This year, 2021, Wetwheels celebrates our 10th anniversary. From humble beginnings we have come a long way in the past decade and, as the Founder of Wetwheels, I thought, whilst shielding at home in lockdown 3 dreaming of being out on the water, now is a good time to look back and to share a few milestones and highlights of our journey.
So where did it all begin and why Wetwheels? Actually, the name came a few years earlier, it was a nickname assigned to me by my friend Bev Smith, a fellow member of Hamble Valley Rotary. I liked it and I used it as a nom de plume for a column I used to write in Yachts and Yachting magazine from 2009. As for the boat itself, why a Cheetah? Well, I also used to write a column for a magazine called All at Sea. In November 2010 I wrote an article called My Powerful Secret discussing various powerboat options for wheelchair users. In the article, I spoke highly of the Cheetah catamaran but concluded my article with the words “I always did have champagne tastes and lemonade pockets”.
I thought nothing more of it until two weeks later the managing director of Cheetah catamarans, Sean Strevens, called me and invited me to the factory on the Isle of Wight to discuss options. I spoke to my existing friends and sponsors at Mindworks Marketing, Suzuki Marine UK and Raymarine and between them, plus support from Cheetah Marine and a significant re-mortgage on my house, I raised the capital to purchase my first boat. I spent many weeks and months working with Cheetah to create the boat design and specification we all know today. I had only three requirements;
- Simplicity: I wanted good design features with the least amount of technical adaptations
- Accessibility: the boat had to be accessible to absolutely everyone, regardless of disability, including access to the helm so everyone had the opportunity to drive the boat
- Safety: we had to balance the safety of disabled passengers whilst creating a boat which would provide a high value, lived-life experiences, a boat which would get your adrenaline going
Such a boat did not exist before, so this was a huge learning curve for all of us. By August 2011 she was ready to go in the water. There could only be one name, Wetwheels, and she was named at the PSP Southampton Boat Show on September 15, 2011 by Dame Mary Fagan, Lord-Lieutenant of Hampshire.
Explaining the ethos behind Wetwheels when we first launched, I wrote in our first ever annual review; “One day, doctors will prescribe a trip on Wetwheels instead of pills”. It was to be prophetic. A decade later, that term now has a name, “social prescribing”.
I have also always talked about a link between the sea and improving our health and wellbeing, both physical and mental health. That too now has a name, Blue Health.
It is this benefit of being afloat on the water which may seem the most intangible, the most difficult to articulate and quantify yet, conversely, is actually the easiest to measure on a purely human level; you need only come on a Wetwheels trip to witness it. The sensory overload of being on the water for the first time, an unimaginable new world of sights, sounds, smells and sensations, for many of our participants it is visible in their reactions. No matter how difficult it may ordinarily be for our disabled participants, particularly those with the most profound and complex disabilities, to articulate their feelings. You can see it in their faces.
At the time there was no Wetwheels charity, it was just me with this great idea and a boat. I always knew there would be a demand for a boat like Wetwheels but only through getting people on the water could I ever evidence that. The first few months were tough. Any of our existing Wetwheels Operators will know how much it costs to put 600 litres of petrol in a Wetwheels fuel tank and how long that fuel lasts before the next refill…! I could not afford those costs myself and friends and family were soon giving financial support so it was essential I set up Wetwheels as a not-for-profit, social enterprise company for complete transparency. I had to make some serious decisions; I knew Wetwheels had the potential to shape the rest of my life and my family too. I knew it would be a huge commitment. That said, I was not aware exactly to what extent. I have always had my own personal set of values that I have applied to my previous sailing projects; Inclusivity, Equality, Professionalism and Integrity/Trust and Wetwheels was to be no different.
I pulled together a number of friends with expertise in the charity sector who shared my values to form the Disabled Powerboating Trust, a charity dedicated to getting disabled people afloat on powerboats. Within 18 months, it became clear the DPT should become the umbrella body for the Wetwheels model and they subsequently changed their name to the Wetwheels Foundation.
