In 2018 I heard about a group of people called Yes Tribe, whose philosophy in life is to “Say Yes more!” Started by intrepid adventurer Dave Cornthwaite, the group’s aim is to make life an adventure in ways both big and small. It was through their Facebook group that I heard about a writing project being organised and edited by Jon Doolan to create a book to raise funds for the Teddington Trust. The idea was to have people contribute 5000 words each talking about their adventures and self publish with all proceeds going to the charity. Below are my 5000 words as they appear in the book.
Facebook: The Yes Tribe
Rite of Passage
by Paul Betney
I’ve always loved the sea and tall ships. Both have always seemed to me to be living things with a dignity and a majesty that has inspired me for as long as I can remember. When the opportunity came to sail across the Atlantic I knew that I would say Yes.
It was a big Yes though. While I have my fair share of experience, there was another factor that I had to consider before I could embark on my longest and most testing journey yet:
I’ve had Parkinson’s for about 26 years now. Very briefly put, it’s a group of cells in the brain that are dying off prematurely. The loss of those cells reduces the brain’s ability to create Dopamine and it’s the lack of Dopamine that produces the symptoms that, combined, we call Parkinson’s.
There are over 40 symptoms associated with the disease. Personally, my symptoms include tremor, fatigue, anxiety, depression, balance issues, memory issues, cognitive issues, disturbed sleep patterns and vivid dreams that I really should turn into films. The list goes on… It started when I was about 24 and by my early 30s I couldn’t pick up a glass of water and drink without spilling most of it.
That situation was turned around dramatically in 2007 when I got a new consultant and new medication that calmed down the symptoms considerably. The medication is not a cure, it is only mitigating the symptoms for now. Parkinson’s is both chronic and degenerative, so sooner or later the drugs will lose their efficacy and I’ll have to look at other options. Even now with the medication, at times of heightened emotions, the tremor will still come back. But while the meds last, it’s a window of opportunity that I have no intention of missing.
My 26 years so far with Parkinson’s have been an emotional and complex journey, but I’ve never taken having the disease personally. I don’t see it as a sentient being that’s out to get me. I see it simply as a biological cock-up.
I don’t think that God and the Universe sat down at a board meeting and when they got to the “B’s” on the list said, ‘Right, this Betney fella, we need to stitch him up right proper!’ (Why God would be a cockney, I don’t know…). It’s one of those things. It happens and I don’t intend to waste time wondering why it happened to me.
Since 2007 I’d experience sailing on couple of square riggers and I’d taken part in the Tall Ships Races, but the transatlantic would be by far my longest and most challenging voyage to date. I knew how hard keeping to a watch system could be and the fatigue and other symptoms of PD had to be seriously considered. I was also joining the ship as a watch leader, so people would be relying on me to keep things running smoothly and safely.
To keep things really interesting, we would also be making the passage in winter. The ship, the TS Pelican of London (or “Peli” as she’s affectionately known) had been on her way to the Antarctic, but that destination had been cancelled when she was mid Atlantic. She had diverted to the Caribbean and spent the first half of the winter in Barbados. Now she was in St Lucia, but it was important that she was back in the UK soon, so regardless of the weather, the trip was set for February through March.
The flight out to St Lucia was the first challenge. It was exhausting, not least because of my inability to control my tremor. I’m not afraid of flying. What I struggle with is having to stay seated for prolonged periods of time in situations where my personal space is dramatically reduced. It produces anxiety which triggers the tremor and the two will happily feed off each other in a nasty downward spiral.
By the time we touched down, I was shattered. So, I did the only sensible thing. I headed straight for the pub. When I arrived, most of the crew were already propping up the bar. There was some catching up to be done and beer to be drunk. I wanted to put the whole flight experience behind me.
Sitting at the bar, I could see the ship at anchor out in Rodney Bay. With the setting sun behind her, she was a majestic sight. The air was warm, the beer cold. We were in the Caribbean and life was good!
As can occasionally happen in these situations, one beer led to another and it ended up in the small wee hours with just myself and one crewmate left standing. So, we called a water taxi and headed out into the bay. When Peli finally emerged from the dark, the pilot ladder was up and the ship was asleep.
The Captain of the water taxi asked me how we were going to get aboard, to which I replied, “Somali pirate style I think.” He put the nose of his boat to Peli’s hull and we made a jump for the rail. As I was clambering up the side of the ship, I heard him click his outboard into reverse. I looked down just in time to see his bows slipping away below me. Fortunately, I found my footing and with one last heave I fell over the rail onto the deck. I was finally on board!
