Quadriplegic cerebral palsy has never held Natasha Lambert back and with the help of her family, she has now conquered the Atlantic. Elaine Bunting discovers more about this remarkable sailor
Natasha Lambert: a sip and a puff across the Atlantic
Salt Whistle Bay lies behind a narrow white sand isthmus on the island of Mayreau in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Warm, briny tradewinds pipe constantly through a line of palm trees.
Sheltered behind in flat water, Natasha Lambert’s 46ft catamaran Blown Away sits in the lee of the whole Atlantic Ocean.
Amanda, Natasha’s mum, sends me two photos; one of the bay at Mayreau where their boat is lying, and another of Natasha grinning and holding a rum punch to celebrate sailing across the Atlantic in December.
These moments are triumphs for this remarkable 23-year-old and her family.
The Lamberts are from Cowes on the Isle of Wight, but they weren’t sailors.
Natasha Lambert first tried sailing during an activity holiday in the Lake District, aged nine.
She has had quadriplegic cerebral palsy since birth and she immediately thrilled to the sense of freedom and scope that sailing offered.
Back home, the Lamberts felt sure there would be a boat adapted for wheelchair users that Natasha could sail.
There were, but none that could be controlled by someone suffering from involuntary limb movements.
So Natasha’s dad Gary decided to buy a small boat and modify it.
He came up with the idea of using a single plastic straw mounted on a helmet, so that Natasha could control the helm and sails by sipping or puffing on the straw.
First the family bought a 21ft Mini 6.50, which they called Miss Isle.
Natasha Lambert sailed her round the Isle of Wight in 2012. Two years later, she sailed, in stages, the Isle of Wight to Wales, then walked up Pen Y Fan mountain using her specially made Hart Walker.
She used the challenge to raise money for the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust and that led to an introduction to Ellen MacArthur herself.
As part of her thank you, Ellen gave Natasha a signed pilot book to the Atlantic and said: ‘Here’s to the next one!’
A complex project
When the Lamberts began exploring the idea of Natasha sailing across the Atlantic, they faced choices with repercussions for the whole family, especially then nine-year-old Rachel.
Gary and Amanda had never sailed offshore and would have to learn.
It was also a huge cost that could only be met
with funds from the compensation award Natasha received for her birth injury.
Amanda says: ‘We have to make sure that her finances will last all her life, and we have to conserve that.’
To see if the idea could work, the Lamberts chartered a Lagoon in Croatia.
‘It was a struggle,’ Amanda admits, ‘but we came backing thinking maybe it was a possibility.’
After talking to experts and going to boat shows they chose the Nautitech Open 46, a boat they could ‘perhaps afford and was the most accessible’.
Buying Blown Away in 2018 was just the start. Gary, a domestic electrician who usually works on houses, watched YouTube videos to learn how to design and build the complex sip-and-puff system for the steering and sails.
He used open-source software to build a computer control system and made switches and sensors that could be activated by a single plastic straw mounted to a helmet plus a tongue switch under the chin so Natasha can turn the wheel and switch modes to operate the mainsheet winch, traveller flat winder or the pit winch for the foresail.
Blown Away had to be modified for Natasha Lambert.
For example, tracks were fitted to the deckhead with block and tackle to help move Natasha around on a hoist.
Her special Hart Walker and a treadmill for her to mobilise and exercise on had to find a home in the cockpit.
To live aboard, let alone cross an ocean, the Lamberts have had to overcome hurdles the rest of us can barely imagine.
For two seasons, the family learned progressively how to sail Blown Away together, taking instruction and courses to prepare.
Finally, in summer last year, the Lamberts left Cowes and headed southwards towards the Canary Islands and the start of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) transatlantic rally.
Gaining in confidence
A Force 6 was ripping rags of white from the tops of the waves.
The Lamberts were on their first long offshore passage; seven days and nights from Brest to Gibraltar. Blown Away was 70 miles off A Coruña when the wind rose.
Amanda remembers watching Natasha anxiously as the catamaran lurched from one wave to the next.
‘She just looked back at me and laughed.’
Coming through harsher conditions was a reassurance and gave the family more confidence.
As the Lamberts worked their way to Gran Canaria over the autumn, they settled into life on board.
On 22 November, Natasha sailed Blown Away across the start line of the ARC rally.
They had ‘a busy boat’ with a crew of eight that included an extra carer for Natasha, and three other friends, including Mike Acton, a Yachtmaster instructor and examiner.
