Disability Sports Ambassador

Diana Campbell, a special lady. Published under | 1 Comments

In May 1993, I was sat alone in the cockpit of my 15th trimaran Billy in the middle of the Hamble river.  It was cold and blowing a steady 20 knots from the south west as I luffed up into the wind, took off my wooly hat and poured the ashes of Diana Campbell into the grey, cold, water; eddies of powder-fine ash blowing away with the wind across the river, larger granules of cremated remains covering the leeward quarter of the stern and my mainsheet. With my make-shift ash dispenser, (fashioned from an old plastic turpentine container), now empty of my dear friend, I laid a small posy of white and blue orchids, her favourite flower, on the river, put on my hat and headed back to the shore to join the small gathering of mourners atop the slipway at Hamble Point Marina.  I sailed slowly in quiet reflection of this amazing lady.  Having scattered her ashes on the river where she lived, her very specific final wishes, as written in her Will, had been carried out, but she would not be forgotten and her legacy would live on.

More than twenty year later, I was sat in the cockpit of a Challenger dinghy, sailing across Falmouth Harbour in Antigua smiling to myself as I thought of Diana and knowing how pleased she would have been had she been alive to see the boat she helped to design now sailing on the waters of her favourite place in the world.

In the late 1970’s, Diana, or “Tid” as she was known to her friends, worked with sailing legend Rod-McAlpine Downey to design a single-handed dinghy.  Her brief was straightforward; it had to be fast, exhilarating and fun and had to be suitable for severely disabled sailors to sail. The result, the Challenger trimaran, was to become one of the most exciting dinghies ever created for disabled sailors.  Its unique and clever design with its un-stayed, fully rotating mast (which could be depowered by releasing the mainsheet), was to enable many thousands of disabled people to get afloat, myself included, and for them all to experience the independence and freedom of sailing.

Tid was born disabled in 1938 with crippling arthritic Stills disease.  As she got older, rheumatoid and osteo-arthritis were to cause her great pain and she used a wheelchair for most of her life.  In later years, breast cancer only compounded her daily difficulties.  She was born one of two daughters to John “Jock” and Rose Campbell.  Her father was to become a Major-General in the Royal Horse Artillery and was to be awarded the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross for his bravery during the war in 1941 in north Africa.  He died in a freak car accident less than a year later.  Diana’s great uncle was Sir Cecil Rhodes, best known for his involvement in Rhodesia, the country which carried his name. Her sister “Dill” was to marry Arthur Fortescue and live in Bembridge on the Isle of Wight.  Shortly after Diana’s death in 1993, Dill and Arthur moved to Devon where they have both since passed away.

Tid shared her father’s love of sailing, travel and adventure.  She spent much of her adult life travelling the world and often sailing in Antigua, the warm climate and perfect conditions helping her cope with her disability. She relied on her close friends and nurses to give her the personal care she needed to live her daily life.

I first met Tid many years earlier in 1983.  I was 17 years old and working in a restaurant in Hamble.  She was a regular customer who used a wheelchair about whom I remember very little if I am to be honest. However, she would later tell me she remembered me at that time, before I became disabled, as considerate, welcoming and taking the time to ensure she was comfortable in her wheelchair (I’m still not convinced she was remembering the right person). Within 18 months of that first encounter, I myself was in a wheelchair following a freak accident and, in another strange twist of fate, my wife Elaine was to work for Tid as one of her agency nurses.   Tid and I were re-connected and became firm friends. The Challenger dinghy she designed becoming, in a strange way, my saviour.  Facing a lifetime with a disability following a swimming accident and no prospect of participating in my passion for sailing, it was 1990 when Tid first introduced me to the Challenger. Despite my reservations, I loved it. Within a year I was competing in Challenger racing events around the UK. Two year later, I had sailed my own Challenger, Billy, (named in memory of Tid’s nephew who had died at an early age from cancer), the 55 miles around the Isle of Wight.  It was a huge achievement for me at that time.

On the evening of Thursday 8th April 1993, unable to go on living in such severe pain, Tid was to take her own life, driving her electric wheelchair under cover of darkness off the quay at Hamble and into the cold black waters of the river.  It was the day before the Easter bank holiday. I remember the date well.  Elaine and I had dinner with Tid the night before she died.  She had asked if I was sailing two days hence on the Good Friday. I confirmed I would be sailing Billy from Weston Sailing Club because high tide was at a suitable time. She corrected me and said high tide was an hour later than the time I had stated. At the time, it did not dawn on me why a severely disabled, housebound 61 year old lady knew the time of high water in Southampton, well, not until it was too late of course.  I was sailing Billy in a regatta at Weston SC on Friday 9th April 1993, it was Good Friday, when I heard the news.  I saw my wife Elaine waving from the shore to get my attention.  I sailed back to the beach but instinctively knew something was wrong.  “They found Tid’s body floating on the Hamble this morning” she said as Billy came to rest on the stony shoreline.  I remember burying my head in my hands and crying at having lost a friend but also having lost someone without whom, I may never had rediscovered sailing and knowing that there were hundreds of disabled people, just like me, who had their lives enriched because this severely disabled lady had made it her business to help others to find a way onto the water.

Fourteen years after her death,  I was to sail a Challenger dinghy around Great Britain, a journey of some 1,450 miles in a project I was to call “Personal Everest”.  The voyage took me and my support crew to more than 50 harbours around the UK and took 109 days to complete in a Challenger I called Freethinker.  There are about 300 Challengers in the UK today and a healthy racing programme managed by the Challenger Class Association.  Slowly but surely they are finding their way overseas so it was a special moment for me indeed when I recently visited Antigua and was to sail a Challenger for the first time on the Caribbean Sea that Diana loved so much.  The two boats are based at the Antigua Sailing Academy and I witnessed many local disabled people smiling and laughing as they took it in turns to get afloat and to gain, albeit it only for a few precious minutes, the opportunity to forget about their disability and to experience the joy and freedom of being afloat in a Challenger. I know of one lady who would have been very happy indeed to know that.

Diana died leaving no family. Her sister Dill and husband Arthur died leaving 2 grandchildren,

1 Comment has been made

Val Millward says:

Great article, thank goodness Diana Campbell encouraged Rod-McAlpine Downey to design the Challenger. Without this dinghy my joy of sailing would be greatly curtailed!

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