I have always been intrigued how events in our lives happen, what connects the dots? Whether you subscribe to the chaos theory or whether it’s for reasons known only to higher beings than us mere mortals, the evolution of Wetwheels, certainly in the early days, is a result of being in the right place at the right time.
Late in 2011 I was engaged as a professional speaker for a charity dinner held at the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club in Cowes on the Isle of Wight for a client called the Le Tournoir charity, consisting a group of friends from Jersey who were visiting on a fleet sailing charter. With my talk being in Cowes, I spoke to a friend of mine, the late Ian Shuttleworth, himself a wheelchair user and member of the Royal Yacht Squadron. He arranged permission for me to ‘park’ Wetwheels in the Squadron harbour from where it was only a short trundle in my wheelchair to the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club. Having given my talk, the organiser of Le Tournoir, Andy le Seeleur, asked me how I had travelled to the island. From the bay window at the Royal Corinthian yacht club, I pointed to Wetwheels below in the Squadron Harbour and so a chain reaction was started. Andy invited Wetwheels to attend the Jersey Boat Show in May 2012. The seeds of Wetwheels as a national organisation were sown and the rest, as they say, is history..!
Here are a number of highlights of the past 10 years;
June 2012, Wetwheels is chosen to represent Hampshire in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames, London. We got to share the days with friends from Rose Road in Southampton and it was recorded for posterity by the BBC. Click on the picture to watch the video.
August 2012, Wetwheels was chosen as one of the official filming platforms for the Olympics in Weymouth and subsequently for the Paralympic sailing event at the same venue in September. I love the video broadcast around the world of Ben Ainslie crossing the finishing line to win his fourth gold medal with Wetwheels behind. Click the photo see watch the video.
Immediately after the Paralympics, Wetwheels attended her first Southampton Boat Show as part of the Suzuki Try a Boat stand. She has attended every boat show since (except 2020 due to coronavirus) and has taken in excess of 2,000 people on the water at Southampton Boat Shows alone, with thanks to British Marine to making available so many concessionary tickets and to Suzuki Marine UK for covering our costs.
May 2013 was our second visit to the Jersey Boat Show. In 2012, our visit was low-key and used to raise awareness and interest for a Wetwheels Jersey. Our return in 2013 saw us opening the show. The photo shows us leading a fleet of Royal Navy P2000 patrol boats, Royal Marine armoured gunships, a tug spraying its hoses, the cross-channel ferry, the RNLI, Pilot boat and (out of shot), a RN Lynx helicopter. What an entrance..!
August 2013 saw our first of two visits to Dartmouth in Devon. We spent a fabulous week cruising the beautiful Devon coastline and rivers. Wetwheels was the official Guest of Honour at the Royal Dartmouth Regatta that year.
Less than 2 year since first meeting Andy le Seeleur at that dinner on the Isle of Wight, Wetwheels Jersey was formally launched by David Harburn on 14th September, 2013 in St Helier.
One of the benefits of having a fully coded vessel like Wetwheels is it can be used by accredited and licenced trainers to deliver recognised boating qualifications. Here is a picture of our first ever RYA Powerboat Level 2 trainee being taught by Nick Kincart of Boatability. Anna Pettman and Tim Claire, both f/t wheelchair users with spinal cord injuries, passed their PB2 in October 2013.
We have had many visits to our Portsmouth boat over the years, including a number of MP’s of all stripes. Our relationship has proved useful when pushing our case for Wetwheels to be recognised and supported by Sport England for the important work we do.
Although Wetwheels Solent had visited Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, several times for day trips since her launch, August 2014 was to be the first of our annual pilgrimages to the Yarmouth Festival, a week-long series of events including the Old Gaffer’s Festival. Our visits have been made possible through the generosity of the Yarmouth Harbour Commission and the Royal Solent Yacht Club.
The 26th of August 2014 was to be one of the most exhilarating, terrifying but incredible moments of my life. We had been selected by the Royal Navy to play the part of a rogue pirate ship in their fast-rope, amphibious air-assault demonstration during the Bournemouth International Airshow. We had to play the villain once a day for 3 days in a row. It is difficult to describe the noise of a Lynx flying metres above your head, the noise of Marines firing weapons meters behind you and the concentration needed to listen to the directions of the helicopter pilot on the radio directing your speed and direction knowing there are guys fast-roping out of the Lynx onto the deck behind whilst being watched by 250,000 people live on the beach a few hundred yards away. To get a feel, watch this short video by clicking the picture below. See if you an spot the moment the helicopter touches our radio antenna. Amazing pilot skills.
