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The Vision of Sailors with disAbilities (SWD) is ‘building optimism among disabled and disadvantaged people through the medium of sailing’. In order to achieve this vision our volunteers have to be the backbone of our organisation.
No story could fit that Vision more fittingly than this account of a volunteer who credits SWD with inspiring her to overcome her own adversity. This is the incredible story of Kristi Foster, whom I met recently on my very first day working with SWD.
(Kristi aged 14, always adventurous 'typical weekend abseiling with my Dad')
When I met Kristi during the recent SWD 2017 Northern Campaign she was walking around, climbing on and off the yacht and helping rein-in some very ‘active’ 6 year old’s from Coffs Harbour Public School. As a novice ‘sailor’ she had a few quick words of wisdom for me before the crew (& myself) welcomed the students and their teachers on board the 54ft Yacht ‘Kayle’, for one of SWD’s ‘Winds of Joy’ Sails. Kristi didn’t hold back in being hands on, quickly ensuring that the child in the wheelchair was properly secured to the vessel.
Her abilities on board were awe inspiring, infact I was super impressed with all the crew, the way they treated the children and the professional manner in which the whole program flowed. Throughout that morning I continually thought ‘what an amazing organisation’. However upon later hearing Kristi’s story I was even more awe struck, so much so that I asked her if I could interview her for this story, so I will start at the beginning.
At just 21 years old, Kristi was the mother of a toddler and a newborn. While enjoying some down time with her toddler on a trampoline, a very basic movement on the trampoline resulted in Kristi landing on her back in agony.
An ambulance was called Kristi was taken to hospital where she was shocked to learn that she had broken her back and she later underwent surgery. ‘What nobody warns you about’ Kristi says ‘is that during pregnancy your ligaments relax in preparation for the birth. And it can take up to two years for the body to fully recover after birth. In my situation my children were only sixteen months apart, so this didn’t allow my ligaments to strengthen’.
(Post major back surgery)
A broken back is a significant injury, and you could be forgiven for thinking that Kristi’s story of adversity ends here, but it doesn’t.
Sixteen weeks after her back surgery, Kristi was in a car accident. This time she broke her back and neck. Again she was taken to hospital for surgery, but it was during this visit to hospital that the surgical team discovered that Kristi had developed the neurological condition Arachnoiditis. Arachnoiditis is a condition that is very rare and experts still don’t really understand how it develops but they do know that it is caused by ‘piercing of the body’ so for example surgery, lumbar punctures or any piercing of the spine. Kristi says that she had been subjected to all three things - epidural’s for both of her children’s births, (which involves the piercing of the spine for anaesthetic), as well as lumbar punctures in the past and of course previous back surgery.
Kristi was stunned to learn of this condition, and even more devastated to learn that there is no cure for Arachnoiditis, which Kristi describes as ‘Spinal MS’, as it affects the spine and the back of the brain. ‘Neurological messages get mixed up, I get phantom and real pain’ she said. But most significantly for Kristi at that point in time, it meant that the planned surgery to re-fuse the broken back and neck with metal, could not go ahead.
(With my two young sons, Matt & Mike)
Told she would have to learn to ‘live with it’, Kristi describes the following years as a ‘miserable existence’, at 23years old, with 2 very young children her husband had to quit work to become her full time carer. Kristi’s pain meant she was often bedridden for weeks, and at other times in a wheelchair or using a brace. Besides the pain that Arachnoiditis brought with it, she also had to deal with the bottom 4 vertebrae that were never able to be re-fused together, leaving her back unstable.
(this was actually the last time I was in my Wheelchair Circa 2009).
In a moment that Kristi describes as ‘synchronicity’, she had a chance meeting with the SWD crew at the wharf in Coffs Harbour. While visiting the Harbour in her wheelchair, she began talking to a crew member about her injuries and was given the advice ‘you just need to strengthen your core’. Easier said than done Kristi said to the crew member as the yacht set sail out to sea.
At that point in her life Kristi was severely depressed, but she clung to the words of the crew member about finding a way to strengthen her core.
‘At that time I was volunteering for Marine Rescue and I mentioned to some of the other volunteers that I would like the opportunity to sail. One of my fellow volunteers had a whale watching business, and she offered me the chance to sail with them. So I was wobbled on board in my brace and on crutches and I was sat cautiously in one spot and off we went.
‘I sat transfixed, staring at the ocean, and all that was going on around me, suddenly I realised that I had no pain, and it was like the proverbial rainbow was shining on me that day while I sat in that boat. It was like an answer had been handed to me.
‘The next week I called my medical team and told them that it was time to book me in for some hydrotherapy because I had a plan. I had never been offered hydrotherapy before because I was seen as ‘unfixable’ but now I had a plan to fix myself. The team were surprised, but went ahead and organised the therapy.
