LBCC, SailNicola Elam ©
December 23, 2019.
The Little Britain Challenge Cup enters its 33rd year raising over £1.3m for its dedicated charities.
On a beautiful sunny weekend in September 2019, I was in the bustling town of Cowes, Isle of Wight. It was everything a sailing enthusiast could ask for – colourful spinnakers with distinctive designs majestically billowing across the Solent; skippers smugly aware that all eyes ashore were gazing at them with enthusiasm and envy.
The warm breeze was Med-like, caressing a glittering sea that cascaded like diamonds scattering through the bows of ubiquitous summer regattas racing around their respective circuits. The atmosphere was one of importance boosted by a virtuous sense of carnival spirit – it was just as anybody imagines the sailing fraternity to be.
By nightfall the dark backdrop was off-set by the welcoming glow of busy restaurants bustling with chirpy sailors contentedly exchanging banter and birdsong. The high street vibrated with shrills of joviality regaling the day’s racing, amplifying the euphoric atmosphere.
Wait! There is more to sailing than its glamorous image
While working for an annual regatta called the Little Britain Challenge Cup (LBCC), on this particularly glorious weekend, I met up with five appointed charities this event is entirely dedicated to raising funds for. Since its inception in 1988, the popular annual race is participated by employees from the property and construction industry, who have between them raised £1.3m for local charities.
Behind the scenes of my idyllic summer surroundings was a far more sobering story and one I feel compelled to write as we enter the most sociable season of all.
It starts with my introduction to Cowes Sailability – an initiative that provides accessible sailing to people with disability. As with most of these charities they exist through donations, grants and the tireless work of their volunteers.
I wanted to meet one of their coaches to learn more about how they support the diverse and complex needs of people with physical limitations. After all, the traditional image of sailing hardly lends itself as inclusive – or so you would believe.
I met volunteer Toby Matthews for coffee in one of the town’s many buzzing cafes that weekend and decided to question him about his involvement in helping disabled people learn to sail. I imagine it is quite a challenge and I wanted to know more about his motivation.
This is when my story loses its technicolor ambience, because I gained an insight into how one tragic moment eclipsed an entire life and changed his path forever.
Four years ago, Toby, now aged 33, was hit by a drunk-driver as he was walking home along a country road. His injuries were catastrophic and profoundly life-changing; his prognosis for recovery was bleak and his family braced themselves for the worst outcome.
In the seconds prior to the accident Toby had led an active and inspiring lifestyle. His career included working as a superyacht engineer maintaining vessels of over 100ft, taking him to exotic locations all over the world.
After a stint of 46 months at sea, he had returned to the Solent working as a marine engineer to be closer to family and friends, but Toby’s experience attracted opportunities across the globe and he was quickly recruited to start a new role as an electronics engineer in the British Virgin Islands. Life was great, his prospects were assured as he had dedicated his entire career to reaching the highest professional standard.
Then one fateful event turned his well endeavoured plans upside down – Toby was hit by a car. A terrible coincidence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by a driver who made a disastrous error of judgement by getting behind the wheel while drunk.
Following the accident, Toby spent five days in ICU at St. Mary’s Hospital, Isle of Wight, but it was a further 10 weeks before he could leave there and start 14 weeks of intensive specialist rehabilitation at Peartree House, Southampton. The long process of initial recovery as an in-patient took over six months to re-learn his key functions such as coordination and balance.
Toby was left with lifelong brain damage and vision problems, but the physical ailments are only one aspect of this tragedy’s impact. It has taken incredible bravery and strength for Toby to come to terms with the psychological effects of his accident. His new job offer was rescinded as it was evidently clear Toby would never be able to regain his full capability.
By this point in the interview my emotions had gone full swing; I was in equal awe of Toby’s resilience but I also had enormous empathy for his experience. We got back onto the topic of sailing and Toby declared that the sea is like a therapy to him – an ethos every sailor will identify with: “Sailing increases my awareness of objects around me, my balance is better, my speech and processing skills have improved”.
It is hard to imagine that as sailors we can actually gain seemingly innate physical skills from sailing, so I was fascinated to learn about how people with all range of disabilities learn to sail. Toby recalled his time volunteering with the Gwennili Trust who were part of the Royal Lymington Yacht Club’s ‘Blind Week’ event. Aimed at crew who are both blind and deaf, they are given instructions via a simple tap on the shoulder corresponding to a 10 degree change of direction either port or starboard.
A blind and deaf helmsman navigating via directions being tapped on his shoulders.
Toby now works for Cowes Sailability one day a week and spends six days a week re-learning key life skills in admin and organisation, as well as undertaking exercise with his support workers.
Raising funds to provide sailing therapy
In order to help more people like Toby, Cowes Sailability are aiming to raise £100,000 for a specialist motorboat that will enable wider participation. They already coach people of all ages with conditions such as, multiple sclerosis, dementia, autism, epilepsy, blindness and many other life-limiting conditions where sailing can provide enjoyment and therapy.
In Toby’s case, working with the charity has helped him regain his sense of purpose after a senseless act almost destroyed him.
I would like to thank Toby and Cowes Sailability for their time to undertake this interview.
To find out more about the work of Cowes Sailability and how you can be involved, please visit their website here