'I saw a disabled man get on a boat and sail off ... I thought, I can do this!'
Mum-of-one Nicky Blythe, from Islandmagee, tells Stephanie Bell why she has paid £3,000 to join the crew of the Lord Nelson and fulfil her dream of competing in the annual spectacular
When a freak accident while walking left Nicky using a wheelchair, she thought her sailing days were over. Incredibly, as the Tall Ships sail out of Belfast this summer, she’ll be enjoying life on the ocean waves again.
Nicky Blythe thought she had called on all her reserves of courage when she first boarded a Tall Ship almost 20 years ago suffering from a crippling fear of heights. But this summer, as the maritime spectacular sails out of Belfast for the annual Tall Ships race, Nicky will be going up against considerable odds to once again be part of the crew.
She believed her sailing days were over after a simple accident some years ago had a devastating impact on her life. Enjoying a walk along the beach near her Islandmagee home, she twisted her ankle on a rock, bringing on a crippling and permanent condition that left her disabled and dependent on a wheelchair.
But back in 1998, even as a young, fit and able-bodied sailor in her 20s when she first joined a Tall Ship, she recalls finding the experience both physically and mentally challenging.
To go on board with a disability, however, takes a special kind of courage, but as she talks about life after her accident, it becomes apparent Nicky is made of stern stuff. The 42-year-old mother-of-one has a "can do" attitude that will allow her to fulfil her dream of once again experiencing the unique thrill of Tall Ship racing when she joins the crew of the Lord Nelson this summer.
"I am thrilled because I didn't think it would ever be possible," she says. "I know it is going to be an even bigger challenge this time, but I'm ready for it. I just can't believe I'm getting this chance - I really did believe my sailing days were over, so this is a dream come true.
"The majesty of being on a Tall Ship is just amazing. Looking up at the sails is beautiful, and being able to look out at the other Tall Ships is spectacular."
The trip is only possible because Nicky's husband has agreed to accompany her on what will be his first ever Tall Ship experience. The couple have a son, Karl, who is 21. Nicky is well aware of the limitations her disability will place on her, but she is grateful for the chance to contribute.
She recalls that first trip as a young woman terrified of heights: "I was doing a leadership course at college in England when the opportunity arose for six of us to go on a Tall Ship in the Canaries.
"It was called the Sir Winston Churchill, and even though I had a fear of heights, I thought it was too good a chance to miss.
"When you are climbing up the rigging, you are not clipped on, so if you fall, you fall. For me, that meant facing a real fear.
"I had a tutor behind me all the way encouraging me, and even though I was so scared, deep down I really wanted to do it.
"There were other challenges too. Sleeping was difficult because you are in the same room as 30 other crew members practically lying head-to-toe.
"Girls are mixed in with boys, young with old, and people of all backgrounds and communities, and you have people throwing up and snoring. It was tough. You really are putting yourself out of your comfort zone.
"You also work around the clock, four hours on and eight hours off.
"While it was tough, it was absolutely amazing to have that experience and that opportunity to progress myself and come out of my shell.
"My confidence grew, I picked up leadership skills and was a better person for the experience. I think it also set me up for facing some adversity later on when I had my accident."
Five years later, Nicky jumped at the chance to repeat the experience with a four-day Tall Ships race organised through the Youth Sailing Trust. She was smitten and vowed to do it again.
But before she could, in 2008, Nicky's world changed dramatically during what initially was a leisurely walk along the beach with her parents.
She stepped on rocks and went over on her ankle, dislocating it. In agony and unable to stand, Nicky found herself stuck on the beach as the tide started to come in.
"That was a trauma in itself as it took the ambulance 45 minutes to come, and I had no choice but to sit in pain, watching the tide get closer and closer," she says.
Her ankle was put in plaster for seven weeks, but it was soon obvious she had suffered more than a simple break. Excruciating pain meant her plaster had to be taken off, and no matter how the hospital reapplied it, Nicky was still in agony. She then started to experience extreme cold and heat in her leg to what she describes as an unbearable level.
"It was like I had put my foot in a bucket of ice, and then like I had put it in a fire," Nicky says.
Eventually, she was told that she had developed a condition known as complex regional pain syndrome, a poorly understood condition in which the sufferer experiences persistent, severe and debilitating pain.
