"It’s like a constantly moving painting: I never tire of watching it" says Bill Gibbs, as the ship rolls, shouldering aside the blue green sea of the Atlantic. We are sitting together in the shelter of the deckhouse of the Tenacious, one of the two great sailing ships of the Jubilee Sailing Trust, on our way to the Azores.
At 81, Bill is by no means the oldest of the regular sailors on the ship, though he is the most-travelled. He has completed sixty four voyages since 2001 and sailed 68,000 miles. When I first saw him five years ago he was rigging a sail out at the end of one of the spars, eighty feet above the deck. Going up the masts is optional on the Tenacious: though he is careful and more conscious of his limitations these days, Bill is still ready to put on his climbing gear whenever there is a call for volunteers.
Like so many people who sail on the ship, for Bill it has been a life-changing experience. After his wife of 43 years died in 1999 he entered a long period of depression that nothing seemed to alleviate. His son (Peter Gibbs, the BBC weather forecaster and Gardeners’ Question Time presenter) sent him a brochure, saying that he thought a voyage might be a good idea.
He chose a long trip returning the ship to its home port of Southampton via the Azores and the Canaries from Gran Canaria. The ships are designed to be sailed by people of all abilities and he found himself working with severely disabled people. One day looking at another crew member with severe cerebral palsy, he asked himself ‘Why am I feeling so low, when these people have so much to battle against?’ and began to look at the world through new eyes.
At home Bill lives in the Lake District, where he had been a dinghy sailor on Windermere for many years: valuable experience for sailing a windjammer that looks as if it comes straight out of the 19th century. He loves the ship, the sensations of the sea and the wind and the sailing. Until recently he was a regular watchleader, responsible for organising and teaching a new group of would-be sailors, regardless of experience and disability.
Affable and easygoing, with a ready and gentle wit, he enjoys the people as much as the ship. Alone when he is at home, he enjoys the constantly changing community on Tenacious as the new crew signs on at the start of every voyage: sometimes there are old acquaintances but there are always new faces and new friendships. He makes friends quickly and has memories of many outstanding people, like John Fisher, the first captain of Tenacious who he describes as a perfect gentleman. Elizabeth Pearce was in her late eighties when Bill first met her, but was self-sufficient and fiercely independent. Assigned to be her buddy, an informal system that guarantees assistance to everyone on the Tenacious, Bill’s offer of help was politely but firmly rejected by Elizabeth.
Bill Gibbs started his working life as an engineer. His practical skills are much in demand when Tenacious is undergoing her regular maintenance periods and he is often to be found in greasy overalls with a spanner in his hand. Eventually he became a lecturer in engineering, but took early retirement when the opportunity presented itself. His wife commented how much easier he was to live with when he was free from the stress of college life.
Among other things he taught IT to people with Down’s syndrome in the early days of computing. This was invaluable when it came to understanding the abilities of people written-off by society, the fate of so many disabled people. His gentle and encouraging manner and his gift for making complicated things seem simple makes him a great mentor for novice sailors, disabled or otherwise. At home he is a member of the University of the Third Age where he continues to participate and periodically talks about the Tall Ships.
After his first voyage Bill decided to learn everything he could about Tenacious and square-rigged tall ships. He knows the ship intimately from the truck of the mainmast to the bottom of the keelson, every rope, every spar and is a mine of information for new professional crew as well as the volunteers on whom the ship depends. During complicated sail manoeuvres, if not aloft casting off the gaskets, he will be found at the fife rail calling the order in which the ropes are hauled or slackened. Two years ago he was given the highest award for services to the Trust and the pride is evident in his twinkling blue eyes.
He has a huge portfolio of memories of life on the ship and the marine life around. ‘I can watch this hour after hour’ he says of the constantly changing panorama. Sitting by the deckhouse as the ship plunges onward he reflects on the most dramatic sight he has seen. Sailing quietly at night through a bloom of phosphorescent plankton on which a shoal of fish were feeding, under the bowsprit were two dolphins showing up as brilliant flashes of green light as they darted in and out of the shoal. Yet it is not the memories that are most important to Bill; he eagerly anticipates what is to come and looks forward to new experiences, new lands and new friendships.
The Jubilee Sailing Trust is a UK charity that operates two tall ships, both purpose-built for people of all physical abilities and disabilities. Anyone from the age of 15 can sail and there is no upper age limit on most voyages. No previous experience or knowledge is needed and everyone helps to work the ship as part of the voyage crew. For the next two years Tenacious is operating in Europe and the North Atlantic, while Lord Nelson is sailing round the world with new crews joining on each leg.