Ultimate Challenge Voyage for Fremantle medicine students

Document Type

Media Release

Publication Date

Summer 10-12-2008

Publisher Name

The University of Notre Dame, Fremantle Campus

Publication Place



Eight 1st year medicine students from The University of Notre Dame Australia’s Fremantle Campus participated in a five day voyage on the STS Leeuwin II in late November as part of the social justice component of their studies. Their role was to assist and support 28 participants with special physical or intellectual limitations.

As part of their experience they were required to submit a report relating to the course outcomes.

Below is a short reflection by one of the students... Along with seven other medical students, a number of practising physiotherapists and occupational therapists, volunteer and permanent crew from the STS Leeuwin II and the trainees with special limitations, I took part in this five day voyage near Fremantle, just a week after the completion of our first year exams.

For me there were a number of both highlights and poignant moments. The opportunity to live and crew alongside these kids with special limitations, opened my eyes a little to both the burdens and joys that their families and carers live with every day. Their capacity for excitement, frustration, happiness, trepidation and achievement was more acutely apparent than for others amongst the crew who were more reserved and perhaps self conscious.

I challenged myself to make sure I was equal to the tasks that lay before us – in seeking to accept and master all tasks sent my way. I had done a small amount of sailing before and plenty of climbing, roping and work at heights so these tasks were not such a challenge – but still a joy to take part in. For me the challenge was learning to relate to and work alongside all of my team mates equally and to become comfortable with the patience required to help these extraordinary young people achieve for themselves what many able bodied persons would not dream of attempting.

The single most important reminder I received was for the phenomenal capacity inherent in every single person on the ship. From the understanding and quiet confidence of the Captain, First Mate and Bosun, to the patience of the ship’s cook, the enthusiasm and aptitude of the young volunteer watch leaders and the keen sense of adventure of the trainees – both those with and without special limitations. I was reminded that, regardless of station or limitation, we all contribute to each other and together we made a truly memorable voyage.

The highlights and memorable moments for me included climbing to the top of the main mast, motoring back into Fremantle whilst standing on the port end of the highest yard – the To Gallant, seeing the kids with cerebral palsy attack the rigging and conquer it with the hugest of grins, working alongside our intellectually handicapped team mates to ware the ship during 30 knot gusts, rain and two metre swells at 1.30am in the morning and the feeling of pride and belonging in participating in the SODS (Society of Drunken Sailors) Opera. This last one was particularly poignant in being witness to our mate Shaun’s solo rendition of twinkle twinkle little star from beneath his hoodie (Shaun has Down Syndrome) followed by one of the able-bodied crew nervously performing a solo guitar piece for only the second time in public – both of them pushing their own boundaries and both equally stirring. For me the voyage was not a burden, nor a sacrifice of any description – but rather a privilege and a thrill to take part in. Truly the opportunity of a lifetime.

Resilience is cultivated by facing challenges, and a week on board the Leeuwin II is rife with those! From your cabin-mates smelly socks to the indignity of sea sickness, 5:30am wake up calls to midnight watches the scene on board the Leeuwin is one of exhaustion coupled with disillusionment. Modern Australian culture is one of luxury – freely running showers and ten kinds of shower gel, hairdryers, washing machines, televisions, ipods, laptops… all working to provide us with distraction and to hide us from our physicality. Sweat, wind, sun and extreme physical effort are inconveniences relegated to the odd 45 minute session in a gym, hidden from the eyes of anyone not doing the same – or performed by trades people in uniforms who are being paid for their trouble.

On board the Leeuwin your community is the other 50 or so people struggling to steer an unfamiliar boat through unfamiliar waters, with about as much personal space as can be found in a small kitchen cupboard. Salt water sprays over your face and clothes much more often than 2 minute freshwater showers can, and if you managed to cram shampoo and conditioner into your luggage you are very lucky to have the time to apply it! Within an hour of waking you might be washing everyone’s dishes by hand or sweating the lines after turning the ship around. Lifting a 500kg mainsail after only 6 hours of broken sleep is not easy, nor is climbing the rigging so that you can lean out and tie up a sail while standing on a 1.5 cm thick rope.

Time aboard the Leeuwin II takes away illusions of comfort and easy living, which sounds unappealing until you realise that in the middle of discomfort every crew member is forced to accept their own strength – their ability to rise up and meet challenges head on. And realise as well how the support of your team – a smile, a kind word, a light tone – can inspire others to take that next step on the rigging, or haul one last time on a rope. For the special needs participants of the Ultimate Challenge Voyage, adversity is no stranger. These young adults face challenges every day, and some seem very aware of how their situation impacts on loved ones. This was an opportunity for some to demonstrate their capability, to provide support instead of receive it, and to learn that everyone needs help sometimes – no matter how strong they seem at first glance. When you are a long way from land, leaning over the railing and bidding goodbye to your breakfast, the hand rubbing your back is always a friend. And when you are high above the decking with only a small clip between you and a long fall, a tertiary education is much less noteworthy than the beautiful smiles of those below as their cheers and encouragements lift you higher.

Maxine Garnsey 1st Year Medical Student

Media contact: Michelle Ebbs (08) 9433 0610 / 0408959138