As it turned out, putting the flight behind me wasn’t going to be that easy. The hangover was cruel in all its forms; the alcohol, the emotions, the physical and mental distress of the journey, all combined to make for a couple of really bad Parkinson’s days. For most of the next day the shaking was very evident and a self-perpetuating spiral of embarrassment and shaking was not helping me to recover.
I had friends on board and was quickly getting to know the people I’d never met before, but I was still deeply self-conscious. I picked up that my friends were explaining things in the background, which meant that I didn’t have to go through ‘that’ conversation a dozen times, which was really good of them. But, I began to realise that it was important that I talked about it too, not for anybody else’s benefit, but for my own. It was really important that I was taking ownership of this situation and taking part in those conversations. As soon as I did, I felt a lot better.
I still had doubts though. The worst was a fear that living with Parkinson’s had ingrained deeply in me over the years. It was a simple fear: was I going to be up to this or would I just be making a fool of myself? There was really only one way to find out. A day and a half after I’d arrived, we lifted the anchor and slipped out of the bay headed for Bermuda.
There were three watches, each named after a mast: Fore, Main and Mizzen. I ran Fore Watch and for the run up to Bermuda, I only had four people with me, Becca, Kerry, David and Ben, so there was certainly plenty to keep us busy. Fortunately, they were a lovely bunch. We all worked really well together.
The shaking was still bad though, in part because I was having trouble adjusting to the watch system.
There are various watch systems which dictate the amount of time spent on and off watch. On the passage to Bermuda we were doing something that I had never come across before; we were doing three hours on and six off. The time on watch went by very quickly, but the six hours off wasn’t giving me enough time to rest. By the time I’d eaten and done all the other business of the ship I was getting very little sleep.
One of the things I’ve always loved about the great square rigged tall ships is climbing the masts and working out on the yards. High above the deck it’s a view and a feeling that few will ever experience. It’s like flying in a dream. The ever-changing face of the ocean unfolds it’s shifting patterns of light and shade beneath you as high wave crests roll down into deep troughs. It has always filled me with awe.
I prefer to be up there alone or only with people who know me well. If the tremor kicks in it can make the unsuspecting nervous and that’s never good when working at height, especially when you’re all standing on the same foot rope.
Shortly after we left St Lucia, I climbed the mast, but found myself unable to go out onto the yard, because of the tremor. I sat in the crosstrees for a long time, trying to soak up this feeling that I love so much and talking with the ship’s Bosun, Jezz. I was hoping that maybe I was just having a bad day, so the next day I climbed again, but it was the same story. I began to wonder if I would even go out there alone and a growing sense of mourning began to creep over me that my time climbing the mast at sea might be coming to an end.
Although I felt bad about not going aloft, I was growing in confidence with running operations from the deck. I knew I was doing well because I was being given more responsibility all the time. I was a bit reticent at first but encouraged by the permanent crew, I started taking charge of major sail changes and it felt great! I also finally figured out that, unused to the three on six off watch system, I had been under medicating myself, which was a huge relief. Finally, at long last, the tremor started to calm down. Looking back now, taking the right level of medication certainly played a key role in that, but I think that my growing appreciation of being valued as a member of the crew, of making a significant contribution, really enabled me to relax. I started to lay those fears of being inadequate aside and I believe that being appreciated and respected was vitally important to breaking that self-perpetuating anxiety/shaking spiral.
As we headed up into the Atlantic, the weather turned. We had four days of force 7’s, 8’s and 9’s, and heels of up to 55 degrees with the wind driving merciless rain and huge swells. It was our first test, but no one got sick and everyone performed well. It was a very promising start. Shortly after the weather broke, we crossed into the Bermuda Triangle. I’m not sure what I thought I was expecting, maybe I thought the water would change colour. But it looked just like the rest of the ocean. We crossed without seeing a single alien spaceship, no tear in the fabric of the time and space and made Bermuda without incident.
Once alongside we spent a few days exploring this beautiful island paradise and chilling out. Due to a family emergency our original Captain, Mike, had to fly home, but our new Captain, Chris, arrived quickly, preceded by a fearsome reputation! He had been at sea all his life, captained tall ships across the globe and was known for pressing ships and crews hard. He sounded awesome!
The members of my watch had also changed and I was down to three people now, four including myself. The new Fore Watch consisted of Becca, Siobhan and Dan and if I thought the original Fore watch were good, these guys turned out to be legends! We didn’t know it, but we were about to go through a baptism of fire that would bind us together as friends forever. As we pointed our bows into the North Atlantic and left Bermuda in our wake, the sunshine seemed to dim and the sky darkened. We were on our way and there was no turning back.
