‘It started off as a hobby and it’s become a life ambition’

IN CONTROL Mike Wood of the Disabled Sailors' Association at the wheel of the catamaran Spirit of Scott Bader.  Picture: Paul Jacobs (121495-3)
IN CONTROL Mike Wood of the Disabled Sailors' Association at the wheel of the catamaran Spirit of Scott Bader. Picture: Paul Jacobs (121495-3)
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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When a motorbike accident left Mike Wood paralysed, he was determined that it wouldn’t leave him relegated to the sidelines.

He was only 33 when the crash robbed him of his ability to walk, forcing him to adapt to life in a wheelchair.

IN FULL SAIL The Spirit of Scott Bader catamaran

IN FULL SAIL The Spirit of Scott Bader catamaran

Two years of physiotherapy and rehabilitation followed and Mike regained enough grip in his hands to ensure he still has some independence.

But not even Mike thought that sailing would be a possibility – until he tried it for himself and vowed to make the same dream become a reality for other disabled people.

After realising that the confined design of boats barred most wheelchair users from sailing, Mike set about raising enough money to build his own.

The Disabled Sailors’ Association was born and as the group celebrates its 20th anniversary, Mike and the volunteers who make it possible have a lot to smile about.

They’ve taken thousands of disabled people and their families sailing over the years and have a yacht, catamaran and a fleet of dinghies at their disposal.

Later this year, they plan to launch a Spanish sailing club that will allow users to travel abroad.

And schoolchildren taking part in the Rotary Clubs Kids Day Out in Chichester Harbour will soon get the chance to step aboard.

‘I was one of those people who thought sailing was for rich and clever people,’ says Mike, from Gosport.

‘I know differently now.’

Through its Ro-Ro project, the DSA gives disabled people the chance to discover the fun and excitement of sailing for themselves.

Most boats are a maze of obstacles for someone in a wheelchair, but the DSA has got round that problem by building its own, complete with electric lifts, no steps and suitable toilet facilities.

The catamaran Spirit of Scott Bader is the world’s only catamaran suitable for a disabled person to sail solo.

Although he no longer has much time to go out on the water, it was Mike’s own experience that first prompted him to set about raising the funds needed to make the DSA happen.

‘I got invited to go out on a boat and thoroughly enjoyed it,’ he says, remembering the first time he went sailing in 1988, 10 years after the accident in which he broke his neck.

‘The following weekend someone invited me to go sailing in a yacht and I said “I’d like to do more yacht sailing, where can I do it?”

‘The guy told me I’d have to build my own boat, so I did.

‘I found lots of disabled people who wanted to go sailing but couldn’t. So we raised £250,000 in 1995 and built our first boat and then we built the catamaran in 2000.

‘We’ve taken over 30,000 people sailing over the years.’

It’s not all been plain sailing though. During the 2011 Round the Island Race, Spirit of Scott Bader hit a submerged container and overturned, snapping the mast and causing £100,000 worth of damage. Fortunately, no-one was hurt and the insurers covered most of the refit costs.

The catamaran is now back on the water – just in time for the 20th anniversary – and around 1,500 people are already on the waiting list to use it.

‘When you’re sailing you are on an equal par to an able-bodied person,’ says Mike.

‘When I’m sailing a dinghy you wouldn’t know I’m disabled. You wouldn’t believe the satisfaction that gives to a disabled person.’

He adds: ‘I had a 10-year plan to provide sailing for 20,000 people. I thought the boats would be worn out and not good enough after that. But both the boats are still in a good condition. I think we’re good for another 10 years.

‘It started off as a hobby and it’s become a life ambition. It’s very rewarding. You’ve only got to see someone come off the boat at the end of the day when they thought they had been relegated to a spectator to see what it means.’

travel from all over the world to hire the boats the Disabled Sailors’ Association owns.

The organisation subsidises the cost of hiring a boat, with the catamaran costing £200 a day.

Apart from a paid-for skipper, everyone else involved is a volunteer.

And that means that the DSA must raise tens of thousands of pounds every year to pay for maintenance and mooring the yachts at Portchester’s Wicor Marina.

That might feel like a daunting task to some, but it was TV legend Sir Jimmy Savile who first helped Mike Wood believe he could raise the money needed to build boats designed for disabled sailors.

Mike was recovering at the famous Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire when he met the Jim’ll Fix It host.

Sir Jimmy raised millions of pounds for the hospital before his death last year and Mike met him a few times.

‘He was a really nice guy,’ adds Mike.

‘He often used to say that people are limited by their imagination.

‘Most people think small and live small. The trick to living is to live big. Jimmy Savile was the guy who made me realise that.’

The DSA was formed on May 3 1992 and it took three years for their first yacht – the Verity K – to be launched.

And five years later the Spirit of Scott Bader was ready.

Mike’s wife Irina helps him fundraise and their daughter Maria is also involved.

‘If it hadn’t happened to me I bet I’d still be in a nine-to-five job, pootling along,’ he adds.

‘Life in a wheelchair is what you make it. I’ve travelled all over the world and have a great time.’

To find out more log on to disabledsailing.org

THE ORGANISATION

People travel from all over the world to hire the boats the Disabled Sailors’ Association owns.

The organisation subsidises the cost of hiring a boat, with the catamaran costing £200 a day.

Apart from a paid-for skipper, everyone else involved is a volunteer.

And that means that the DSA must raise tens of thousands of pounds every year to pay for maintenance and mooring the yachts at Portchester’s Wicor Marina.

That might feel like a daunting task to some, but it was TV legend Sir Jimmy Savile who first helped Mike Wood believe he could raise the money needed to build boats designed for disabled sailors.

Mike was recovering at the famous Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire when he met the Jim’ll Fix It host.

Sir Jimmy raised millions of pounds for the hospital before his death last year and Mike met him a few times.

‘He was a really nice guy,’ adds Mike.

‘He often used to say that people are limited by their imagination.

‘Most people think small and live small. The trick to living is to live big. Jimmy Savile was the guy who made me realise that.’

The DSA was formed on May 3, 1992 and it took three years for its first yacht – the Verity K – to be launched.

And five years later the Spirit of Scott Bader was ready.

Mike’s wife, Irina, helps him fundraise and their daughter, Maria, is also involved.

‘If it hadn’t happened to me I bet I’d still be in a nine-to-five job, pootling along,’ he adds.

‘Life in a wheelchair is what you make it. I’ve travelled all over the world and have a great time.’

To find out more, log on to disabledsailing.org.