One Week on The Lord Nelson

by Alvan Yap

All rigged up on board the Lord Nelson (photo by DPA)

All rigged up on board the Lord Nelson (photo by Alvan/DPA)

Twelve Singaporeans, including people with disabilities and their non-disabled friends and family, embarked on an unique 7-day-6-night adventure at sea from 29 May to 3 June 2013. (Find out more about the Lord Nelson’s mission here.)

A Chat With Crew Member Shi Yi
Among them was Ong Shi Yi, one of the Singaporean crew members on the Lord Nelson, who has kindly granted DPA an interview.

Shi Yi has severe-profound hearing loss in both ears. She is currently an Executive (Workplace Diversity Management) with the Singapore National Employers Federation.

In the interview, Shi Yi will tell us more about her adventure on “Nelly” (the nickname of the Lord Nelson) on which she sailed to Tioman Island, what it was like in a typical day of a sailor, how the Lord Nelson is barrier-free, and her post-voyage understanding and thoughts of what truly inclusive means and what it involves.

All Hands On Deck
For Shi Yi and the others with disabilities who signed up for the voyage, they were there not as passengers on a cruise, but as full-fledged, working crew members. Everyone was assigned duties accordingly to their abilities and expected to do their part on par with the permanent crew.

Shi Yi says, “It was definitely an eye opener to see both disabled and non-disabled crew working together on board. No one ever looked at us, the disabled crew, with a discriminatory eye. It was like a home away from home; everyone had to do their part to sail the ship.”

Duties Galore!
“We all had to do mess duty (in the kitchen such as chopping food, washing dishes, serving food, setting the table, refilling water dispensers, etc), happy hour duty (which means cleaning of toilets, walls, floor, etc – practically the entire ship) and watch duty (taking up positions at the top deck to  watch out for oncoming vessels that might get in the way of Nelly, and informing the Captain or First Mate who would then recalculate the speed course and steer the ship away from the obstacles).”

Joseph, a blind crew member, hard at work in the kitchen (photo by Lord Nelson crew)

Joseph, a blind crew member, hard at work in the kitchen (photo by crew)

“Each of us had to take turns at the ship’s steering wheel too, taking instructions from the Captain or First Mate who would tell us the speed we need to set Nelly by. It is a round-the-clock, 24-hour daily task, and we all had to work shifts ranging from two to four hours, with each watch group headed by a watch leader.”

“And of course, everyone had to help pull the sails up the mast to catch the wind whenever it started blowing in our favour.”

“No one is ever excluded from duties and activities. This gives us the feeling of being independent and that we all can contribute regardless of our disabilities.”

The Novice And The Novel
“Before I stepped on board Nelly, I had totally no sailing experience at all. It was awesome to be able to learn and try out basic square-rigging sailing techniques, and steering the wheel, and pulling the mast to roll and unroll the sail whenever there are winds.”

“Pulling the rope to bring the sails up the mast is very challenging, and a good way to build up your arm muscles. We fall into a rhythm of ‘2, 6, heave! 2, 6, heave!’ and ‘let go!’. The work of the pulling is done by two sections: the first section consists of those pulling down the rope, and the second section is the horizontal-wise pulling by as many people as possible to tighten the rope before it is hooked and secured.”

“It was definitely tough work, working under the sun and (even heavy rain for a few hours) all day, but it felt good sailing to Tioman Island instead of flying over. It was a novel way to get there too! I am the type who prefers hard work to reach my destination; it gives me a sense of achievement.

“Once, there were strong winds, and for the first time, I saw Nelly in full mast, with all her sails unfurled. It lasted for a while before we had to roll up the sails when the wind stopped. However, that brief moment was spectacular. Nelly really is a beauty in full mast.”

Nelly not at full mast. (photo courtesy of Shi Yi)

Nelly not at full mast. (photo courtesy of Shi Yi)

Channeling The Spirit Of ‘Life Of Pi’
“I love the feeling of freedom and independence out on the open sea, where I get to enjoy the fresh air in the morning, watch dolphins playing from afar, gaze at gorgeous sunrises and sunsets and a dazzling galaxy of stars at night. These are sights I won’t ever see in Singapore.”

