It wasn’t enough to be the first disabled person to sail solo around the Isle of Wight. Geoff Holt of Southampton, England, decided to best himself and become the first disabled person to sail singlehandedly around Great Britain. Holt, 41, left Southampton on May 20, aboard Free Thinker, his 15-foot specially equipped Challenger trimaran, and completed the journey September 5. He originally estimated that the trip would take about 50 days, but it mushroomed in to 109 days due to one of the worst summers on record in Great Britain.
Holt, a quadriplegic, was injured in a swimming accident in the British Virgin Islands in 1984. Only 18 at the time, he’d been one of the youngest charter captains in the Caribbean and had already crossed the Atlantic three times. “After my accident, I didn’t want to be taken for trips around the harbor,” Holt said. “If that were the case, I’d rather not go.”
And that hasn’t been the case. Upon returning to England, Holt began racing on Challengers in earnest, and won the UK Open Championship in 1992 and 1993. He’s also raced Hobie Cats and won the bronze medal in the World Disabled Sailing Championships in Australia and America.
Stability on a boat is extremely important to Holt, which is why he favors Challengers. He’s paralyzed from the chest down, and controls the boat by pulling the sheets with his teeth and steers with just the backs of his wrists on the tiller. His immobility also limits the number of hours he can stay in the boat in a single day, as he’s susceptible to pressure sores.
This is where his support team comes in.
Geoff’s team of eight consisted of himself, his wife, Elaine, his son, Timothy, 5, and a crew of five volunteers. At the end of each day, Geoff’s team would haul him out of his boat and he’d spend the night with his family in a RV. The crew would sleep in another RV. The caravan also included a Range Rover equipped with a crane to hoist Geoff out of his boat for the times they ended up in a harbor with no slips.
Geoff sailed in tandem every day with the crew’s 22-foot RIB, which he refers to as “my personal lifeboat.” Timothy went out often on the RIB, but not Elaine. “She can’t stand boats,” said Holt. “She gets nauseous just looking at big waves.”
Holt also got support from various companies that donated essential items such as clothing and electronics. His monetary sponsorship came from the British law firm of Blake, Lapthorn, Tarlo, and Lyons. This company had no connection to Holt or to Sailability, the UK-based charity that enriches disabled people’s lives through sailing, and for which Holt was chairman for six years. Its sponsorship even surprised Holt. “The firm said they sponsored me because my crew embodied everything they wanted their staff and clients to believe in,” said Holt. “We represented their philosophy of success through teamwork and dedication.”
Holt also received hundreds of e-mails before, during, and after the trip from other disabled people from all over the world who said that he was their inspiration. “One woman from Cornwall has actually taken up sailing!” Holt said. “She said to me, ‘you’ve given me my life back.'”
All the support and accolades gave Holt a sense of duty, especially during the inclement weather. “Out of the 109 days, we spent 58 waiting for decent weather,” Holt said. “The worst bit was keeping up morale. All of a sudden, I felt this huge responsibility to the crew, my family, and even to all the well-wishers I’d never met. There was no way in the world I would’ve ever given up. I’m incredibly humbled by all of this.”
Holt says he has no definitive plans for the his next feat, but he’s considering writing a book, and he still works as a marketing executive for Deloitte & Touche, a job he’s held for the past 15 years. His schedule’s filling up too, with appearances in the Sailability booth at both the Southampton and London boat shows. He’ll also celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary on September 19th with Elaine, who just happens to have been his nurse while he recuperated after his accident.
Coincidentally, Holt’s 1984 accident occurred on September 5, and he completed his 2007 circumnavigation also on September 5. “On 9-5-84, I had my livelihood taken away,” he said. “But on 9-5-07, I reestablished myself as a yachtsman.”