An amputee’s epic voyage across the Atlantic began when the lockdown conditions started to kick in around the world because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Derry sailor Garry Crothers found himself on the French/Dutch island of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean. With no means of getting home, Garry decided to set off on an epic voyage to sail solo across the Atlantic to get home to Ireland. What made this achievement even more incredible is that Garry is an amputee, having lost the power of his arm after an accident in 2009.
Garry’s life would change forever after a motorbike accident on Monday October 19 2009. He was on his way to work in Queen’s University, Belfast, where he worked as a senior network engineer in their data centres.
A car, which was on the hard shoulder, did a U-turn in front of him. Garry was left in hospital with multiple, life threatening injuries. His injuries included a broken neck, ribs and collarbone and a torn artery in his heart. He was incredibly lucky to survive. The arm never recovered, it was left flail, without any sense of feeling or control. It was amputated in 2018.
Garry grew up in the seaside town of Bangor, County Down. He has been around boats all his life. Garry loved the sea and spent 13 years in the merchant navy. He got interested in sailing at college in Jordanstown in the early 1970s.
Garry left his yacht, an Ovni 435 named Kind of Blue, in the Caribbean in 2018. He set off from Ireland in 2017. Garry waited for good weather conditions in Waterford for weeks whilst hurricanes raced across the Atlantic and battered southern Ireland. “I always wanted to visit the carnival in Trinidad so I sailed from Lanzarote to Trinidad in Feb 2018”, he said. “The boat has been in the Caribbean since. I have been cruising around the Caribbean islands since then. But with the ultimate intention of heading on to the Pacific Islands of French Polynesia, either through the Panama Canal or via South Africa, Indian Ocean and Australia”.
“I was up in the French/Dutch island of Sint Maarten to buy a new outboard engine when the restrictions kicked in. On March 17 2020, the restaurants and bars all closed. Three weeks later a full lockdown was imposed and borders were closed. All shops were closed, and you were not allowed to walk about outside without special written permission. These severe restrictions lasted three weeks. Thereafter, the supermarkets opened three days per week”.
Garry said there were a number of factors influencing his decision to sail home. “I needed to get back to Ireland for my daughter’s wedding in September, and there were no international flights. Sint Maarten is in the middle of the hurricane belt, and the season officially starts on June 1, so I needed to get the boat to safety. The borders on the other islands were closed so the only place you could guarantee getting in to was your own home nation”.
Garry said there were the normal, day to day obstacles of doing everyday tasks with one hand. “From chopping onions for the evening meal or screwing the lid back on to the toothpaste to putting on clean socks”, he said. “Every task is a lesson in patience. Similarly for the running of the boat. Every task is much more difficult, but with the additional worry that if you cannot complete the job then there may be life threatening consequences. Unlike chopping onions”.
There were a number of breakdowns along the way that needed to be repaired. Garry said the autopilot repairs were the most worrying. “There are two on board – one electric and the other driven by the wind. The electric autopilot compass failed and had to be replaced. The electronic brains of the unit are mounted inside a very small locker on the starboard side of the cockpit. Getting into the kicker and putting the new wires into a terminal block and screwing them up tight is not an easy task with one hand. On the wind powered autopilot…there is a connecting rod between the vane and the paddle. It has two 10mm nuts, one of which tightens against the other to lock the rod in position. These had loosened and needed to be retightened to get it running again. This involved hanging out over the stern of the boat and trying to tighten these two nuts, again not easy single handed”.
“On the final Friday evening before arriving in Derry the ram on the autopilot broke the universal rose joint”, said Garry. “This was at night off Malin Head. There was still a good few hours of steering required before Derry. So this had to be fixed before carrying on the following morning”.
Garry says the high point of his journey was obviously seeing his family on the shores of the Foyle on arrival and knowing he had successfully crossed the Atlantic. “But also the day I left Sint Maarten was a high”, he said. “It takes a lot of preparation to get the boat ready for a journey of this nature. Knowing that I had done as much as I could and finally I was off on the longest trip of my life was exhilarating”.