The bad weather came soon and it came hard. Between Bermuda and our next landfall in the Azores the wind rarely dropped below 50kts. On the Beaufort scale that’s a Force 11, which is a “Violent Storm”. The run up to Bermuda had given us a taste of what to expect, but the Atlantic was relentless. When you’re living on an angle of 50 degrees and constantly being thrown around, everything becomes hard work. Making a cup of coffee is hard work, to the extent that you think twice or even three times about if it’s really worth it. Getting dressed, washing, eating, doing the dishes, standing, sitting, going to bed, getting up, even sleeping, all becomes an immense effort. Then the fatigue starts to set in and the close proximity to other people can become an issue.
I don’t know how long we’d been out there for, but it was early in that main crossing when I felt a meltdown coming on. The weather had been bad for days. Captain Chris had put us back onto four-on, eight-off watches and had declared that Sunday’s would be a day off. That was great news for me, but my body was still adjusting and so was my medication. I was exhausted and I could feel myself heading towards an outburst that I didn’t want to have and that nobody around me should have to put up with. All of the doubts, fears and anxieties I had about the trip seemed to be on the verge of erupting. I needed the one thing that it is most hard to find on a ship; I needed some space and some time to myself. So, when the jibs needed stowing on the bowsprit I jumped at the chance.
The bowsprit is a place many people love. With the safety netting slung beneath it, on sunny days it’s a great place to sleep in the sunshine or to watch dolphins play beneath you and from the far end it’s a perfect place to take photos of the ships bows cutting though the water. But this was not a sunny day. Today the ship was pitching heavily on steep waves. I told my watch that I would do the job by myself, clipped onto the safety line and stepped out over the bows onto the footrope under the boom. As I worked my way up the bowsprit I looked down. As we topped the waves the surface of the ocean seemed to be 50 or more feet away and as we hit the trough I felt the ocean press on my legs as the water came up to my knees. I didn’t care though, because I was alone. I had space, I could think. As I lashed the sail to the jackstay I remember thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing out here! This is madness!’
As I felt the water on my legs again and the coarse material of the sail in my hands, I knew the answer. I had always known the answer, I guess I’d just needed to ask the question.
I was there because I love it. I was there because there was nowhere else that I would rather be. I had chosen to be here and that was the first time that I consciously thought, ‘I choose to give myself to this situation.’ I wasn’t surrendering to forces beyond my control, I was making a conscious decision to take responsibility for my circumstances and choosing how I would face the situation. I was taking control.
Pulling myself back along the bowsprit I felt a huge sense of relief, like a weight had been lifted. I realised how much pressure I had been putting myself under. Although it would be some time before I made the connection, that moment saved the trip for me and would change the way I viewed my life, and especially Parkinson’s role in it, forever. I was present, I was here. I may not be able to climb, but I could still contribute a lot.
I love helming and I like to think of myself as a competent helmsman. In the conditions which we were facing that belief had been put to the test and those skills had been sharpened. Sometimes, when I was on the helm, I would be struck by a sudden realisation of what I was doing. I was helming a tall ship, under sail, through a storm in the Atlantic Ocean and I would be filled with euphoria. Peli’s helm is a hydraulic system and there is no kick back from the waves on the rudder up through the wheel, but the connection to the water and the ship filled me every time. Even though I knew the wheel would not turn if I took my hands off it I always liked to keep a hand in place, to keep my fingers in contact with the smooth wood and so that in the appalling weather the ship would know that I had not left her.
Shortly after the bowsprit moment I had a truly beautiful day. It began with a sunrise of orange, red and gold fire. It was like no other I had ever seen. It made me feel humble, privileged and in the cold Atlantic, it warmed my soul. Then Mick, the first officer asked me if I was up for a climb. He knew the problems that I had been having, but the work had to be done and couldn’t wait. Fortunately, the timing was perfect. After all of my doubts over climbing and my ability to perform aloft with Parkinson’s, right there and then I felt in exactly the right place to go for it. I knew that today I would be fine. I headed up the shrouds to the course yard. The course yard is the lowest yard, but also the longest and the sail that hangs from it is one of the largest on the ship. I had to prep it for setting and as I untied the gaskets and looped them back onto the jack stay, I took a moment to enjoy the fact that I was working aloft, leaning over a yard with nothing else but a footrope between me and the ocean, sailing into a glorious day.
