Here's how the Tenacious crew proves that where there's a will, there's a way on the high seas

Kate Hirst easily wheels her way around the Tenacious. (Tammy Petersen, News24)
Kate Hirst easily wheels her way around the Tenacious. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

Kate Hirst never dreamt of being part of a sailing crew - she gets "terribly seasick" and is a paraplegic dependent on a wheelchair.

But the 51-year-old project manager from Brighton in the UK has found her sea wheels, she jokes, and is part of a 52-member crew which sailed to Cape Town from the Falkland Islands and departs from the Mother City to Antigua on Monday.

Hirst wheels around with ease on the world's largest operating wooden hulled tall ship, Tenacious, which docked on Friday ahead of a 46-day voyage to the Caribbean.

The ship is purpose built for a crew comprising both able-bodied sailors and those with disabilities, and was constructed through the Jubilee Sailing Trust by 1 500 volunteers in the 1990s before setting sail on its maiden voyage in September 2000.

Among its features are six wheelchair lifts between the decks; deck ribs and a speaking compass for the vision impaired; vibrating alarm pads under the bunks for the hearing impaired; and the ability to helm Tenacious with the traditional wheel or a joystick for those with limited mobility.

Hirst, who lost use of her legs in a gliding accident when she was 24, has been on the ship for the past three months.

'Here to learn'

Among her duties are steering the ship and being a lookout, joking that she is a much better observer than those who worked on the Titanic.

"When you get on board, you really have no formal training except safety briefings. You are here to learn. There are no passengers on board - we are all crew and help sail the ship."
 
She wheels herself on the wide deck with ease, accesses the cabins comfortably and is able to adjust her table in the mess hall at dinner time.

"But what really makes this experience inclusive is all the people you meet. It's a real cross section. Yes, we get to see and visit amazing destinations, but it's those who are involved in the voyage who make it special."

Being at the helm of the ship is an otherworldly experience, Hirst said.

"In the middle of the night, when it's dark and there's nobody around, I sometimes go: 'Really? They let me do this?'" she laughed.

Lives changes

Since boarding the ship on her first voyage, she has learnt to control her seasickness - which she explained is exacerbated by the movement of her wheelchair and the lifts - after "figuring out the right drugs".

"Always take it before you feel ill - it's best to pre-empt it. Lots of fresh air, biscuits and foods like dry biscuits also help a lot," she said.

Hirst on Friday chatted to Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, who welcomed the ship at the V&A Waterfront.

Zille was given a tour by Captain Simon Catterson, who showed off the wheel which is big enough to allow people with very little upper body strength to steer, as well as a talking compass for those who can't see at all.

Hirst said while the ship was built to accommodate sailors with disabilities, she felt those who lived without disabilities learnt the most from this experience.
 
"I think it's the able-bodied crew whose lives get changed more than ours in many ways.  Many of them might not have met a disabled person before, and certainly wouldn't think it possible for such a person to do something like this," she said.

"But what I have learnt is that where there's a will, there's a way. If someone wants to do something like this, there are ways of doing it. And there are people around who want you to do it."

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