James Leavey's Corner
Three Men, One Leg And A Boat

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey
That Saturday afternoon, Andy Cassell walked down Cowes High Street to the UK Sailing Academy after joining me for a pint of beer in The Anchor, stepped on to a 23 foot Olympic yacht and placed his walking stick on the seat next to the tiller.

He was born without legs and has been getting around on artificial limbs for decades but I'd never have known until someone mentioned it. He never does.

Andy, 55, has raced 52,000 nautical miles and won many yachting events, including several at Cowes, and the World and European Disabled Championships in 1994/1995.

Last August he competed in the Paralympics in Atlanta, USA,the first time sailing has been included in this prestigious event, as helmsman and skipper of the UK's sailing team.

They returned to Cowes triumphant, having won the Gold medal for Britain.At the London Boat Show in January 1997, the three-man team was declared Yachtsmen of the Year.

"I was given a rowing boat when I was 10," said Andy, director ofthe world renowned sailmakers, Ratsey & Lapthorn in Cowes, where I first met him and the other members of the team."With my grandmother's help I fitted a sail made from an old tablecloth."

Since then he has struggled, successfully, to be accepted as a talented yachtsman in his own right. "I have never regarded myself as disabled and have always competed on level terms with the able-bodied,"he said."My greatest thrill is winning.

"Putting myself forward as a disabled sailor in the Paralympics went against all my instincts. But I wanted to show other people with disabilities what can be achieved in our sport, with a bit of skill and determination.There are 20,000 disabled people out there in Britain who could race with or against the able-bodied."

He was joined by Kevin Curtis, another multi-award winner, including gold medal at the 1992 World Disabled Sailing Championships in Barcelona, who rolled up in his designer wheelchair.

Kevin has been paralysed from the waist down since falling through a roof at the age of 17.He lives in Ipswich, where he works as an international insurance claims adjustor (non-marine), and started sailing in 1980.

Now 36, Kevin hauled himself onboard and bumshifted across a special seat in the cockpit, from starboard to port.Then started rigging the sails.

The last member of the team, Tony Downs, joined us from Abbey Wood.First the 50-year-old communications officer for Securicor removed his artificial limb to make it easier for him to get around the boat. He lost most of his left leg in a road accident in 1967.

Prior to Atlanta, the British team trained on the Solent most weekends.The afternoon we first met they spent several hours concentrating on starting tactics, crew coordination and boat speed, on board one of the only two Sonars in Britain.Chosen as the 1996 Paralympic Yacht, both were purchased in March 1996 with the aid of the The Paralympic Challenge Appeal.

"We bought them to practise on," explained Tony, who organises sailing events for the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association, "because we're on top of the world - and we want to stay there."

Of the 15 competing countries in the 1996 Paralympics, Britain's greatest threatwas Sweden's Carl Gustav Frisk,then the USA, Swiss and Spanish.In April, Andy and crew flew to Florida for a pre-Paralympics regatta, and beat the nine other competing countries in an open race.

"We usedthe regatta as a mock exam," says Tony."When we won the Gold at Atlanta, then we really got legless!"

Meanwhile, Andy Cassell is the only smoker in the team, and enjoys the occasional King Edward cigar.Does it affect his skill or abilities in any way""To put it bluntly," he replied,"No."

Copyright James Leavey, 1998.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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