For a week, Blown Away had ideal conditions and fast sailing in a steady 25-30 knots under spinnaker or twin headsails. Then the weather changed.
Roughly midway across, a trough formed to the north and travelled across the fleet.
For two days, there were strong winds, sometimes gusting as much as 50 knots, and a night when lightning ripped through the sky.
‘It was quite exciting and intense,’ says Amanda. ‘One afternoon we turned all our electronics off for two or three hours. During one night, I heard a little shout and I found Natasha half fallen out of her bunk. But she just went back to sleep and when she woke up she didn’t realise how bad it had been.
‘I found it intimidating. You feel how vast the ocean is. If you did need help there was nothing for hundreds and hundreds of miles. I didn’t feel in danger but I was looking further ahead and I was scared because this was my family on board. My fears as a mum are about being responsible for my girls and not being able to do anything to protect them. I felt a bit inadequate in such a vast situation.’
Natasha was ‘not fazed by anything’, Amanda adds (she interprets and speaks on behalf of her daughter when Natasha is not using her communication computer).
‘She loved being on the ocean and was confident in the people around her. I could give her the personal care and the love she needs and everyone else could give her technical and physical support.’
When the trough moved away, it left behind a void: a huge area of calms that left yachts flailing.
Many other crews turned on their engines and tried to escape but the Lamberts decided to coax Blown Away along.
Natasha would steer for perhaps an hour at a time, sometimes from inside, where she was shaded from the hot sun.
At night she stood watches alongside someone else and loved watching the moon and stars.
‘Night time was incredible, seeing the phosphorescence and stars, and working out the constellations,’ says Amanda.
Each day she would help download weather files, discuss the routing and help with tasks such as baking bread and preparing meals.
Mike Acton had brought his sextant and taught Natasha and her sister about celestial navigation. Off watch, they would play games.
When conditions allowed, Natasha exercised on her Hart Walker, mounted on a treadmill.
After 18 days and nights, the crew spotted land, the hills at the north of St Lucia after nearly 3,000 miles of nothing but empty ocean.
Natasha was on the wheel to sail the boat round the final headland and upwind to cross the finish line.
A crew photo taken at the finish of a transatlantic crossing captures a joyous moment; this one also speaks for the fathomless devotion of two parents.
‘To think of everything that we’ve gone through since Natasha was born, and when I think of everything that was told to us that wouldn’t be possible…’ says Amanda.
‘Tash did amazingly. She loved being on the ocean. To see her sail, actually controlling a boat like this, is just phenomenal. We just feel so, so lucky and so proud of her.’
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Since crossing the Atlantic the Lamberts have been cruising among the Windward Islands. It hasn’t been easy.
In some places it’s impossible to get Natasha ashore. Where it is do-able, it takes two dinghy trips for Natasha and her wheelchair.
Shore runs are carefully timed if there are no accessible bathrooms. Everyday chores are more numerous and time-consuming.
‘Getting food, getting money and planning the day takes a lot of time, and what’s possible for most people is not for Natasha so we have to think about it and have a look first,’ Amanda says.
‘But our life has always been a challenge and at least this is a challenge with an amazing experience.’
Other cruising crews they have met are helping out.
Two other families they met on the ARC have been cruising in company with them through the Grenadines.
There have been up to 14 people to help with dinghy trips, lifting and carrying, and to share out some of the help the Lamberts need.
Natasha has begun thinking about sailing beyond the Caribbean.
She has been listening hungrily to voyages other crews are planning through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific. Her parents are more reticent.
Younger sister Rachel has to return to school. She has missed her friends. She’d like a dog. But her perspective has also changed.
‘Rachel now has got a split mind. She has thoroughly enjoyed the sailing, she’s had a go at kitesurfing and has done some diving. She’s now considering a career in sailing,’ says Amanda.
The Lamberts will head home this spring, probably shipping Blown Away back from Antigua.
Natasha is an ambassador for disabled sailing and there is work to do for her Miss Isle School of Sip and Puff Sailing, which provides affordable sailing tuition for others with physical disabilities.
This summer, the Lamberts will stay in home waters and maybe cruise around Scotland.
For Natasha, however, sailing is much more than a holiday.
She is a career adventurer. Her eyes are always on the next challenge.
Natasha Lambert is raising money for her local RNLI station on the Isle of Wight, the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust and her own Miss Isle School of Sip and Puff Sailing.
You can donate at uk.virginmoney giving.com/missisle