“And oh, I grew to love the feeling of ceaseless rocking of the ship – at times gentle, at times very choppy to the extent that two female Singaporean crew got slightly giddy and nauseous (though I wasn’t affected). But choppy or not, it had a tranquilising effect on me. We swayed as we walked on the deck, swayed as we showered, swayed as we go up and down stairs, swayed as we slept! When I disembarked from VivoCity port at the end of the voyage, I kept getting the feeling the ground beneath me was swaying still.”

“Last but not least, I spotted a huge shark! What a thrill!”

Of Accents And Communication
It was not all smooth sailing of course (and pardon the pun). Nothing ever is.

“The biggest challenge,” Shi Yi says, “was actually understanding the UK crew. British accents are harder to understand for me, let alone lip reading. I am more used to Asian and American accents. There was no written text flashing each time there was an announcement onboard, so I had to try and understand – by straining to hear and lipread at the same time – my buddy (who is an UK citizen).”

“It was not easy, but the other UK crew also helped interpret the announcements for me. I really appreciate their patience in translating for me and preventing any miscommunication.”

Jovin being hoisted up to the mast.

Jovin using his own muscle power to pull himself up the mast. (photo by Shi Yi)

No Barriers, Please. We’re On Nelly.
Shi Yi elaborates on how Nelly is barrier-free both in terms of both mindsets and facilities. Or, as we love to say in Singapore, in both heartware and hardware. Let Shi Yi play tour guide to the special facilities for people with disabilities on the Lord Nelson.

“Every part of the ship is accessible and barrier-free except the kitchen storage area where all food is stocked – there are only stairs to it. But otherwise, all parts of the upper deck and watch deck are totally accessible, with wheelchair lifts and rope-and-pulley systems for wheelchair users and those with other types of mobility disabilities.”

“There is also a raised wooden strip along the middle of the ship floor (upper deck) and string ‘railings’ for the blind to navigate by.” (This is similar to the raised tactile surface on MRT platforms.)

“We sleep in cabins with double-decker bunks. Wheelchair users get the bottom bunk and also the use of the bigger-sized deluxe cabins, so that they have space for their wheelchairs. Others, like me, usually get the upper bunk, using ropes on either sides to heave ourselves up. Toilets and showers are, of course, fully accessible.”

“There is a system of pulleys and ropes for wheelchair users on Nelly. We have separate pulleys specifically for hoisting wheelchairs up to second platform of the mast – just to let them admire the view from up high; this is also how everyone, including the wheelchair using crew, is able to get up to the mast or up on the mast platform for a bird’s eye view. The pulleys and ropes are also used to hoist wheelchair users or mobility-impaired crew from Nelly to the dinghy to reach land at places where the ship can’t drop anchor beside the jetty due to shallow waters.”

Jim, a visually-impaired crew, climbs up to the mast alongside a sighted crew mate. (photo by Lord Nelson crew)

Jim, a visually-impaired crew, climbs up to the mast alongside a sighted crew mate. (photo by crew)

“As for the blind crew, they simply climb up the netting and ladders, secured by an extra rope to their climbing gear, and guided by a sighted crew who climbs alongside them and give verbal instructions.”

“For the deaf who use hearing aids, there is a built-in induction loop on the ship. But because induction loops are rare in Singapore, I haven’t tried it and my hearing aids are not set to do so. Though I couldn’t understand announcements over the loudspeaker, the fire alarm was so loud that I had no problem hearing it.”

“For the crew who are visually impaired, they use the audio compass as well as verbal instructions to help with steering. To get around the ship, they depend on their senses of touch and hearing, and sheer memory power – they memorise the entire layout of the various sections of Nelly.”

“One interesting device is the mini lift for moving trays of food and dishes from the kitchen to the upper deck, instead of having the crew manually carrying many dishes up and down the stairs. This makes it easier for wheelchair-using and blind crew to serve meals, thus enabling them to do mess duty. It even has an audio alert for the blind to know the lift has reached the deck.”

