPS tracking map of Impossible Dream along the journey.
When Impossible Dream appeared on the horizon at the end of the first week of January, after a 2,700-mile Atlantic crossing, there was a flotilla of boats waiting to meet him. Geoff's journey took 28 days from the time he left the Canary Islands. Challenges included spoiled fuel that meant a stop in Cape Verde Islands, days of little wind where the yacht was becalmed, followed by rough seas that were difficult both for him and his caregiver, Susanna. Only 500 miles out from the Virgin Islands, the yacht's generator failed, compromising the electronic system. "I was very happy to see those boats waiting for me." Geoff confesss.
One of the happiest to see Geoff sail in was his 7-year-old son Timmy, who was aboard a rib called Pink Panther, a chase boat for the sailing fleet owned by Colin and Alison Bramble, who run a sailing school in Sea Cows Bay with a program for disabled sailors. Timmy was handed a VHF radio to make contact with his father.
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 emotions for all who knew this story, whether part of the flotilla or on shore, ran high. Geoff maneuvered his wheel chair from the helm position to the deck. The huge Union Jack flag was flying low for photos, and crowds lined Cane Garden Bay with noise makers and cheers as he made his triumphal pass by the beach. Even the low dense clouds threatening rain, which skirted the mountaintops could not put a damper on the sailor's heroic welcome back.
After bowing his head to wipe the tears away, Geoff burst into an infectious grin, and joined onboard by his wife and son celebrated with the opening of a bottle of champagne. "The last time I was here that beach was all sand except one restaurant. To see all those people out there cheering for me was really very emotional."
Geoff's profession when not setting sailing records is as an Inspirational Speaker. He put that talent to use in Tortola speaking to school children and Rotary clubs with a message of hope. At a final night's reception for Geoff at the Governors House, the Premier and Governor spoke highly of the impact his voyage had on the BVI. To honor his accomplishment, Geoff received a gift he could not have imagined when he first left Tortola on a stretcher 25 years ago – a gift of honorary citizenship for himself and his family. Now next to that Union Jack on the mast of his boat, he can proudly wave the flag of the BVI, his second home.
Geoff's life story Walking on Water recounts his sail around England.