An Ocean
To Cross

Daring the Atlantic
Claiming a New Life

Liz Fordred
(McGraw Hill)
A quarter-century ago, Liz Fordred, a passionate horseback rider, was thrown during a workout. Like Christopher Reeve, she struck her head and ended up a paraplegic with only the use of her arms, shoulders, and upper torso. She was eighteen at the time.

Shortly afterwards, she met another quadriplegic, Pete, who was to become her husband. Together, they decided to build a sailboat and travel across the Atlantic. It took them four years to build their boat. They embarked from South Africa, sailed west, and arrived sixteen months later, after many adventures, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida --- where they live to this day.

To most, it's a heart-warming story. (Kirkus called it "highly inspiring.") Two people in wheelchairs, with little financial resources, and no sailing experience, constructing a completely wheelchair-friendly ferroconcrete sailboat and --- with perseverance and a can-do attitude --- getting across the Atlantic on their own. As Liz says,

    Life is about how you respond to not only the challenges you've been dealt but the challenges you seek...To my way of thinking, success is measured not by the position you have reached in life but by the obstacles you've had to climb to reach that position. If you have no goals, no mountains to climb, your soul dies.

§     §     §

However, for those of us who have been in the crip business as long as they have, An Ocean to Cross will offer a slightly different perspective. For instance, we read descriptions of them huddling in the afterdeck --- wet, cold, sleepless --- in a hideous three-day storm off the Bahamas; or of the constant battles with seasickness (both were sick during much of the sixteen month journey); or of sleepless nights when the waves made the journey down into the lower deck to cook or eat an impossibility; or the difficulty of getting from the boat into their life raft, from that onto shore, from that into their wheelchairs --- or Liz's chore of getting herself to the "loo,"

    I worked up a sweat getting my pants down. Then I couldn't get up onto the seat! No way was I going to call for help again, this time while lying bare-bottom on the floor. Instead, I got the bedpan out of the cupboard. By the time I'd used it, emptied it, pumped out the toilet, and worked my pants back up, nausea assailed me. I retched into the toilet and pumped it some more....The worst part was knowing I'd have to repeat it in two hours or so...

After all that, we are tempted to ask: for god's sakes, why? For all of us, there are challenges, super-challenges, and impossible challenges. Their story is one of going for the impossible. But to what purpose? As Liz admits on the very last page, an admission that stopped this reviewer cold: "The ultimate irony of our venture is that after everything we put into making our dream a reality, we didn't like sailing." We didn't like sailing.

    For us each passage was something to be endured in order to reach the next destination. So, after four years of backbreaking work to make our dream a reality, we spent just sixteen months living it.

Their boat remains to this day docked where they brought it in from their long journey. They have never taken it out again.

§     §     §

Twenty years ago, the physical therapist Mary Hopkins wrote a pioneering article on suicide and the disabled. Entitled "Patterns of Self-Destruction among the Orthopedically Disabled" published in Rehabilitation Research, she came to some rather startling conclusions.

She began by quoting a 1969 study from Finland that stated that the suicide rate among the disabled is almost 40% higher than for the population as a whole. For amputees, the rate was some 300% more than the non-disabled of their age group.

She also cited a study conducted by the Veterans' hospital in Long Beach --- where it was found that the suicide rate for the spinal cord injured was close to double the figures for the population as a whole.

In addition, among the same group, she found that suicide occurred most often after five years --- rather than immediately after the accident. As explanation for this, she cited a U S Army study from 1946 in which 1,500 paraplegics were interviewed, and all of them stated that someday they would recover completely.

She opined that after a few years, we finally stumble onto the truth of our bodies. With the end of hope, comes something all of us have known: the desire to be done with it.

I suspect that what Liz and Pete Fordred did around Year Five in their new disability was to come to an agreement. The unspoken agreement was that they would kill themselves. They didn't phrase it that way; they didn't have to. Rather, one day, "we were driving down a country road when out of the blue, Pete said, 'Why don't we build a boat.'" He wasn't talking river boats --- he wanted a boat that they could sail around the world.

Now building a boat doesn't have to be all that strange until you realize that Rhodesia, the country they lived in, was --- because of governmental racial policies --- living under strict economic boycott from the rest of the world. Boats and boat parts for such a venture would be almost impossible to come by. And, just to add a certain pith to it, remember: Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) is a landlocked country. Finally, as we learn here --- sailing 8,000 miles across open ocean is no teaparty.

There's another element to this, one not mentioned by any who have reviewed this book. Pete and Liz chose to do something that not many other disabled do: they married into --- if you will pardon the expression --- the fraternity. Instead of choosing a partner from what we used to call the "normal" world, they found and committed themselves to another disabled person (both of them have roughly the same degree of impairment; they are what are known in the trade as "low quads.")

This meant that they were automatically doubling the highs and the lows that the rest of us disabled go through in our early self-training period, our early psychological growth.

Thus we have not one but two people absorbing the harsh lessons of disability: that the world is not user-friendly; that going out in it can be a pain; that disability doesn't go away; that there can be a tremendous price to survival.

Liz tells us that there was lots of laughter as they got into their project (and out to sea). When they fall down, fall out of their wheelchairs, fall out of the boat, tumble over backwards, get hung up on their bo'sun's chair, they burst into laughter. You and I can hear that laughter --- we've had a chance to experience it ourselves. But sometimes, at least for some of us, this laughter can have an element of hysteria. There are moments when the reality of our world rises up to crush us; that's when laughter turns manic. Their risibility often, to me, had that manic touch.

We also find hints that something else is going on here besides a laugh-filled challenge. When they tell Pete's father about their project, he says, "Mad in the head." The day they decide to build the boat, Liz writes, "Being confined to a wheelchair made me want to burst at times." Half-way across the Atlantic on their 8,000 mile journey, she notes in her journal,

  • October 1..."Pete's a bit crabby."
  • October 2..."Pete still grumpy."
  • October 3..."Pete still bitchy."
  • October 4..."Pete in a filthy temper."

Of course he's in a filthy temper. They have embarked on a suicide mission. But it may well slip out of their hands. After all, they are doing remarkably well. They get royally welcomed in all their landfalls. They solve most of the problems that crop up in their boat. They are halfway across the Atlantic, and they are still among the living. They might well make it. Recall what the shrinks tell us. When a person threatens suicide again and again, and then suddenly turns content and smiling: watch out. That's the dangerous point. The two of them demonstrate the contrary. When the option of destroying ourselves is taken away from us, we may well turn sour. Death decides not to seek them out. No wonder Pete is so grumpy. He will have to live with their victory.

After the two of them get to Florida, they park the Usikisiku, move off it, never sail again. They've done it. They had chosen an uncomfortable, angst-ridded, and very dangerous journey. Against all odds, they brought it off. The self-destruct they were seeking never came about. Now they can get on with living.

Shortly after the end of their journey, their daughter Jane is conceived, and arrives safely in port.

--- L. W. Milam

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