I was cooking inside my wet weather gear by the time I had finished, but I didn’t care, I was so happy. If I hadn’t worked aloft in some capacity, I know that I would always have secretly, deep down, felt like a passenger. Now I actually felt like I was earning my anchor.
It is amazing what you can get used to, how your body and mind can adjust to make the most difficult of circumstances the norm. One of the main things that keeps you going is your shipmates and the laughter. As hard as mealtimes became, they were always fun and brought us together. Peter, our cook, and Lynn his partner and assistant in the galley, kept us amazingly well fed. The crew were always trying to find innovative ways of supporting their plates or bowls against the heel of the ship under sail. But, inevitably food flew through the air and sometimes I ended up wearing more than I ate. I caught plates regularly, was covered in cake and semolina, had pineapple in my boot and slid down a bench whilst putting jam on a piece of toast. Trying to get mugs of tea and coffee from the galley to the helm while they were still hot and before they tasted of salt became a good game. There were plenty of spillages and I joked that Parkinson’s must be catching.
Routine maintenance tasks helped too. The somewhat ironically named “Happy Hour” when the ship is cleaned wasn’t always popular, but with the right music and a lot of banter, it became a highlight!
You can never settle completely though. When Jezz started adding extra lines to brace the course yard and extra lines to strengthen the sheets on the topsails, I knew that something big was expected on the weather front.
We had been on the midnight watch. It was about 3am when the line squall hit.
The helm on Peli is exposed to the elements, so we knew what had happened as soon as it hit us. In already poor conditions, the night came suddenly and violently alive. The wind speed went through the roof and the wind direction veered by about 50 degrees. My brain registered the danger, but my body had no chance to catch up before the wind caught the spanker sail on the wrong side and it crash jibed. The boom that secures the bottom of the sail is as thick as a man’s thigh, but it snapped like a twig directly above our heads. Even over the howling wind, it sounded like a shotgun going off next to my ear. In the darkness and driving rain I could just make out one end of the splintered boom swinging around wildly, still attached to the clew of the flogging sail.
I immediately took over the helm and told my watch to get clear and to wake the Captain. I tried to keep control while staying as low as I could, all the time waiting for a huge piece of wood to come flying out of the darkness and smash me into oblivion.
In the darkness I caught sight of Becca, Siobhan and Dan, crouched down low making their way back toward the helm. Jezz was with them, Yazz, the Bosun’s Mate, and the Captain was there too. I’d like to say that I didn’t panic, but that doesn’t sound right. I simply felt numb and that left no room for anything else. I knew these people and I knew that they would sort it out. My job was to look after the helm. While they worked, the line squall continued to rage around us. Everyone was a hero that night and I am so proud to know each and every one of them and to call them all my friends. By the time the line squall had blown through and order had been restored I had been on the helm for an hour and I was exhausted. I realised that I was over steering and asked to be relieved. Miraculously, there were no serious casualties. Everyone was, physically at least, untouched. After the Captain had debriefed us in the mess, I went to my bunk and didn’t even have the energy to undress. I lay down and the next thing I remembered was being woken for my next watch.
After losing the spanker boom, the rest of the crew decided to re-christen Fore Watch as the Wrecking Crew. Our reputation as destroyers of the ship was secured. The thing that seems odd to me now is that such a dramatic event seemed to have such little effect on me. I guess that to realise something about yourself you have to be able to think, but my brain had gone straight to auto pilot. The one thing that I did notice though, was that at a time when I would have expected them to be at their worst, my Parkinson’s symptoms were nowhere to be seen.
It wasn’t too long after that that we arrived in the Azores, a beautiful chain of volcanic islands. It was a gorgeous sunny day and the view from our berth was breath taking. It felt great to be alive having completed the main passage in such challenging conditions and we were all looking forward to some rest, a few beers and a couple of days exploring the island.
While most of the crew went ashore, I was happy to stay on board for the first day and help Jezz with the repairs. Jezz is a good friend and I’d seen surprisingly little of him on the voyage so far, so it was good to catch up while the ship was quiet. After a rewarding day, Jezz and I headed into the town and found some excellent steaks, had a couple of beers and met up with everyone a few hours later. Feeling very merry and very happy I returned to the ship for a couple of hours sleep before I had to be up for an hour of harbour watch.
When I came up on deck, it was very obvious that the weather had picked up dramatically. The ship was moving in a see-sawing motion against the quayside and the Captain was on deck. He told me to wake him if ‘another’ mooring line snapped and that if that happened, we’d be heading to anchor. About 5 minutes after he had retired for the night we lost another line and by the time I had roused him and got back on deck, another one had gone. In all, we lost four mooring lines.