Another high point was seeing a passing pod of whales 300 miles southwest of Ireland. “They stopped their journey and circled the boat for a better look at me in my tiny boat”, said Garry. “Some of them raising vertical in the water and eyeballing this one armed gentleman traversing their domain”.
The low points were usually associated with the weather patterns or breakdowns. “The weather has been particularly challenging this year”, said Garry. “The Azores High was not in its normal position, usually stationed over the Azores, hence its name. But on my trip it was spread all the way across the Atlantic. At times as far north as Newfoundland and then across to Biscay. Its position was changing from one weather forecast to the next. Because of this, the “normal” route of heading north from the Caribbean up to Bermuda before turning east along the top of the Azores High picking up favourable westerly winds was not possible. At one stage I was only 480 miles from Newfoundland and still heading north with no sign of westerly winds”.
“The light winds created by this meandering weather system are hard on the boat because the sails crash and bang from side to side, determined to self-destruct”, said Garry. “But they are equally hard on your own mental state. You are just drifting slowly, or worse heading back from where you were a few hours previously. It is so very very difficult to sail in conditions like that. A lot of boats carry additional diesel fuel to try and motor across these areas of no wind. But this year these light wind patches were so extensive this would not have been possible for me”.
Using satellite communications, Garry was in daily contact by email with Alex Blackwell, commodore of OCC. and David Wheatley who provided guidance on the weather situation. “This contact was invaluable”, said Garry. “It can be a very lonely old place out in the middle of the Atlantic, and these daily emails provided me with a lot of support and confidence”.
Garry began his almost 4000 mile epic voyage on May 29 2020. He left Sint Maarten and arrived in Derry on Saturday July 4 2020, 37 days later.
Garry says it was very moving to see his family again along with all his friends and neighbours, waving from the river bank at Culmore, and later on up in the city on the pontoons. “It was a wonderful and unexpected turnout”, he said.
Garry is vice-chairperson of Foyle Sailability. Foyle Sailability is a cross-border voluntary organisation which aims to deliver opportunities for sailing and other water-based activities to people with disabilities from across the North West region of Ireland. Because of the Covid restrictions, Foyle Sailability has been unable to do its normal fundraising activities. On the back of this journey Garry has been able to raise much needed funds to get the charity through this year.
Apart from the fundraising side, Garry hopes that his journey has highlighted what can be achieved despite whatever disability you may carry. “I was already a sailor before I lost my arm, so I knew what I wanted to achieve and was lucky that the Sailability scheme was just starting up on the Foyle. I was able to use them to help me recover”, said Garry.
“Whenever you suffer a life changing disability, you have to contend with the physical changes to your life and this is hard”, said Garry. “But equally, if not more so, the mental aspect is a major challenge. Your whole persona is altered by that disability. Everything that you thought you were is gone. Everything that you took for granted and perhaps depended on is gone. Your self confidence is gone. You question everything, your life plans are shredded and you need to reset and start again”.
“By becoming involved in Foyle Sailability I was able to slowly rebuild my life, rebuild my confidence and maybe even achieve things I may never have achieved”, said Garry. “Sailing was the focus that I needed to move on and I would encourage anyone who is living with a disability to take up sailing to discover what can be achieved and enjoy the freedom provided by sailing a small boat on the seas”.
“Foyle Sailability is a local charity, and it struggles for volunteers, so any assistance whatever would be much appreciated”, said Garry. “We don’t just need people with maritime knowledge. In fact we are not too bad in that department. We probably need more people to help with the administration side of the operation. We are an eclectic mix of volunteers with everyone from taxi drivers, consultant surgeons to company CEOs involved. So if anyone reading this wants to help, we can find a role for them. You don’t have to get your feet wet”.
In his own modest and dignified manner, Garry finished by saying: “It’s been a journey. I never expected so much interest!”