Motivational speaker Patrick Souiljaert believes in living life to the full and though he lives with cerebral palsy, he does not think of himself as disabled.
The 45-year-old from Shoreham Beach found writing his first book, Stairs for Breakfast, in 2014 helped him overcome many obstacles in his life and ever since, he has used his experiences to inspire others and show that anything is possible.
One of his great joys is taking to the water with the charity Sussex Sailability and though he still thinks of himself as a novice, he loves learning more each time he sails.
Patrick said: “You only get one chance at life, so why live it with self-imposed limits? Born with my umbilical cord around my neck in 1973 deprived me of oxygen and I’ve lived with the physical challenges caused by cerebral palsy since that moment. Cerebral palsy is a physical disability, which makes the physical demands of life difficult. It affects movement, balance and, in some cases, the person’s speech. However, I’ve never thought of myself as being disabled and I’ve always believed that I can do anything I want to.
“I started sailing in the summer of 2013. My friend Mike from down the pub, who was a member of Sussex Yacht Club, told me about Sussex Sailability, which gets people with all kinds of disabilities sailing. He said I should give it a go because I might like it, even though I’d never done sailing before.
“Straight away I knew it was for me. It was something completely different from what I was doing in my work life. It’s pure escapism and I find it so peaceful. When I’m out on the boat, I feel really in the present moment, which is awesome.”
Patrick sails out of Sussex Yacht Club, which will soon be demolished to make way for flood defences and replaced with a new building in Brighton Road, Shoreham, that promises to be one of the UK’s best centres for sailing for disabled people.
Patrick said: “Sailability caters for such a wide range of people. At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got those who live in residential homes who don’t get out much and for them a trip on a boat is a real day out. They might not be able to sail but just getting out on the water is a real big deal.
“Then you’ve got other people who are serious sailors who have had an accident or maybe a stroke. The facilities here mean that they can continue to enjoy the sport that they loved so much before. There’s also people who are partially sighted or blind right through to those who have learning difficulties.”
Sussex Sailability relies on experienced sailors who volunteer their time to run the sessions, giving people with disabilities the opportunity to learn and enjoy the sport in a safe and controlled environment on the charity’s specially-adapted boats.
Those using the facilities might be completely new to sailing, like Patrick was, or they could be sailors who have become disabled through accident or illness.
Patrick said: “If it wasn’t for our wonderful volunteers, giving up their time to help us, none of us would have the opportunity to sail. It just wouldn’t happen. What they give people is a lifeline.
“I suppose on that first time out on the water, I was a bit apprehensive that the boat might capsize. I can swim, just not very well, but I was wearing a buoyancy aid and I was with a volunteer, so I felt safe. On my third visit, I went out on a boat on my own, it felt exhilarating, even though a lot of the time I was just going around in circles because I didn’t know how to sail.
“When I’m out there, on my own, it’s quite exciting because I’m in control, yet in some ways I’m not, because my direction is guided by the wind. It’s a sporting activity and I’m doing something I wouldn’t normally do, plus there’s an element of danger, of thrill-seeking.
“I still think of myself as a novice but then I don’t take it very seriously. For me, it’s a bit of fun on a Saturday afternoon.
“For my first three years, I went up and down the river on my own in the small access boat. Then I went on the RS Venture Boat out to sea, which was a completely different experience. For a start you are part of a team of four people, so you can’t just do whatever you like, it’s also a much heavier boat, so turning it takes a lot more time and effort. It’s much more serious sailing.”
Work has already begun on the new clubhouse and facilities, which have been designed by specialist architects in conjunction with the charity Changing Places, to be fully accessible to everyone.
The aim is to build a fully-accessible centre of sailing excellence in Shoreham and members of Sussex Yacht Club are working hard to raise an additional £538,155 through the Door to Shore campaign to ensure the construction includes everything needed. Visit www.sussexsailability.org/door-to-shore for more information.
Patrick said: “It will be exciting to have a new clubhouse and better facilities that will cater for everyone. Sometimes, it’s the small things which make a big difference, for example our current clubhouse is quite old and some of the doors are very heavy. So, if you’re on crutches, in a wheelchair or a mobility scooter, it’s incredibly difficult to get through to where you want to go. When I’m up in the bar, the nearest toilet is downstairs, which means negotiating a lift and two heavy fire doors both ways just to use the facilities that everyone else takes for granted. Even the lift doesn’t have an automatic door, so it’s quite a struggle to get in and out of it.
“In the plans for the new building, everything’s been thought about. They’ve asked the users what they need from the clubhouse, so there will be automatic doors and we’ll have special non-slip flooring. Water on the floor can make it as slippery as an ice-rink when you’re using crutches, it’s really dangerous, and it’s a hazard that you’ll often find in a yacht club where everyone is coming in from the water. Having the right floor surface is very important.
“The rebuild is a massive opportunity to get everything right, to allow sailors who happen to have disabilities the same independence as those who don’t. It’s going to be awesome and will hopefully encourage others to come along and give sailing a go.”
Patrick is in training for a seven-day challenge, Step Up to Snowdon, in September 2020, when he plans to walk up the highest mountain in Wales over the course of a week in aid of three local charities. To find out more about his challenge and his books, visit www.speakingpatrick.com