“I never thought I would ever sail again until I found the Challenger.” That is the most frequent comment amongst Challenger sailors because, when you have an accident or find you have Multiple Sclerosis, it doesn’t seem possible to do sporting or outdoor things any more.
In the past it was difficult because the able-bodied didn’t think so either but, in 1979, a wheelchair-bound Diana Campbell sowed a seed and leading yacht designer Rod McAlpine Downie nurtured it into a boat that a paraplegic could get into without difficulty or a person with MS could sail without losing control or capsizing.
Douglas Hurndall was not disabled but, as Director of the Seamanship Foundation, he was instrumental in spreading Challengers from Scotland to Cornwall, so that people who thought they were invalids were amazed to find that they did have the skills needed to experience a sense of freedom and the achievement of controlling a sailing boat. It also helped to gain respect when Challengers raced with able-bodied fleets on an equal basis.
The Challenger has been a racing class since the early days and there is a national regatta circuit where sailors from all over the UK meet at different venues to race and, afterwards, to enjoy each others’ company and discuss the day’s racing over a good meal and drinks. Most Challengers are bought by fundraising and are owned by the group so there are often as many helpers as sailors, which means that this is one of the most sociable fleets in the country.
Disabled sport has come a long way and athletes such as Tanni-Grey Thompson are household names now. Equally well known in the sailing world is Andy Cassell, who didn’t let a disability stop him from skippering an ocean racer and, together with Challenger sailor Kevin Curtis, he won a Paralympic Gold Medal at Atlanta in 1996.
The water is a challenging element, even to able-bodied sailors and it sometimes takes courage and perseverance to set sail. In spite of this, Geoff Holt, who is quadriplegic, circumnavigated the Isle of Wight, a distance of 50 miles, in a Challenger, not once but twice. Averaging 5mph, that is a real feat of endurance. Not content with that, in 2007 Geoff organised and achieved his “Personal Everest” by sailing the Challenger around the coast of Britain, often sailing for ten hours and covering 60 sea miles at a time.
So, Challenger sailing is possible, accessible and exciting. There are groups all over the UK and they have boats ready and waiting. There is expert assistance to help people to get ready and go afloat and there are qualified instructors to polish up sailing skills. All groups have safety cover in case of trouble and each sailor can choose between the thrills and spills of racing or the relaxing therapy of just messing about in boats. Either way, for anyone with a disability, the Challenger makes life something to look forward to and adds just a little bit of...well...CHALLENGE!