Oceans of Accessibility

Holt was paralysed from the chest down after diving off a boat into shallow water on a holiday when he was 18 years old. He is confined to a wheelchair and has minimal movement in his arms and fingers.

But he refuses to let his disability define him and over the past three decades, he has demonstrated his extraordinary resilience and strength of spirit, leading by example. Even as a teenager with a life-changing disability, Holt recognised he had a choice: either stay at home for the rest of his life or do something to achieve his aspirations. He self-taught himself computer programming and database management. He secured himself a job with the firm now known as Deloitte. Over 20 years, despite his own personal difficulties, he worked his way up to become a senior marketing manager for the firm and, in time, achieved those aspirations.

At his side and supporting him from the very first days of his accident has been Elaine. Elaine was Holt’s nurse in hospital. They met as teenagers, fell in love and have been married for 34 years. “Make no mistake”, he says, “no story about me can be told without mentioning Elaine. She is the real hero, not me.”

The thread that runs through Holt’s life is sailing and passion for the sea. He left school at 16 and sailed in excess of 30,000 miles, including three Atlantic crossings before the accident that changed the course of his life. Although he did not know it at the time, he would help to inspire countless others who have followed his story. Thirty years on, Holt’s adventures continue to push boundaries and, to use his words, “it’s not about coping with disability; it’s about finding the reserves we all have to achieve our goals in spite of it”.

Through his passion for sailing, Holt has twice won medals representing Great Britain in world sailing events. But it was the founding of a new disabled sailing charity in the UK in 1995 where he first realised he could help others by using his skills to give something back into his beloved sport. As the founding chairman of RYA Sailability, Holt oversaw the growth of an organisation that created the blueprint for disabled sailing around the world, enabling many thousands of disabled people to share his passion for the sea and to experience the sense of independence and joy that brings.

Holt first appeared in the international media in 2007 when he embarked on his Personal Everest adventure. “Personal Everest was my project to become the first disabled person to sail single-handed around the UK. The journey itself was, and will remain, the most amazing thing I have ever done in my life. In a series of day sails, I visited 51 harbours around the UK and I sailed my tiny 15ft trimaran dinghy 1,500 miles.” On his return, Holt wrote about his amazing journey in his autobiography, Walking on Water, which went on to become a best seller.

Keen to re-live his teenage memories of sailing the Atlantic Ocean, Holt set about his next challenge. In December 2009, accompanied only by a nurse and a BBC cameraman, he set sail from Lanzarote in the Canary Islands to cross the Atlantic Ocean as a quadriplegic skipper. The 60ft catamaran Impossible Dream was designed to be sailed by a wheelchair user; all its sails and navigation instruments were controlled with push-button technology. Four weeks and 3,000 miles later, Holt dropped anchor in Cane Garden Bay, Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands: the beach where he broke his neck.

“It was here that I had my accident. There could be no other destination could there?” he asks with a wry smile. “The beach may have taken away my ability to walk but it couldn’t take away my spirit nor my determination. The crossing was never about ‘closure’ or exorcising demons, it was a celebration of life. Had I not had my accident I would not have met my wife and we would not have had our son Tim. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Geoff Holt MBE

Accolades came quickly with Holt being awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to disabled sailing and he was awarded the 2010 Yachtsman of the Year Trophy, which was presented to him by his childhood hero, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. “To me, this award is the knighthood of yachting. It was, without doubt, the highlight of my yachting career.”

Holt founded the Wetwheels organisation six years ago. The only motorboating charity in the UK, Holt has five Wetwheels catamaran boats. Each boat is 9m long powered by two 300HP Suzuki engines. All boats are fully accessible to all disabilities, including wheelchair users. Even those who cannot move their limbs can steer with their head using state-of-the-art gyroscopic technology created by Raymarine. Collectively, Wetwheels boats take in excess of 6,000 disabled people a year on the water, 80 percent of whom have never been on the water before. Holt has plans for a further five boats in the UK. “We are struggling to keep up with the demand. Consider this a pilot project. I now have a proven concept that I am ready to roll out across the world.”

Looking ahead, Holt has been planning for his lifetime ambition. Last year he founded the Accessible Oceans Foundation — The Vision, to provide an opportunity for 100,000 disabled people a year to access the world’s seas and oceans for recreation, therapy and vocation. He has influential supporters: Her Royal Highness Princess Anne in the UK and His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco are royal patrons.

“The project is well advanced,” explains Holt. “We have our strategy and communications team in place. All we need now is the finance.”

Phase one will enable Holt to commence and complete a global challenge, sailing single-handed around the world. This funding will enable construction of the boat and all the support and logistical costs.

Phase two is the legacy: creating accessible hubs around the world, and opening the sea and ocean to everyone, regardless of background or disability, using the expertise of Holt and his team, but also local people based in each location.

“We are actively looking for individuals or companies who share our vision and want to be part of this amazing journey. I know there is a demand for accessible oceans, and I am passionate about turning this new dream into a reality.”

You can follow Holt’s adventures on his website www.geoffholt.com