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My personal Everest

30th Jul 2009
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Winner of the third round of the Great Britons awards, Geoff Holt, the first disabled person to sail single-handed around Britain and a distinguished marketeer, is making a bid to be the first quadriplegic to sail across the atlantic. Dawn Smith interviewed Geoff - who is in demand as an inspirational speaker and trainer - to find out more about his inspiring outlook and remarkable career so far.

Geoff Holt sailed single-handed around Great Britain last year. He had plenty of acceptable excuses not to complete the journey, or even start it. Any sailor would be daunted by the prospect of a 1,500 mile journey, stopping at 51 destinations. But on the day he set off, in May 2007, Geoff was thrown into the water by a freak wave when another vessel 'carved him up' and he nearly drowned.

Just five days later he set off again, sailing into that lovely weather we had last year. As one of the worst summers on record rolled out its misery, few people would have blamed Geoff for packing it in. His diminutive Challenger trimaran dinghy was at times dwarfed by the rain-spattered swell, and as he sailed past the coast of Wales he can't have failed to notice that even the sheep looked depressed.

"At first I was worse off than if I'd stayed on benefits, but within two years I'd been promoted to marketing manager and my salary had quadrupled." Geoff Holt, inspirational speaker and trainer

In fact, the weather caused so many delays that Geoff was forced to re-write his passage plan and take the Caledonian Canal route around Scotland, rather than the coast. It's a recognised route, and the one taken by round-the-world yachtswoman Ellen Macarthur - but some critics considered it to be a short-cut. Geoff carried on, maintaining that "what's good enough for Ellen is good enough for me," and sailed across the finish line in Southampton Water in September 2007.

By any standards, it was an achievement. But for Geoff it was a 'Personal Everest' (the name he gave to the project) because besides all the other challenges there was also the small fact that he is paralysed from the chest down and confined to a wheelchair. When he sailed home with his support crew, he became the first disabled person to sail single-handed around our shores.

I call it a small fact because Geoff's approach to life is to continue almost as if his disability hadn't occurred, rather than letting it limit him. He was 18 when he broke his neck in a swimming accident. The resulting paralysis cut short a promising career as a professional yacht skipper. When asked why he didn't give up his aspirations on the spot, he answers: "It has something to do with not wanting to be seen as a failure. I'd just got this great job yachting in the Caribbean, and my friends looked up to me. I wasn't the sort of person who could go back to them asking for sympathy. I carried on almost as if nothing had happened."

Although his aspirations stayed the same - to have a career, a house and a family, for example - he obviously wasn't going to achieve them via the same route. He retrained in computing and got a lowly job in the marketing department at Deloitte Haskins & Sells. "At first I was worse off than if I'd stayed on benefits, but within two years I'd been promoted to marketing manager and my salary had quadrupled," he says. Geoff then got a job as regional head of marketing at Touche Ross (later Deloitte & Touche). "I was still in my twenties, paralysed from the neck down and self-taught in marketing," he laughs.

His sailing career blossomed in parallel. Before his circumnavigation of Britain, Geoff had already broken records by sailing single-handed around the Isle of Wight. He had also represented Britain in competitions abroad, and championed the cause of disabled sailing as inaugural chairman of RYA Sailability, helping to raise over £2 million for disabled sailing groups.

"You can't give up when you meet a problem. You have to be prepared to adapt your plan to achieve your objectives. You have to pick a great team, and learn to delegate"

It's been a tough road, he admits, not least because his wife - who was previously his nurse - supported him behind the scenes while holding down her own full-time job. But there was never any question of allowing his disability to hold him back. "I set my goals and I met them," he says. Now living near Winchester with his wife and their five-year-old son, he has been launched into the entirely new direction of inspirational speaking, writing and training.

"After my voyage, I did some talks, mainly travelogues," he says. "Then someone asked, 'what do you want people to take away at the end of your talk?' I decided I wanted them to see that there were some important parallels with business. For example, you can't give up when you meet a problem. You have to be prepared to adapt your plan to achieve your objectives. You have to pick a great team, and learn to delegate."

Geoff now gives training talks through Business Link, in-between other speaking and writing assignments, and also wants to develop the 'Personal Everest' idea. He has set up a social network to encourage people to share their own achievement stories and plans to set up 'Personal Everest' awards and bursaries to recognise success and inspire others to achieve their goals. The awards will be open to everyone, able bodied or disabled, and the achievements don't have to be related to sailing or even sports.

When asked about other ambitions, Geoff is cagey. "People ask me 'what next?' but I don't know, and I don't want to put my name to anything in case it doesn't happen, and people come back to me later asking why I didn’t do it." It's clear that the prospect of not doing something that he set out to do is simply an anathema. After his 'Personal Everest' voyage, HRH the Princess Royal was asked by a journalist if she was surprised that a disabled person had achieved this feat. After laughing out loud she replied: "You're asking the wrong question because I already knew Geoff. On the basis that that was something he'd decided to do, that was patently what was going to happen. So no, I wasn't surprised."

Photo Credit: OnEdition

This article was first published in February 2008. To read Geoff's article, No Excuses, click here. For more information on The Personal Everest project click here. To read about his Great Briton win click here.

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