“Where necessary, we use a buddy system where a disabled crew is paired with a non-disabled one, or even disabled-disabled pairings, such that everyone can help accommodate one another’s disabilities, and no one is left out, or left behind. There is no concept of ‘cannot do’ among the crew, only the focus on what we can do, and implementing measures to overcome what we physically cannot do.”

On Tioman Island. Because of the road conditions, it was difficult for wheelchair users to wheel themselves along, so they were paired up with a partner to help them along. (photo by Lord Nelson crew)

On Tioman Island. Because of the road conditions, it was difficult for wheelchair users to wheel themselves along, so they were paired up with a partner to help them along. (photo by Shi Yi)

Disabled Sailors? Keep Calm And Carry On.
Here, Shi Yi reflects on her experience and how it has changed her perception and outlook on life in general and her notion of ‘disability’.

“It has been an unforgettable experience for me. Everyone on board Nelly were one big family, sharing and bantering and chattering freely. At sea, our team spirit and camaraderie was really one of a kind; we regard one another as fellow human beings first and foremost. We did not let notions of disability and nationality get in our way, quite a stark contrast how things can be back on land in Singapore.”

“To Nelly (as a crew mate, KaLai Lao, puts it and which I totally agree with): ‘A ship is safe in a harbour, but that is not what ships are built for.’ So, continue to sail to wherever the tides and winds take you, and continue to spread the message of inclusion and overcoming disability all over the world!”

“I am deeply grateful to London Offshore Consultants (LOC) and (Singapore LOC director) Nicholas White for sponsoring me and giving me an adventure of a lifetime. Otherwise, I would never have realised that it is possible for me to work on a tall ship! I am also thankful for a chance to work with other disabled crew, to learn about and understand their disabilities better. At the same time, I am happy to be able to interact with crew from all over the world.”

“I hope that more companies will follow in LOC’s footsteps and support and give chances to people with disabilities. I also wish that society at large will accept those with disabilities and realise that being disabled doesn’t mean that you are limited in your ability to work.”

“Lord Nelson is a very meaningful project. Sailing the Lord Nelson is a wonderful example of inclusion, and of how everyone can come and work together to tackle a difficult challenge successfully, regardless of one’s disability.”

And in Shi Yi’s parting words is a rallying cry: “I wish to tell all people with disabilities: Let’s aim high and seek to go far. The sea is our oyster and the sky is our limit!”

At the homecoming ceremony hosted by LOC (photo by DPA)

At the homecoming ceremony hosted by LOC (photo by Alvan/DPA)


DPA would like to thank Shi Yi for sharing her time, thoughts and photos so generously. May favourable winds always be at her back and may she continue to sail on smoothly through the travails of life! We also appreciate the use of the crew’s photos – thank you.


  1. I was so impressed reading your report and you describe life on Nelly so very well. As you know the ethos of JST is ‘Changing lives’ and it certainly seems to have achieved this with you. I was on the previous leg from Kochi to Singapore and was hoping to come down to VivoCity on the day you joined as I had sponsored 2 of your Singaporean colleagues but do not know who they were. I just loved Singapore and was so impressed with the great friendliness of all we met. Good luck with everything. Yours aye. David Horton

  2. Ahoy, David! I am glad that you were impressed with my first-hand account interviewed by Mr Alvan from DPA. He wrote so well that I felt like I am back on Nelly again..*wistful* Yes, Nelly has certainly changed my life in a way (I hope that she had changed yours too in a positive way). I also hope that Nelly would continue to change others’ lives. By the way, have we met on that day when Nelly docked at Vivocity? I vaguely remembered meeting a certain Mr David on that day, but I wasn’t sure if it was you? If it was you, then I am certainly glad to have met you & many thanks for your sponsorship on behalf of my Singaporean fellows! Glad to know that you are impressed with my homeland 🙂 I wish you all the best too! Yours aye, Shi Yi

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