All hands were called and we left the quayside to head out to the small anchorage just outside the mouth of the harbour. Once the anchor was down, I grabbed a couple of hours sleep only to wake to the news that the anchor had dragged in the night. At that point we were holding station using the engine. We couldn’t go back alongside and a commercial gas tanker was due to take our spot in the anchorage. We had no choice other than to say a premature farewell to Horta and head out into a force 10.
It was not the news anybody wanted to hear. In all, we had spent 16 hours in Horta. The next stop would be Falmouth and that seemed like a lifetime away. Through it all though, that love for what I was doing, that choice to be there, kept me going. It also kept the worst effects of Parkinson’s at bay, because I wasn’t fighting it anymore. Slowly but surely, just like the weather, I was accepting it as a reality and that was giving me control over how I handled it.
The weather continued to test both the crew and the ship. For the majority of the Azores to Falmouth leg we saw mostly Force 9, strong/severe gales. The rain fell so hard it would sting my face when it hit. We would wrap up against the cold, but when we had to brace the yards or ware ship we would sweat with the physical effort. Fatigue became more and more of a factor. Sails tore, halliards were lost, the course brace broke, the list of damage grew. We knew we were getting close to the UK when the temperature began to drop, the rain drops became bigger and the squalls and gales started to bring in sleet and hail.
When we finally came into Falmouth harbour it hardly seemed real. There was no space on the quayside, so we had to tie up to a buoy in the harbour, but no one cared. We had crossed an ocean! We had 24 hours ashore to rest and relax before we set off on the final short leg, an easy run along the coast to Weymouth.
We left Falmouth the next day hungover and full of steak. We were on the engine, the sea was flat and calm with only the lightest of breezes. Someone joked that it was “too quiet”, that the English Channel was mustering its forces for one last counter attack. As it turned out, they were right.
We knew that the forecast was for strong easterly winds, but when they came, they hit with much greater severity than had been forecast. We were now faced with trying to punch through massive swells and vicious winds. When we reached Portland Bill, the combination of its fierce tides and the strong winds meant that no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t push through. So close to home, after so many trials and so much effort we were faced with an impenetrable wall. To add to our troubles, we were running out of fuel.
The decision was made to wait in the lee of the Bill and hope for a weather window. When Captain Chris made the announcement that we could be stuck here for days it was very hard to take. More delays, more watches, more wet, more cold, more fatigue. It was Horta all over again.
More than a few people had to take themselves out of that crew meeting, including myself. I’m sure my Parkinson’s tremor would have kicked in, but I was just too tired. Out on the well deck I stood looking at the long beach just a few hundred yards away. I knew that here was nothing else for it. This was how it was. I had to choose my attitude. I wasn’t going to give in. Not now, not so close to the end.
Fortunately for everyone, the weather window came much sooner than expected. The wind was expected to drop at midnight when the tide would be slack, so if we timed it right we should be able to sneak around that long finger of land and finally make our home port. We spent the evening crawling up and down the length of the Bill. Helming was difficult with the water moving so slowly over the rudder and strong gusts catching the rigging, but when midnight came we were perfectly positioned and we slipped around the narrow promontory without a hitch. In celebration of the moment we exchanged exhausted smiles, handed over our watch and very gratefully went to bed.
One last wake up call. We dock in 20 minutes!
We raced onto deck to help bring her alongside and emerged into an early morning fog. After everything we had been through, we expected nothing less. The fog soon burned off though and we slipped into a still slumbering Weymouth. By now there wasn’t enough water to flush the toilets and the generators had been shut down to save fuel. Worst of all, we had run out of milk for the tea.
As we came alongside, we were greeted by a small party of Peli’s shore-based office staff and sailors and ships officers who hadn’t been able to make the trip. They had come to welcome us home and to throw us some newly purchased mooring lines. After a loud cheer, many hugs and some tears we stepped ashore.
We were home.
It would take a long time to understand all the ways in which that trip changed me. One thing I realised quickly though, was that I liked being challenged and I wanted more of that in my life. I was also no longer afraid of making a fool of myself, whether that was fuelled by Parkinson’s or anything else. Perhaps most importantly, I had learned to take that step back and, just like on the bowsprit, to give myself to life’s difficult situations. That doesn’t mean giving in to something because I’m ‘stuck with it’. It means making a conscious decision for my own well-being to set aside fear and resentment and to bring love to it. It means taking ownership and control.
That is the power of Yes.