Spotlight Feature - Geoff Holt MBE

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Last year we sat down with Geoff to ask him about his inspirational story and questions around the Maritime sector.

Geoff Holt is a professional yachtsman, now founder of the organisation Wetwheels, that every year takes 7,000 disabled people out on the water. Geoff left school at 16 to be a professional yachtsman, and from that age was boating around the world. At age almost 19, Geoff had an accident at the beach that left him paralysed from the neck down. He has a little bit of remaining movement in his hands, but apart from that has not been able to move or feel anything since then. After one year of rehabilitation in Salisbury, learning how to manage and live life with a severe spinal cord injury, Geoff left hospital with his nurse and now wife, Elaine. They’ve been married for 35 years.

In the late 1980s Geoff retrained in computers and landed a job in database management at Deloitte Haskins & Sells, now known as Deloitte. He then became their marketing director for 15 years, heading marketing and business development for the UK South West region. Parallel to that he started to learn how to sail again with his disability and did some racing, representing the UK in disabled sailing. His career at Deloitte came to a stop in the 2000s for personal reasons, and Geoff got more and more interested in adventure sailing.

In 2007, he achieved his “Personal Everest” project, becoming the first severely disabled person to sail solo around Great Britain. He did that in a small, 15ft dinghy, with his wife Elaine, then 5-year-old son Tim, and 5-6 supporting crew members. It took him 109 days to sail around the country, with 51 harbours visited and 1,500 miles travelled.

A couple years later, Geoff decided he wanted to cross the Atlantic again, having already crossed it three times between the ages of 16 and 18 years old. He embarked in 2010 on a 60ft yacht, in his wheelchair, with a nurse and a cameraman. 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean later, Geoff arrived in January 2010, having done all the sailing and navigating independently. He chose to return to the beach where his accident happened, to celebrate being able to sail as someone with a severe disability. Geoff believes in overcoming adversity and building resilience by putting one’s mind to it and reframing thoughts positively.

When he got back from the Caribbean islands, Geoff was awarded an MBE by the Queen, as well as being awarded the Yachtsman of the Year award – or “the knighthood of yachting” as he puts it. He went onto founding Wetwheels in 2011 – read more about this incredible organisation, in Geoff’s own words, below.

What is Wetwheels and how did you come about founding it?

Over my two big expeditions around the world, people got to know about me, they got to read about me and hear about me in the news.  Lots of people were asking me how they can get involved and I began to realise that this world I live in, this disabled sailing community, particularly offshore sailing is not very well supported anywhere in the world. There are only 2 or 3 opportunities around the world for someone in a big, heavy wheelchair to get out on the water.

I looked at how I could change that and that’s when I started Wetwheels as an organisation. That was in 2011. I part mortgaged my house to raise the money and I had some investment from a couple of big marine companies, including Susuki Marine and Raymarine. From this, I bought my first Wetwheels boat in 2011. Within a year it was working at capacity, I couldn’t meet the demand…but jump forward to now! I have 7 Wetwheels boats around the country. Number 8 will come online later next year. Locations include Whitby in Yorkshire, Dover in South East, Jersey in the Channel Islands, Portsmouth, Southampton, Falmouth and Port Edgar in Edinburgh.

Each boat is taking 1,500 people a year on the water. The key thing about Wetwheels when it was started, was that we wanted to offer more than a “trip boat”. It had to be a big enough boat to be a shared experience, so that disabled people could bring their mum or dad, brothers, sisters, friends. It had to be easy to get onboard, it had to be fast because I wanted people to have that experience of the sea spray in their face and sense of adrenaline. Finally, I wanted every person coming on board to have a go at driving the boat! This is what sets us apart from every other power boating organisation anywhere in the world. People in their big heavy wheelchairs or severely disabled people can come on up under the steering wheel and drive the boat. Even if they can’t hold the stirring wheel, we will do it for them or we have systems to do that. For a moment in time, they can forget about their disability, and they can be master and commander of a power boat. The boats are expensive boats, costing around a quarter of a million pounds each and they do 30 knots. They are big, powerful machines and why shouldn’t someone who ordinarily doesn’t have the opportunity to do something exciting, be able to try, like everyone else?

We have taken on board well over 40,000, maybe even 50,000 people since we started. 80% of those people had never been on the water before. It’s worth saying that even though we have a charity ‘Wetwheels Foundation’ I took my commercial experience from Deloitte, to develop what Wetwheels is today.  All the 7 boats are local social enterprises, not-for-profit, community interest companies. We work 7 days a week, up to 10 hours a day, maybe more, delivering our experiences. That way we can keep a commercial mindset but with a charitable objective.

