Al Grundy's Story
I had never been on a yacht before but I realised I could put sails up, pull on ropes, and make things do things. As it turned out sailing opened up a window... which opened a door... which opened a bigger door...but of course I didn't realise what was happening in those early days.
I had polio as a child which caused a central nervous system issue that left one leg in a calliper. My leg is very weak so I have to hop when I take the calliper off. However, I consider myself very lucky. Some people who had polio are in iron lungs because the virus affected their diaphragm, so I am fortunate to just have a gammy leg.
When I lived in Watson's Bay I used to watch the yachts start in the Sydney Hobart race. Every Boxing Day I would say to myself, "One day, I'm going to do that." But I never really thought I would. Then I discovered SWD through a newsletter in a polio network and they were looking for race crew. I figured I had two disabilities - one being the full calliper, and the second? I had never sailed.
I also figured I had nothing to lose.
The boat was down in Port Hacking and when I arrived it was like a pilgrimage with everyone going to Lourdes! I arrived on my motorbike, in cowboy boots. The first thing David Pescud said to me was, "You're not getting on my boat with that metal thing on your leg and those boots." So I took my boots and calliper off and hopped (literally) on board.
I quickly thought, "This is great. I can do this."
A month later I turned up again. David started to get people together and we raced every weekend on Sydney Harbour. Then we wanted to do the Southport race but the CYCA said "No way! You're disabled!" so David kicked up a stink since we ticked all the boxes and had done all the races. He asked for one good reason why we shouldn't race.
They let us enter.
We did every race on the East Coast that year, including Airlie Beach and Hamo. At the end of the year it was the same story for the Sydney to Hobart. The CYCA said, "We can't take the risk." David replied, "Okay then we'll run parallel with you, with the media." I guess they had no choice but to change their mind - and now we're in the race like everyone else.
Sailing was then and still is a steep learning curve, and I'm still learning. I guess you're always learning. But while I was on the very steepest part of the learning curve, I was wrapped. It was great and I loved it.
David and I had a love-hate relationship in the early days. "You can be the bowman." he growled at me one day and I think it was to get as far away from me as possible! But if he was hoping to get rid of me, he failed. I loved getting wet and cold and lost around 10kg, coming out of the first year fit and healthy.
Looking back, sailing was something I needed to have done all my life - it felt like a natural environment. The people connected with me so that I wasn't an outsider. Everyone had disability and ability at the same time. We all grew together. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.
Of course, it had a knock on effect. I only ever wore long pants to cover my calliper but once I started sailing I wanted to wear shorts. I actually wanted to draw attention to myself. I finally knew what I was and I became what I really was. And before sailing, I didn't like anyone telling me what to do. I wanted 'please' and 'thank you' but David would say, "Get f****d!"
For the first time in my life I was a member of a team where everyone was looking after you and you were looking after everyone else. You were no longer living your life all by yourself.
Before sailing, I was a drunken motorcycle enthusiast rebelling against the world. After sailing, I am different. I actually like being told what to do because I realise this puts you in a learning curve. I was a store man in my professional life and sailing taught me teamwork and gave me confidence. I learned about supervision and overseeing everything.
So when the office manager said that he was going to retire, I put my hand up. They said I didn't have the experience but I said, "Give me a go." I'm still doing that job today. I also learned to give myself time, through sailing. If you are patient you are much less likely to get into a mess. It's the same at work now and I like to get things done early to avoid stress at the end.
You find out more about people's abilities than their disabilities on a boat. The most mobile person on our boat in a rough sea, is Albert Lee. Albert has no legs and that gives him a low centre of gravity so he can move really fast around the boat. Kirk Watson is legally blind and a great sailor. He might have lost his sense of sight but his other senses have come to the fore and he tunes in acutely with these.
Paraplegics are good on winches as they have great upper-body strength. Blind people know how to get around a boat at night and in a storm, and our deaf crew members have amazing hand signals when no one can hear anyway. If you are determined, you will find a way. There are people who can’t do everything on the boat because of their disability. Some are as good as passengers but for them it’s a joy to pull a rope and be part of it.
I guess the Hobart race is the pinnacle.
Sitting on a rail and beating into 35 knots with the equivalent of someone constantly throwing water over you. You’re tired, you want to want to sleep, and the boat is crashing off 20 foot waves with no back; dropping like a lift and going BANG again and again and again.
It’s really, really horrible.
I’m happiest working downstairs on a racing yacht. I guess it’s the storeman in me that likes everything to have it’s place - and I like to feed the crew. There are times when being out on the ocean is horrible but then the weather turns nice and the sun comes out and it’s the greatest place on earth.
Then we have a rum in Hobart and David asks, "Do you want to do it all again?" And somehow, it seems like a good idea...