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It is startling to see a man in a wheelchair high up the mast of a sailing ship.

It is hard to imagine a blind young woman steering a tall ship.

All things are possible for disabled people who join the crew of the Lord Nelson or Tenacious. Whatever his disability, everyone takes part in running the ships. The only disabilities these sips cannot accommodate, for safety reasons, are mental and significant learning difficulties. With signal success, the Jubilee Sailing Trust pursues its aim of promoting the integration, through tall ship sailing, of able-bodied and physically disabled people.

Capt. Martin L.M. Smith, a professional seaman, has for many years in his own time supported the JST. As his regular sailing schedules keep him away from home for several weeks on end, he had “to ask permission from my dog, my wife and my two children,” he said, before he volunteered to sail in his off-duty periods with the Nelson. On the first occasion, he went at a few hours’ notice “to help out my friend, the second mate, who had broken his arm.” Smith was so impressed that he has gone “every year since, sometimes twice a year.”

Smith discovered his liking for “the saltwater element” early in life. “I had an uncle who kept some little sailing dinghies. He taught me to sail,” Smith said. “Now sailing is my hobby, and I have a little dingy at home.”

During the course of his career at sea, Smith came twice to Japan. “In the ’70s we called at Yokohama and Nagasaki, loading trucks and cars for other Asian countries and Europe,” he said. He has sailed on the ships of several of the famous old lines, and become a captain in 1975. Most recently he has been captaining the RMS St. Helena, which carries cargo and passengers on its Tenerife-Ascension-St. Helena-Cape Town run. Once a year, the RMS puts on a separate service to Tristan da Cunha.

Since becoming an active, enthusiastic volunteer for tall ship sailing, Smith lectures and raises money for the JST. “A tall ship is a square-rigged sailing ship,” he explained. “The JST owns and operates the two specially designed tall ships, the Lord Nelson and Tenacious. They are the only tall ships in the world that enable men and women of mixed physical abilities to share the challenge of crewing a tall ship at sea. Great Britain is the only country that has sailing ships of this size dedicated to disabled people.”

The JST, a charity under the patronage of the Duke of York, philosophizes that everyone has a part to play in sailing and working the ships, on a 50/50 basis between disabled and able-bodied. Everyone has to share trimming sails, going aloft to set sails, helming, keeping watch, going on galley duty, cleaning the heads and polishing the brass. Duties are tailored to individual abilities. Many require teamwork, and all call for reliability. Each disabled crew member is paired with an able-bodied crew member, and a severely disabled crew member is encouraged to take an able-bodied friend who knows how to help with particular needs.

The JST began in 1978 with one ship, the Lord Nelson. “Nelson himself was a disabled sailor,” Smith remarked. This original ship had a permanent professional crew of eight, and for its full voyage crew of 40 accepted applications from anyone aged 16 to 70-plus. “There was such a demand for berths on the Lord Nelson that the JST decided to build a second ship,” Smith said. “Disabled people helped build the second ship, Tenacious, in an integrated participation called Shorewatch. Four years later, Tenacious entered service, in September last year. ” Both ships have special facilities that include speaking compasses, power-assisted steering and induction loop systems, lifts between flat, wide decks, adjustable seats at the helms, and specially fitted toilets and showers. Both ships arrange about 20 seasonal, exhilarating “voyages of self-discovery” around the U.K., Europe and the Canary Islands. The Lord Nelson has sailed to America, and has competed in a tall ship race across the Atlantic.

Of the disabled crew members at sea, Smith said, “It is staggering what they do. They come back different people. When carers come to collect people they put on the ship, they know them visually but don’t recognize their characters. I cannot emphasize this too much.”