In the lexicon of sailing, a “hand” refers to a member of a ship’s crew, so “single-handed sailing” is the practice of sailing, usually long distances, with only one crew-member.
Yachtsman Keith White is a “single-handed” sailor in this sense, traveling vast distances, across oceans, without another soul aboard his ship. But he also is, quite literally, a single-handed sailor: Mr. White is only able to use his right hand.
A road accident years ago left Mr. White disabled, without the use of his left arm, but it did not stop him from pursuing his dreams and continuing to sail, an activity for which he developed a passion at a young age.
In 2005, he became the first disabled person to sail around Great Britain solo, and in 2007, the first to sail across the Atlantic solo.
“I try things,” Mr. White said. “I don’t give up.”
He said he gets a lot of encouragement from the messages of thousands of people from all over the world that follow his progress on his website and social media. Many of the messages, he said, come from other disabled people.
“I get a lot of motivation from other disabled people, because what I’m doing gives them the motivation to do things,” Mr. White said. “I tell them you can do anything you want to do.”
In a few weeks, Mr. White will embark on another “first,” setting sail from the Cayman Islands to attempt the longest non-stop trip across the Atlantic to Britain.
The journey, Mr. White expects, will take five or six weeks. He will embark from Grand Cayman, snake his way through the Caribbean islands, head toward the Azores, then sail up the European coast until he has made it to his home country again. He will make no stops, and he will be entirely alone.
It is a challenge that many would balk at, but Mr. White feels no trepidation.
“It’s all an adventure,” he says with a shrug and a smile, sipping a cup of tea aboard his boat, appropriately named “Marathon,” that is currently moored at the George Town Yacht Club.
He said he is cautious but has never been afraid on his long sailing trips.
“I don’t think fear comes into it, because you’ve got a job to do, and you get on with it,” he said. “Life’s too short. You do as much as you can while you can.”
In 1991, Mr. White was seriously injured in a road accident. He had to be resuscitated three times on the way to the hospital, and he did not wake up for two weeks. Doctors did not expect him to live longer than three months.
In addition to the use of his left arm, the accident took his memory – he forgot friends, languages, even the names of the parts of the sailboat. He had to relearn everything, and to this day, he is still relearning how to spell words, still recalling information he once knew.
“It was a long time, it took me five years to start to talk again,” Mr. White said. “I couldn’t hold a proper conversation for five years. But to have a conversation like we’re having now, we’re looking at 10 years. I was like a baby.”
The accident also meant that he could no longer scuba dive or fly airplanes, two activities that had previously occupied much of his time. Flying his twin engine airplane, he said, was his “number one subject.”
“Once I had the road accident, they took my pilot’s license away,” Mr. White said. “But they couldn’t take my boat license away. Because there isn’t such a thing as a boat license. So they couldn’t stop me sailing.”
It took some time after the accident, but when he got back into sailing, he threw himself into it wholeheartedly. It would not be enough for him just to sail “single-handedly”; he also wanted to achieve something that had never been done before and raise some funds for charities while doing it.
At the time, no disabled person had sailed around Britain anti-clockwise, sailing against the wind the whole trip. He was determined to be the first, and he would be – but not before what he calls a “mishap” off the Irish coast.
His 32-foot Beneteau First yacht got caught in a Force 11 strength storm and overturned.
“It was like being in the tumble dryer,” Mr. White said.
He managed to right the boat, and made it back ashore – with a few broken ribs – after a dramatic rescue involving two helicopters, RAF Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and a lifeboat.
He said he was very grateful to the brave rescue crews, and returned to Ireland two months later to thank them by throwing them a party and presenting them with specially made plaques and paintings.
After a few days of recuperation, Mr. White continued and finished his British Isles Challenge.
Next, he challenged himself to sail across the Atlantic. In 2007, he left the United Kingdom in a new boat, a Hanse 400 called the Rosiley, and made his way across the ocean, stopping at the Canary Islands, Florida, New York and Boston before heading back to the U.K.
The journey may not have been as eventful as his British Isles trip, but he said he is surprised he made it as the boat was “never meant for sailing across the Atlantic.”
“It was only fit for staying in the marina, and having a drink on it,” he said.
By the time he made it back to the U.K., the vessel was unusable.
So he searched long and hard for his current boat, the Marathon, a one-of-a-kind Feeling 1350 yacht built in 1991, that weighs over 20 tons and is 44 feet long.
“She’s a bit long in the tooth, a bit untidy,” Mr. White said. “But she’s solid. This is the stablest boat I’ve ever been on.”
Originally, Mr. White’s plan was to take the vessel on a nonstop, solo circumnavigation of the world, raising money for two charities – Save the Children and a foundation to build a sailing replica of the famous Cutty Sark, one of the fastest ever clipper ships.
He predicted the voyage would take about 10 months, and in October 2015, the Marathon loaded up with nearly a year’s worth of supplies, Mr. White set off from Cowes on the Isle of Wight, his home, with the intent to sail around the world.
Within 48 hours, that dream was dashed.
Marathon endured a disastrous storm in the Bay of Biscay – a storm that destroyed many ships, even ripping off masts. Marathon kept her mast but lost her jib, and came ashore in A Coruña, Spain, for repairs. While Mr. White resumed his journey on Nov. 8, additional gear failure required him to stop on Gran Canaria.
He set sail again, and got as far as Sierra Leone when he was trapped in a days-long storm.
“The boat started to deteriorate, for want of a better word,” Mr. White said. “I did try to get to the [Cape] Verde Islands, but it was such bad weather, in 36 hours I’d only done 17 miles. The boat was getting a big beating, it was getting bashed up, so I decided, I’m going to go with the wind.”
The wind and tidal flow took him to the Caribbean. He’d lost his wind vane, and had no mainsail, so using just his jib he tried to get into “any of the Caribbean Islands.”
He landed in St. Martin, where he spent a few weeks on repairs while figuring out his next move.
“Out of the quest of sailing around the world, I thought, well, I’ve got to achieve something,” Mr. White said. “I’m already the first disabled person to sail across the Atlantic, so I might as well be the first disabled person to sail the longest stretch of the Atlantic non-stop, and that’s from the Cayman Islands all the way back to Britain.”
Mr. White plans to leave Grand Cayman the last week of April, and will explore the island in the meantime. He said he has been enjoying the island, especially the kindness of the people he has met here so far.
And he’s already thought of a way he might help boost the sport of sailing in the islands, and bring more yachtsmen to Cayman: to create a race and challenge others to make the same Grand Cayman to Great Britain trip. If he can do it with one hand, he does not see why other sailors would not want to try.