‘Suddenly I had a goal. It gave me a future. I had missed so much of my kid’s special life events because I had been bedridden at home or stranded at hospitals far from home. During this time I decided to do my coxswain course and my friends at the Whale Watching Business allowed me to gain logable hours on their boats. And I found that the more I did, the better I felt.
‘One year after first meeting the SWD Crew, I met them again. Only this time I walked on board their yacht, as a participant in their program. I refused to use the wheelchair and even my crutches but I still used the brace. I am what some call a ‘determined little bugger!’.
‘I found also that the more I moved the more weight I lost too, and it didn’t take long for my brace not to fit me either, and I wasn’t about to pay the almost $2000 needed for a new brace, so soon I was moving without chair, crutches or brace.
‘It took me two years to get enough logable hours for the Coxwain ticket, but I finally did it.
‘I bought my own yacht in 2011, as what I had discovered is that my pain was basically negligible while ever I was on the water. The movement of the water seems to erase the pain, although I pay for it ten times when I go back onto land. But I am willing to pay that price.
‘During this time my father had started to look really unwell, I was worried about his health as he seemed to be deteriorating quickly, losing weight and he refused to go to the doctor. In 2013 while anchored in Sydney Harbour and watching the ‘Navy Review’ my Dad turned to me and said ‘I am really proud of what you have done, I’d like to see you do a Hobart’ (meaning the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race). I laughed at him and said ‘Dad I can’t do a Hobart!’. His answer was, ‘Kristi, I really don’t know how long I’ve got and I would like to see you achieve that’. I said to him (half joking) that I would do a Hobart if he got himself to the doctor and sorted out whatever was going on with his health’ and to my surprise he answered me with ‘you have a deal’.
‘Dad kept his part of the deal and went to the doctor, he found out that he had diabetes, we had all thought he was at deaths door, but his health was completely manageable, and it certainly answered the question as to why he had lost so much weight.
‘”Bugger” I thought, because he had done that, it meant I had to come through with my Hobart.
‘I called SWD founder David Pescud and asked him if I could do a Hobart with him. David’s answer was ‘well the short answer is ‘yes’, but the long answer is ‘show me your determination’.
‘David had thrown down the gauntlet. So I had to be determined. In 2014 I began to train with the crew. I would travel down from Coffs Harbour on a Friday afternoon, train all weekend and then travel back on Sunday night, 10 hours each way on the train. I signed up for the Northern Campaign, and became fully involved, the crew didn’t sail the Hobart in 2014, so I kept training with my eye on the 2015 event.
‘In October 2015, I was part of the Sydney to Sydney (Via Lord Howe Island) record race by SWD, and I was on a high from that race. And then on December 26th 2015 I got my opportunity to sail with SWD in the Sydney to Hobart.
‘It was a rough race, there was a storm at the start that eliminated race favourites Wild Oats, as well as a number of others. I remember laying in my bunk while the winds lashed the boat and thinking, if they can’t make it what chance have we got, but I also had to give myself a little pep talk, as the crew had become like family to me, and I knew we wouldn’t let each other down.
‘And so remarkably the storm passed and we were still in the race. As we approached the much feared Bass Straight, things fell very silent. The water was glassy and we were becalmed there for 10 hours, with not a breath of wind.
However on December 30th 2015, Kristi achieved her goal. Crossing over the finish line in Hobart, with a time of 4 days, 6 hours and 20 minutes. Taking out line honours in 42nd place in the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race that is officially reported as ‘the 628 nautical mile course often described as the most gruelling long ocean race in the world, a challenge to everyone who takes part’.
Kristi has become a sought after speaker at events such as Hooked on Sailing, and the Women Who Sail Australia Conference, and also the Australian Women’s Keelboat Regatta, where she increases awareness about the work of SWD, and also raises money for the organisation.
After achieving her goals and turning her own life around, Kristi had always wanted the opportunity to ‘impart the same advice’ that had been given to her years before in Coffs Harbour. When one day in Mackay she was talking to a young man in a wheelchair, who had broken his back while rock climbing. ‘I finally had the chance to pass on this advice’ she says, ‘and about 6 months later I got an email from him, he said that he had begun to get some movement back in his feet, because he had begun sailing.’
‘Looking back now, I am so glad that my dad had diabetes, because it made me do it, and that chance meeting at the Coffs Harbour Wharf changed my whole world. It can only be described as synchronicity’ Kristi says.
(Helming the Lion Island Race)
(During the SWD World record Sydney to Sydney Via Lord Howe Island Race in 2015)
The first talk at the Women who sail Australia Conference, raising money for SWD
L to R Jessica Watson (youngest to solo circumnavigate the world) , Linda Frylink Anderson (Author) Kristi & Lisa Blair (first woman to Solo circumnavigate Antarctica)