Australian Paraplegic Finishes Incredible Voyage – copyright Peter Marsh
On August 12, a month before the Olympic Games opens, 32-year-old Vincent Lauwers became Australia’s latest sailing hero, by becoming the first paraplegic to sail around the world solo, non-stop and unassisted. He returned to a huge welcome in his home port of Melbourne after an epic eight-month journey. While the brass band struck up a rendition of “I Still Call Australia Home,” Lauwers, looking fit but having lost 25 lbs, touched solid ground for the first time in eight months — and fell out of his wheelchair after an over-enthusiastic embrace from his fiancee.
Ten years ago, Lauwers had lost his dream of cruising, and his inspiration, after a horrific motorbike accident left him paralyzed below the waist. He was in constant pain and couldn’t sleep. He was laid off at the metal works where he worked and retreated into his living room. One day he rented a video with a yacht on its cover. It was a documentary about Australian Kay Cottee’s quest to be the first woman to sail solo and non-stop around the world. Cottee’s triumph reawakened Mr Lauwers’ passion for yachting.
He watched the video seven times. “It was the best feeling any woman had given me in a long time,” he quipped. The dream he has had since age 14, of sailing around the world, returned. Growing up on the coast, he had first sailed on a neighbor’s dinghy at age 11. At 14, a local sailor invited him to crew on a trip to Sydney on a real cruising yacht. “By the time I got into Sydney, I thought, This is for Me. My dream from then on was to build a boat and sail around the world.”
When he was struck by a car that ran a stop sign, his spine was broken in three places, and he learned he would never walk again. Sailing seemed an impossible dream. But Lauwers began rebuilding his strength and, in 1993, began wheelchair racing, later representing Australia in Beijing. In 1994, he confided in Gordon Reid, a local sailing intructor, that he wanted to find out if he could sail again. And that he had this dream of sailing around the world.
“He was the first person I ever told, but I didn’t tell anyone else for years after that. So we went out for a sail, and I thought, `This is it, I can do it, it’s fantastic.’
Gordon looked at me and said, `Well, there will be limitations’ and I said, `Teach me everything you possibly can’. So we did all sorts of advanced courses out in Bass Strait and the bay. After a while, Gordon stopped saying there’ll be limitations.”
Lauwers joined the Sailors With Disabilities group, took part in two Sydney-Hobart races and sailed to Lord Howe Island and Hamilton Island. He spent $400,000 – most of his settlement-on building his dream yacht, a Van de Stadt 47. (Lauwers emmigrated from Belgium when he was four.) He figured it was better than investing it, then sitting back at home and watch TV for the rest of his life. He spent three years building the glass-fibre, woodcore vessel from the frame up.
After finishing the two-handed race to Osaka, Japan last year with an able-bodied crew, Lauwers reckoned he was ready for the next challenge. He departed Dec. 20, 1999, intending to round Cape Horn and an isolated island, St. Pedro and St. Pablo rocks, as the turning point north of the Equator in the Atlantic. The second week he had to crawl into the stern to fix a broken linkage to the automatic pilot and his radar went up in smoke.
A week into the new year, he passed Snares Island at the southern tip of New Zealand, on the 10th anniversary of his accident.
On January 14, he discovered his lower shrouds were breaking and began a marathon repair project that pushed him to the limit of endurance. He had to climb the mast in the middle of the Southern Ocean to assess the damage, descend, assemble the materials to jury rig extra wire, then climb again to attach the fittings; all this with no assistance from his legs, which have no feeling at all. Two weeks later he decided to replace the broken shrouds entirely, which meant three more trips aloft.
Not only did Lauwers have to drag himself onto the cabin top to furl the mainsail,(he has an electric mainsail winch), but he was in continuous pain from the cold weather, because of a steel rod in his spine, which conducted the cold. All of this was related in his detailed e-mails, transmitted to his Australian audience via satellite, and in a weekly radio talk show.
(He should go down in the record books for another, albeit minor, achievement-not once does he mention boat speed or distance covered, possibly a reflection of his inner journey and understandably cautious attitude.) After struggling through prolonged calms, he approached Cape Horn on March 4, only to have his pilot detach from the rudder again. He calmly deployed a parachute sea anchor, and made a solid repair as his boat was tossed in huge seas.
He rounded the famous landmark in near-calm conditions and transmitted an excellent photo of the rock taken from two miles off. Ironically, the Falklands Islands proved to be a much harder obstacle, as the wind turned to the north for the coming weeks. He got little sleep avoiding a fleet of 140 fishing boats, yet it wasn’t until he’d passed the halfway mark that he even mentioned the difficulties he faced in carrying out even the most mundane tasks. A weak immune system and poor short-term memory are two of the side-effects of his accident. Nonetheless, his resolve never wavered as headed for his lonely turnaround in the middle of the ocean.
It wasn’t until he was back in the southern ocean that really bad weather caught up with him in the form of a fast-moving storm that brought 60-knot winds and 30-foot seas. With all his headsails on furlers, he was able to reduce sail from the cockpit and run under bare poles. He seems to have been more affected by the disintegration of his two wind generators. The blades broke off and flew across the deck at high velocity while he was below decks.
A second storm, coupled with confused seas, overtook him at the Cape of Good Hope. Then it was a long, steady downhill run back to Western Australia. He waited until daybreak to round Eclipse Island, three miles off the coast, then ran into trouble as the wind died. Vision Quest was left drifting towards a cliff and the skipper contemplated starting the engine, which would have disqualified his voyage as unassisted. A breeze appeared when he was 200 yards offshore, and he headed away from land for the final 1,000 miles.
There was more drama when he reached the Bass Strait, between the mainland and Tasmania. A gale developed just as he was arriving in the approaches to Melbourne. He chose to cross the finish line a couple of days before his official welcome (on a Saturday) and anchored to catch up on sleep. The next morning he had friends hoist him up the mast and found that his replacement shrouds were ready to break. Repairs were made and he carried on to a hero’s welcome.
Now that he’s set the record, Lauwers will be coaching, inspiring and leading disabled children toward a brighter future through his new charity, Parasail. He plans to sell Vision Quest to a museum and build a wheelchair-accessible catamaran–when he’s not busy giving motivational talks and looking for more adventures. The welcoming committee included the Victoria State Premier, Frank Hargrave, CEO of Lauwers’ principal sponsor, and 18-year-old Jesse Martin, also from Melbourne, who holds the record for being the youngest person to make the same round-the-world journey.