As a young naval cadet with a passion for sailing, Ian Wyllie’s life was heading for a career at sea. Like many of us with a clear vision of where we want to end up, the thought of a spanner being thrown into the works never occurs. In Ian’s case his spanner came in the form of a spinal injury sustained during a training exercise. What happened next, although heart-rending, is an inspiring story of how one determined sailor overcame adversity with help from the Andrew Cassell Foundation.
Ian was just 18 when he joined the Royal Navy but one year and one day later his career was over and he was invalided out of the service. He’s not bitter and speaking to him, it’s easy to realise he gained a lot of strength from his faith. A committed Christian, Ian says that at one point, a career in the Church crossed his mind but he then realised that as most sailing happens on a Sunday, there could be a ‘clash of the Titans’ and in this case, Church services lost and sailing won!
Next stop was university where he gained a degree in mechanical engineering and is the first to admit that it was a struggle. His injuries had led to complications and it seemed his body was letting him down at every turn – both physically and mentally. There was however an upside in that he had time to engage his engineering brain and began to think about the effects of vibration on the human body. By vibration, we’re not talking electric toothbrushes but tractors, heavy machinery and big sound systems – think Isle of Wight Festival.
For all you boat owners reading this, think of the problems the RNLI faces when steering a lifeboat in strong seas while trying to read instruments. A suspension seat could be one answer but although it would move with the motion of the boat, the instruments on the control panel remained static. Answer: incorporate the instruments in the arms of the seat. Success! Ian worked on related problems to do with comfort and by putting his thoughts and knowledge down on paper, he gained a Ph.D.
After spending seven years in a Southampton nursing home and seeing a gradual improvement in his health, Ian began to dream of sailing again. Being the determined, slightly crazy ‘nobody is going to hold me down’ kind of guy, he was now starting to look beyond the confines of the nursing home garden and out to sea. His love of sailing soon took hold and he Googled sailing organisations that could support people with disabilities. A handful popped up but they weren’t quite what he had in mind. His idea of freedom on the water wasn’t being wheeled onto the deck of a 40 footer while those around him worked the winches. Ian wanted to be treated as one of the crew and get wet and cold with everyone else, not sit in his wheelchair, wrapped in a blanket. He kept up his research into possible sailing outfits until one day, ‘PING’! the ACF Sailing website filled his screen. On reading Andy Cassell’s biography, Ian’s immediate response was “Finally, here’s a sailor who’s overcome his disability and launched a set-up that’s made for me! They’re going to stuff me in an open keel boat, let me trim the sails and feel spray on my face. Thank You God!”
Ian’s refreshed mental state overtook his physical struggles and gave him the push he needed to get himself to Cowes. It was a massive challenge, he could still barely walk more than the length of a 23ft Sonar, he still used an electric wheelchair as well as crutches and leg supports. People at the sailing club would look on in amazement as he threw himself almost head first into a boat but gradually, with improved strength and a mountain of determination, he was able to take the helm. The Foundation started to see that this intrepid, self-styled sailor had a lot to offer and soon Ian began teaching newbies to sail and imparting his advanced knowledge on yachties who wanted to improve their skills. Ian, however, is the first to admit that he didn’t always make life easy for his crew mates. “I used to get so excited, I just couldn’t control my enthusiasm and sometime fell flat on my face. I’m well over 6ft so it’s a long way down and was always being told to stop acting like a seven year old and slow down.”
Today, he confidently helms a Sonar and with a crew of able boded as well as those with mental, sensory and physical problems, he races on the Solent, sometimes three times a week, against able bodied sailors. Within the ACF there’s no distinction and no allowances made for incapacity and Ian is the first to admit that yacht racing doesn’t take any prisoners. “If I miss a marker buoy, the boat is disqualified, if I mess up the start, it’s down to me – my cock-up! The ACF is the best organisation in the UK for getting disabled sailors onto the water for proper sailing and lots of racing thrown in. Its founder, Andy Cassell was born with no legs but nothing came between his disability and winning a gold at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta.”
If Ian’s achievements so far aren’t proving to be enough for him, in 2021 he bought a 27 ft cruising yacht which needed much TLC . . . the boat got the renovation and Ian got a floating home. He now plans to take a year out to sail around Britain sharing his story and telling people how the Foundation has given him his life back. Trilleen, renamed in deference to a boat owned by his grandparents, will probably cast off towards the end of the summer but Ian, one of life’s perfectionists, will not entertain the venture until he’s confident his boat is spot-on and completely seaworthy – he’s never cut corners.
And the reason for his venture? Foolhardy perhaps, but he’s doing it to raise money for the ACF which is his way of saying “Thank You”.
Bon voyage Ian