Most cases are triggered by an injury, but the resulting pain is much more severe and lasts longer than normal. The skin can become so sensitive that even a slight touch or change in temperature can provoke intense pain.
Initially, being in constant pain took its toll on Nicky, both emotionally as well as physically.
"My skin was so sensitive that I couldn't even put a pair of socks on," she recalls.
"It had a huge impact on me and I didn't work for three years. I was in constant pain and was exhausted from that. There was so much I couldn't do round the house, like cooking.
"Then I joined a pain management group where I met other people living in constant pain. They taught us how to manage day-by-day with mindfulness. Instead of thinking about the things we could no longer do, they helped us to think positively. That was a real turning point for me.
"After that, if I had days when I was feeling down and questioning why it had to happen to me, I was able to see the positives in things.
"Now I am happy to walk slowly and use the time to see the birds and the trees. I was able to accept that I would have days when I would be feeling down."
Not only did she learn to cope with her pain, but Nicky also found a new focus in helping other disabled people to discover the joy of sailing.
It was her husband who heard about the charity Belfast Lough Sailability (BLS) in Carrickfergus and urged her to get involved. BLS makes sailing possible and fun for disabled people. Nicky joined in 2009, and over the next few years became a vital part of the service.
"I remember just looking at my husband and saying, 'I can't get on a boat, how am I going to sail?'," she says. "We went down and had a look, and I watched a disabled man get onto a boat and sail away. I just thought, 'Hey, I can do this', and that day I got on a boat and sailed."
Nicky worked as voluntary coordinator for BLS for a number of years, helping set up their Facebook page and working on their website. She also organised sailing trips for disabled children and other groups. She is unable to work as many hours now for the charity, but she still plays a part.
Her own dream of boarding a Tall Ship again came about when the Lord Nelson anchored in Belfast a few years ago. When she went to tour the ship, she was surprised to find it had been adapted to accommodate disabled people and wheelchairs.
"The ship has wide areas for wheelchairs and clamps on deck to hold them down," she says. "Last year, I sold my old manual car and I had some money. I just thought, 'You only live once, I am going to do it, I am going to sail on a Tall Ship again'."
Nicky paid £3,000 so she can join the crew of the Lord Nelson when the Tall Ship race sails out of Belfast in July.
"It's a dream come true," she says. "I am apprehensive. I know the routine on board and I know my limitations.
"I have to take tablets at set times, and I know they will accommodate that on board, although I am still fairly worried about how it will work out.
"At the same time, I'm also very excited. It's my husband's first time on a Tall Ship and he is looking forward to it. I'm a bit apprehensive for him as well as he has no clue what to expect.
"I know they put the wheelchairs on ropes to take you up the masts, but I'm not sure how far you can go.
"I couldn't do it at all unless my husband was there as he helps me if I am not feeling well, and with my condition, I can go down quite rapidly. He is my rock and I'm thrilled he will be with me to enjoy the experience!"
Nicky has been recording her first Tall Ship experiences and her feelings about the 2015 race on her blog, which you can read at https://sailing penguin.wordpress.com/2015/02/14/my-tall-ship-adventures-going-aloft-and-overcoming-fear.
The long and the tall of it...
- Tall Ships from across the globe will anchor in Belfast from July 2 to 5 for the start of The Tall Ships Races 2015. Organised by Sail Training International, the Tall Ship Races will be welcomed by the annual Lidl Belfast Titanic Maritime Festival
- The last time that the Tall Ships visited Belfast in 2009, an estimated 800,000 spectators came to the four-day event, which saw the flotilla berthed along the city’s quays. This summer the ships will be berthed in and around Belfast Harbour and the Titanic Quarter area
- Around 500,000 people are expected to pour into the city to see the maritime spectacular this year, with another 500,000 lining the coast as the ships leave Northern Ireland.
- Around 80 ships in total are expected — double the number welcomed when the city hosted the race in 2009
- Belfast Tall Ships 2015 Ltd has been set up to manage the event, with funding from Belfast City Council, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Belfast Harbour and the Department of Social Development
- When the ships leave Belfast on July 5, they will sail to Aalesund and Kristiansand in Norway, finishing up in Aalborg, Denmark, on August 1
- For details, visit www.tallshipsbelfast.com. You can follow it on www.facebook.com/tallships.belfast, or on Twitter @tallships2015