8 February 2015

Natasha Lambert: An unstoppable force

Natasha Lambert is an unstoppable force – the teenager has athertoid cerebral palsy and she sails, climbs mountains and raises thousands for the RNLI.

Natasha’s condition means that she has little control of her limbs and speech. She uses a wheelchair and needs help with daily tasks. But Natasha likes to focus on what she can do. Her enthusiasm for sailing is infectious and when Natasha smiles, it’s very hard not to smile with her.

You can tell a lot about people from their friends

Natasha was nine when her parents thought she might like sailing. The family wasn’t from a sailing background, but Natasha had enjoyed an activity day out on a boat. Little did they think she’d soon be hooking up with sporting legends Dame Ellen MacArthur and Geoff Holt MBE.

Natasha sailing onboard Miss Isle
Natasha sailing onboard Miss Isle

How Natasha fell in love with sailing

The Even Keel Project in Cowes helped Natasha fall in love with life on the ocean wave. Natasha quickly became a regular at her local Sailability club (now RYA Foundation).

Soon, being a passenger wasn’t enough for Natasha. None of her family could sail but her mechanic dad, Gary Lambert, designed a special system to enable Natasha to sail. She now controls the helm and sails of her boat herself with a special sip/puff mechanism inside a helmet.

The gear

Sip and puff system

Natasha uses a straw to control the rudder and rigging
Natasha uses a straw to control the rudder and rigging

There’s a straw close to Natasha’s mouth inside the helmet. She sips and the rudder goes one way. She puffs and it goes another. She can change to autosteering at the flick of a switch controlled by her tongue. Then her sipping and puffing on the straw controls the angle of the sail.

The boat

Miss Isle Too is a 6.4m specially adapted Mini Transat. Gary Lambert fitted an emergency inflation system to the vessel. If something goes badly wrong - a mast break or a capsize - giant bags automatically inflate, creating an air pocket for Natasha.

The walker

A four-wheeled walking device called a Hart Walker supports Natasha's whole body and copes with mountain terrain.

Natasha’s first time alone on the water

Natasha was 14 when she first sailed on her own. She recalls: ‘It was just incredible. I had never ever been able to do anything on my own. I always had someone helping me. Control and freedom at last!’

Inspirational sailor

Natasha was soon making plans to push herself further, and started a series of challenges. She circumnavigated the Isle of Wight in 2012 and a year later she crossed the English Channel.

‘It was just incredible. I had never been able to do anything on my own before. Control and freedom at last!’
Natasha Lambert
on the joy of sailing

Natasha explains what motivates her to do the challenges: ‘I hope to encourage other disabled people that sailing is possible no matter what your ability. If I can do it, anyone can!’ She gets a lot out of it too: she loves meeting new people along the way and adds: ‘It makes me feel so good doing something new and being able to overcome it.’

Natasha’s also motivated by fundraising for charities close to her heart. Natasha explains why she’s inspired to raise money for the RNLI: ‘A few years ago a friend of mine was hurt on a boat in the Solent and our local lifeboat crew at Cowes saved his life and got him to hospital quickly.' She’s committed to supporting ‘all the hard-working volunteers’.

She’s gained a lot of respect in the sailing community and beyond. In January 2014 she was voted Yachting Journalists' Association Young Sailor of the Year. And when she was just 15, the RNLI gave her a supporter award for her fundraising (see video below).

Biggest challenge yet – Sea and Summit

On her epic Sea and Summit Challenge, she spent a month sailing 430 miles around the south west coast of England to Wales before swapping her boat for her special walking aid, to climb Pen Y Fan, the highest peak in southern Britain.

Natasha embarked on the expedition on 24 July 2014, setting off from her hometown of Cowes, Isle of Wight. Dame Ellen McArthur and Geoff Holt MBE saw her off.

‘I hope to encourage more people with different abilities to take up sailing as it is a fantastic sport for everyone.’
Natasha Lambert
Adventurer

The 12-leg sailing challenge and the climb took a month to complete and Natasha made lots of friends along the way. Her coach, Phil Devereux, kept her company at sea, making sure the navigation was on track and giving Natasha food and water. Natasha sailed the whole way.

As well as raising money for the RNLI, Natasha supported the RYA Foundation and Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust. These two charities were chosen carefully. She wants others to benefit from sailing, to feel how she feels when out on the water: ‘I hope to encourage more people with different abilities to take up sailing as it is a fantastic sport for everyone.’ She beat her fundraising target of £15,000.

Not all plain sailing

The Sea and Summit challenge was the most sailing Natasha’s ever done. The heat was intense, she suffered seasickness and sitting in one position for long stretches left her ‘stiff and aching’.

During her sail she encountered sailing conditions that would have challenged experienced sailors, including rounding the infamous headland of Land's End. Of choppy waters from Padstow to Appledore she recalls: ‘It was quite odd at first seeing my safety RIB disappear in the troughs out of sight, then reappear at the top of the troughs. Once I got used to it, I enjoyed it!’

Travelling is a challenge in itself for Natasha. Disabled facilities varied greatly on the Sea and Summit trip: ‘some OK and some terrible’. Natasha wasn’t going to let any of this stop her: ‘I guess it’s all part of the adventure!’

Up the mountain, her walking and running fitness training paid off and she completed the challenge in style.

Keeping Natasha safe

Natasha and her team plan and practise safety procedures often – more than most. She also did running and walking training to get fit for the challenge. The safety boat, with her dad on board, is never far away, with lots of spares and tools. The automatic inflation system on the converted Miss Isle Too will create an air pocket if the boat capsizes and Gary is a safety diver. Before the challenge Natasha visited RNLI College in Poole and had sea survival and rescue training.

Natasha has sea survival training at RNLI CollegePhoto: Nathan Williams
Natasha has sea survival training at RNLI College

Natasha has a healthy attitude towards the ocean: ‘I do respect the sea and know how quickly weather can change and that it can be a very dangerous place, but I feel confident that my team and I are very careful and do the best we can so sailing can be safe and fun.’

Natasha’s mum and sister, Amanda and Rachel, aren’t the type to stay at home either. Both give Natasha a huge amount of support and Natasha describes Rachel as ‘my little sis and best friend’.

What the future holds

Natasha’s busy enjoying life and attending awards ceremonies – at the end of 2014 she won the Pride of Sport Charity Challenge of the Year award.

Natasha with Geoff Holt
Natasha with Geoff Holt

Like the rest of us, Geoff Holt wonders what Natasha will do next: ‘I hope Natasha gives more thought to competitive sailing. While she is no doubt thinking of bigger adventures, I think she could be equally inspiring by competing against others in the Paralympic sailing events – she has the skill to do that.’

Read more about Natasha and support her Sea and Summit Challenge appeal on her own Miss Isle website.