Vinny Lauwers a 32-year-old paraplegic, sailed into his home port of Melbourne last Saturday, ending an eight-month epic journey that saw him become the first paraplegic to sail non-stop, solo and unassisted around the world. -Story by Emma Sutcliffe for Quokka Sports
Single-handed, offshore sailing is not a pastime for the faint-hearted. It does, in fact, generally appeal only to the slightly insane. Climbing the mast in the middle of the Southern Ocean to assess shroud damage, descending, fabricating the parts needed to repair the damage, climbing back up, installing the fittings and finally getting back down is not the easiest of tasks at the best of times. But when you're paralyzed from the waist down, and the only way of holding on is to grip a line with your teeth, a housekeeping chore becomes a Herculean challenge.
Welcome to the life of Vincent "Vinny" Lauwers -- Australia's latest hero and the newest sailor to enter the annals of maritime history.
"I want to give Jacquie a big cuddle and eat some fish and chips," said a grinning Lauwers upon hitting shore, paying homage to fiancée Jacquie Gill and one of his preferred dishes.
As he neared the docks, a cacophony of horns, whistles, cheers and applause provided the soundtrack to highly emotional moment. While the brass band struck up a rendition of "I Still Call Australia Home," Lauwers touched terra firma for the first time in eight months -- and fell out of his wheelchair after an over-enthusiastic embrace. Solid ground wasn't as easy as it looked after he'd been at sea for so long.
Victoria State Premier Steve Bracks was present in the welcoming party, as was 18-year-old Jesse Martin. Martin, also from Melbourne, holds the record for being the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe, solo, non-stop and unassisted. He was also one of Lauwers' mentors as he prepared for the journey.
A Solo Journey into the Wilderness
Lauwers, however, wasn't on a quest just to set a world record. His real passion is to inspire disabled children to face their challenges, despite their sometimes momentous physical adversities. Lauwers' boat, Vision Quest, was appropriately named after the North American Indian tradition.
Embarking on a vision quest is about going on a lone journey into the wilderness, a place alive with the power of nature -- often without food, water or shelter -- to discover the answers to a personal problem.
After losing the use of his legs 10 years ago in a motorbike accident, Lauwers has found the answer to his misfortune. Instead of mourning the loss of his legs, Lauwers is thankful that clenching a rope in his teeth means that he's using his mouth for more than just cursing the fact that he's up the mast in the first place. He is, in his words, "As happy as a pig in mud."
Not that it was all plain sailing. Not only did Lauwers have to cope with dragging his lifeless legs around, but also with the riveting pain in his spine from the numerous steel plates that were implanted after his accident. Steel is a magnet for cold, and in the less-than-temperate Southern Ocean, the phrase "bone-numbing cold" took on a softer meaning when compared with "steel-numbing cold."
Lauwers' voyage began Dec. 20, 1999. His route took him from Melbourne, eastward towards Cape Horn and northward to St. Pedro and St. Pablo rocks, his turning point one degree north of the equator. From there it was back to the South Indian Ocean and home to Australia, leaving Eclipse Island, south of Western Australia, to starboard.
At daybreak, after rounding Eclipse Island three miles off the coast, the wind completely died away and Lauwers was left drifting toward a reef. He contemplated firing up the engine, but that would disqualify his voyage as unassisted. A few zephyrs propelled him away from the rocks, and he embarked on the final 1,000 miles.
The only time Lauwers contemplated ending his quest was last March, just after passing the Falkland Islands. In agony, but unsure whether he had sustained severe back injury, he debated whether to throw in the towel.
"I realized that having to call a rescue team out there was putting other people's lives at risk," said Lauwers, "I had to be sure." He wasn't sure he needed the assistance, so he sailed on. He never mentioned the pain or injury to anyone at home. Fortunately, the only ailment Lauwers suffered during his journey was the loss of 12 kilos of body weight.
Lauwers' KISS Theory
When Lauwers took the microphone at the dock, there were three things he couldn't praise highly enough. The first was his Van de Stadt 47 Vision Quest, which was purpose-built around the "KISS" theory: "Keep it simple, stupid."
"I wouldn't have done this in anything other," said Lauwers, who affectionately refers to his boat as "my girl" in his online diary. His girl sustained a little damage along the way, but none so great that he couldn't fix it himself.
Lauwers also praised Frank Hargrave, CEO of Skilled Engineering, Lauwers' principal sponsor. Hargrave took on the sponsorship, not just as a sports marketing exercise, but as a personal investment in the well-being, adventure and success of Vision Quest. Fanatical about the spiritual significance of the journey, Hargrave expressed a widespread feeling: "In times to come, people will invoke your name as their inspiration as they, too, set forth on challenges that will seem almost impossible."
Finally, Lauwers couldn't express enough gratitude to his partner, Gill. His delight at completing his journey is only surpassed by his love for his fiancée, and they plan to be married soon. Now that he's set a world record, Lauwers will be coaching, inspiring and leading disabled children toward a brighter future through his new charity, Parasail. Lauwers plans to sell Vision Quest to a museum so others can learn about the journey he undertook. Then, he'll build a catamaran for Gill, take to the public speaking circuit and continue living life with undiluted fervor.
Before all that, Lauwers will be consuming a large part of a bottle of Bacardi rum, one of his favorite beverages. He has every reason to celebrate.