Mike Smith meets Derek Lee, founder of a club that provides disabled people with the means to sail.
Back in 1990, Derek Lee was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, a deficiency in the nervous system that leads to muscle wasting, lack of feeling in nerve endings, poor balance and impaired mobility. He was told by his doctor that there is no medical cure for the condition and that he would end up in a wheelchair within four years.
Eighteen years later, Derek is one of the most dynamic 77-year-olds imaginable. He chairs two local committees and holds office on a couple of other groups; he is a member of Severn Trent's conservation, access, recreation and education advisory group, spearheads a campaign that has led to the establishment of the Silence Heritage Site in Foolow and is a leading member of Carsington Sailing Club. What's more, he has not been confined to a wheelchair at any time since his diagnosis.
Have his symptoms disappeared? Has he had a miracle cure? Not a bit of it. Derek suffers from all the debilitating conditions that he was promised, which means that he has to move about very carefully and stay close to convenient props. Quick to see the funny side of his disability, he says, 'I always avoid going into crockery and glassware shops.'
However, sheer determination has kept him out of a wheelchair and strength of mind has allowed him to continue with his many and varied interests, not least the hobby that he had enjoyed for more than three decades before receiving the bad news from his doctor. As the owner of a number of boats over the years, he had obtained enormous pleasure from sailing, not only on various lakes and reservoirs, but also on offshore waters. As well as sailing on the English Channel and the North Sea, he had taken a boat to the Dutch polders and ventured to the Atlantic outposts of St Kilda and Fastnet Rock.
When Derek heard that the World Championship Trials for Disabled Sailors were due to take place on Rutland Water in 1993, he immediately signed up as a helmsman in a three-man crew. This meant teaming up with a sailor who had suffered neurological problems ever since he had been hit by an aeroplane propeller blade and a man who had been blinded and subject to shellshock in the Korean War. The trials attracted entries from scores of other sailors who had physical handicaps that were far more severe than Derek's, and it was their determination that prompted him to set up Derbyshire Sailing Endeavour, a group designed to provide disabled people with the initiative and the means to sail.
Derek envisaged that some members of his group would be experienced sailors who had become disabled, while others would be disabled people who wanted to take up sailing as a means of rehabilitation. He was also keen to recruit disabled young people who might be encouraged to adopt sailing as a hobby and, above all, he wanted to welcome disabled people of all ages who, like Ratty in Wind in the Willows, believe that 'there is nothing better than messing about in boats'.
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Having established his aims, Derek knew he would have to set about raising large sums of money in order to purchase the necessary specialist equipment. Thanks to some generous donations, several sponsorship schemes and successful applications to potential funders such as Sportsmatch and Awards for All, he has managed to raise £150,000 over the years. The money has been used to buy boats which are designed not to capsize, a hydraulic hoist, a stable pontoon that is wide enough for two wheelchairs and a safety boat with a drop-down bow door.
One of the founder members of Derbyshire Sailing Endeavour is Terry Willett, who became a paraplegic as a result of a mining accident. Terry represented Britain in five paralympics in various sports before taking up sailing and subsequently winning a gold medal in the 1994 World Sailing Championships. He lives with the help of a support dog called Heidi, which once demonstrated its skills at Crufts. Like Derek, he copes with his disability by careful management of his condition, coupled with unshakeable determination and a sense of humour - his car carries a sticker with the slogan 'Just because I'm disabled, don't assume I'm a good person'.
Another founder member of the group, which has now been incorporated into Carsington Sailing Club and re-branded as Carsington Sailability, is Mike Parkin, who has been in a wheelchair since he was 18 years old. Some of the schoolchildren who take advantage of the facilities are also wheelchair users. Derek says: 'I get tremendous satisfaction when I see these youngsters taking control of a boat. For many of them, it is the first thing that they've been able to control in their lives.'
One of the Sailability boats is currently being fitted with a short, electronically-operated joystick to allow a nine-year-old with spinal muscular atrophy to take over the controls. Because Derek would like to help many more disabled young people, he is keen to encourage teachers and carers to use the facilities and expertise available at Carsington. He is also on the look out for more volunteer helpers for an endeavour that continues to widen its scope.
A regatta for disabled sailors is now an annual event at Carsington and the recent purchase of a small cruiser that has been adapted for mixed-ability crews is giving disabled people the chance to sail on offshore waters. Planned future purchases include an audio compass, which will be used to help sailors who are visually impaired, and a mobile electric winch which will aid launch and recovery. Derek has also established the Disabled Sailing Forum, a web-based mutual support group.
Given his drive and determination, it is not surprising to learn that Derek ran his own firm for many years. He was the managing director of Delta Design, a company largely devoted to exhibition design. Before setting up on his own, he had various jobs, including work as a painter of scenery for a theatrical production company. When the actor playing the footman in a production of Cinderella at the Palace Theatre, Attercliffe, was taken ill one day, Derek was asked to step into the role and act alongside Max Bygraves, who was playing Buttons. This resulted in his going on tour as a travelling stage-manager, accordion-player and bit-part actor!
Derek's thespian days came to an end when he was called up for National Service, but his artistic skills are still in evidence. He enjoys painting and a number of his works hang on the walls of the cottage he shares with his wife, Sylvia. Given the number of hours that he devotes to running his disabled forum, acting as Vice President of Carsington Sailing Club, chairing the local parish meeting, spearheading the Silence Heritage project and developing Carsington Sailability, it is surprising that he can find the time to paint. These days, his life is also punctuated by frequent hospital visits for blood transfusions, because he was diagnosed three years ago as suffering from leukaemia.
Derek showed me the detailed record of his blood count, which he records on his computer and up-dates after each transfusion. Thanks to careful management of this latest medical condition, coupled with his usual determination, he is carrying on as normal with all his activities and interests, including Carsington Sailability, which provides the means for like-minded people to do exactly the same.
Readers who would like to make use of Carsington Sailability or offer their support, either financially or practically, should log on to www.carsingtonsailability.com or www.sailingendeavour.com or contact Derek Lee at Carsington Sailing Club telephone: 01629 540609