Sailing was never “part” of my life, it was my life and to have it taken away after my accident was like a bereavement. I made a decision to not engage in the sailing community and I stepped away from it all. This broke my heart and I had to live vicariously through people like Tracy Edwards, who I know you have also interviewed for your Spotlight Features. Tracy and I knew each other before my

accident, we were in the British Virgin Islands together. Someone she befriended during her Maiden project happened to be one of my childhood friends and we reconnected through them. So, when Tracy put together her round the world project, she had 100% of my attention and when she did it, I couldn’t get enough, I’d read the papers, I’d watch the TV. “You know, that’s my friend! That’s my friend!” In many ways I was living vicariously through watching what Tracy did. Watching Tracy gave me my sailing fix. Then I realised I have to do this myself, I can’t go living life through other people, so that’s why I started disabled sailing again. I had never experienced disability before the age of 19, so it never occurred to me that people would exclude me from something or discriminate against me because I had never had that before. I was a very outgoing, bullish type of young lad who just wanted to do his own thing and I did. Then all of a sudden, I’m in a wheelchair and I’m finding I can’t go to places, I’m excluded from places because I am in a wheelchair. I was banned from Cannon Cinema’s for being a fire risk, I was quite literally evicted from restaurants that I had gone into because someone had mentioned fire risk and I was asked to leave. This was just the norm. It still is for a lot of people, but I think coming from a background of ‘how dare you’ gave me this outlook on life that you will not stop me from doing something if I believe I’m legally allowed to do it and I want to. I will find a way to do it.

What is your proudest moment in life?

I guess the proudest moment for me personally, in a vanity way, was sailing round Great Britain. That had taken so long and I had had a lot of problems on the way back, serious problems with the weather and safety. People said I shouldn’t do it. So coming back and crossing that finishing line was for me a personal achievement, I did it!

From a pride point of view, Wetwheels is. Because Wetwheels is something I get pleasure out of everyday. Just before I did this interview I had a thank you email from someone who went yesterday, saying how overjoyed she was. She said her children loved it and they never get to do anything like that. I get four or five of those emails a week and without sounding conceited, I think I helped make that happen. It’s my team doing the work every day but the idea was mine and it’s taken a lot of hard work and still does. But it’s something I do because I love it.

What would you say to anyone looking to get into the maritime sector? Whether that is sailing or a career within the industry.

I think 100% encourage anyone to try it. Even if you think you might get seasick on a boat, the maritime sector doesn’t always mean being out on the water. The technological side, the design and engineering side, there’s also the pinnacle of yachting like the British Ben Ainslie Racing, which is America’s Cup stuff. This is no longer just sailing the boat, it’s trying to make it go fast. It’s using Formula One technology with Mercedes and McLaren, and so that the design engineering side of what we do is incredibly interesting from a personal point of view. I’d encourage people to get out on the water and learn more about being out on the water, because if nothing else and you don’t end up having a career out of it, you’ll have something which gives you different perspective on life. Something you can do with friends and family, and I think it enriches your life. I’m getting a bit deep here, but I think it enriches the soul a lot and if it’s not earning a living out of it, you can take a lot of personal pleasure out of it. To paraphrase all of that, I thoroughly encourage anyone to look at the options available and give it a try.

What piece of advice would you give somebody who was looking to start their own business or charity?

It takes a big leap of faith. I spent a lot of time not wanting to take that risk because I had the  comfort of being employed by Deloitte. I was paid a monthly salary. I had job security. I loved my job, I loved the people. I also loved the financial assurance that came with it . To come out of that and start alone put  a huge amount of pressure on me. Having said that and looking back now, the advice would be to just go for it. You have this one life, don’t be afraid to take risks. I think being an entrepreneur you need to be prepared to take risk, because unless you push your thought and ideas, you’re never going to know if it would work anyway. Also, when things go wrong (because they will go wrong), learn from it. Don’t make the same mistakes twice.

Someone once told me, if you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s so true and since starting Wetwheels, it’s been a challenge, but I’ve gone beyond now where I would have been if I had stayed at Delloitte. I’m now making decisions that affect people’s lives. They are mine and my teams’ decisions. Being a business, you can be really quick and dynamic, you can learn and change your policies quickly. It will certainly put you under stress, but it will be worth it.

Please find more information about Wetwheels here:    Homepage | Wetwheels Foundation

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