- by Carol Standish
An Ocean to Cross (International Marine/McGraw-Hill, 256pp, $22.95) is not your typical swashbuckling tale of the privileged or the macho against a ferocious and indifferent sea. The title is a metaphor, the protagonists are paraplegics. The year is 1978.
Liz was thrown from a horse at a field jump when she was eighteen. Not long afterward, Pete was catapulted through a car windshield. They met at the rehabilitation center near their hometown in Rhodesia and married in 1975. For the first couple of years, the young marrieds worked regular jobs, volunteered at several paraplegic organizations and competed for their country in various sports leagues including basketball, table tennis and swimming. "We had fun but what we wanted was excitement," says author, Liz.
No one in either Pete's or Liz's family could possibly have anticipated that their disabled children would choose to stir up their lives by deciding to build a sailboat and sail across the Atlantic. Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) is a completely land-locked country of veld and forest. Neither of them had ever been in a boat.
How does one make a 43 foot Fiijian ferro-cement bare hull wheel chair accessible? Dig a 50 foot hole in Liz's mother's back yard, so the deck is even with the ground, of course. The table saw was on the verandah. The boat builders moved 4 x 8 foot sheets of plywood on their laps, one facing forward, one backward. Solutions like these, to tasks that wouldn't even be recognized as problems for able-bodied boat builders, are so plentiful and so ingenious that the book reads more like a suspense thriller than an adventure story.
"We always found a way of doing a job. Sure it might take an hour to do what for the able-bodied would have taken five minutes, but it was best not to think like that…The enormous feeling of gratification from even the smallest physical achievements made us soar." says Liz.
The Fordred's physical disabilities were not their only obstacles. Materials were scarce because of international economic sanctions on Ian Smith's Rhodesia. From a rod of brass, they threaded their own bolts. From stainless plate, they hack-sawed deck parts. They bent their own railing pipe-only to have to cut the railing off the deck when an unavoidable bridge on the 1200 mile trailering route to the sea proved too low.
Money was a constant problem. They'd build a bit, get jobs for a while, then build a bit more. While fitting out in Cape Town, Liz wheeled two and half miles each way through the city streets to her law office job. Remember-no curb ramps at crosswalks in those days. Her work choices were limited by access, not only to the work-place itself but more important-to the loo.
Although they were world pioneer paraplegic sailors, the Fordreds were never able to find a sponsor. Ironically, the only newspaper willing to pay them for their story was the National Enquirer, which clearly hoped to be on the ground floor of a sensational disaster and became less interested as the sailors grew more successful.
In 1982 after a 16 month passage in their cutter Usikusiku from Cape Town, South Africa the Fordreds arrived in Fort Lauderdale with three dollars to spare. "Challenges always got my blood going," says Liz. "You couldn't go through life doing only the things you already knew how to do. After all, the first time I'd mounted a horse, I hadn't known how to do that either."