On the 29th September 2014, HRH the Earl of Wessex requested a personal visit to see Wetwheels. It was a great opportunity to share the day with our friends from Treloars College.
In May 2015, we were invited to visit Oostende Voor Anker, a celebration of the sea in Ostend, Belgium by our friend Walter Verbeeke. We took the opportunity en-route to stop off in Dover to visit the guys at Dover Sea Safari who had expressed an interest in becoming a Wetwheels Operator. We were only in town for 48 hours but the boat was full up running trips for local disabled people and another seed had been sown.
We arrived in Ostend on the 28th May 2015 for our 4 day stay as guests of the town of Ostend and Oostende voor Anker. We were treated like royalty and had the most amazing time taking local disabled people for trips. Walter remains a huge Wetwheels fan and continues to lead a campaign for Belgium to acquire their very own Wetwheels. One day hopefully.
In July 2015, as part of the build up for the 2021 America’s Cup, Portsmouth was chosen to be a host city for the AC45 regatta series and Wetwheels was chartered by the America’s Cup organisers as the official Press Boat. This got us unprecedented access to the fleet as they sped around the course, often at speeds exceeding 40 knots.
The 14th May 2016 was another important milestone in the evolution of Wetwheels with the official launch of Wetwheels Hamble, our 3rd Wetwheels boat, at the Royal Southern Yacht Club. She was named by Dame Mary Fagan and was joined by Wetwheels Solent and Wetwheels Jersey who made the trip across the channel to celebrate their special day with them.
It would be another two years before our next new boat and then, like busses, two came along at the same time. With some detailed planning and financial support from generous private donors, in 2018 we were able to find a way for our very first Wetwheels boat to start a new life as Wetwheels South-East baed in Dover. To replace her, a new Wetwheels Solent was named at Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth on the 8th June 2018 by Sir Ben Ainslie.
Only twenty days later on the 28th June 2018, a re-dedication ceremony saw the new Wetwheels South-East boat start her new life in Dover. Seen here anchored off the beach in Dover harbour on the day of her re-dedication with the backdrop the white cliffs of dover.
Just over a month later, it was the turn of Yorkshire to take possession of their very own Wetwheels. Wetwheels number 5, Wetwheels Yorkshire arrived in Whitby to start her working career along the North Yorkshire coast. Our Wetwheels Patron, Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal, named Wetwheels Yorkshire on the 1st August 2018 and got to meet some of the people who have since become regular participants.
2020 all forever be remembered as the year Covid-19 impacted the world. The Wetwheels family did not go unaffected either. Working within local and national restrictions where possible, our participant numbers across the fleet were decimated as was our fundraising and income from activities. It was heartbreaking to see our fleet confined to harbour and learn of the growing anxiety and mental anguish of many of our disabled participants and friends. If ever there was a time to discuss Blue Health and the positive impact of Wetwheels on mental health, it is now. We know the positive impact a Wetwheels experience can achieve. As we eventually emerge from this pandemic and we once again return to some sense of normality, we know Wetwheels will be needed more than ever.
So amidst the backdrop of this global pandemic, it is perhaps fitting to celebrate the launch of Wetwheels South-West, our 6th Wetwheels boat, named by Commodore Jamie Miller in her new home port of Falmouth, Cornwall, on the 3rd September 2020. Funded by Sport England and a generous benefactor, the launch of Wetwheels South-West is our statement of intent, despite times of hardship, that Wetwheels will continue to deliver our unique, barrier-free, truly inclusive, life-enriching experiences to disabled people and, by the time I write our 20 year anniversary update, hopefully our fleet will be twice the size and will be renamed the Wetwheels Navy.
If you are still reading this, well-done and thank you..!
Geoff Holt, MBE DL, Founder, Wetwheels