… The SmartDrive MX2+

This battery-powered clip-on doo-hicky may not extend your mobility horizons, but it should make your existing ones easier to handle.

I have been struggling up the uneven slope to my office lately, and searching for a little oomph to avoid my shoulders becoming any more knackered thatn they already are. The choice was between a hand-bike attachment at the front of my wheelchair and a SmartDrive underneath.

This kit from Cyclone Mobility mounts to the chair front

The former option — several makes are on the market — effectively upgrades the chair into an electric trike. Another term for it could be mobility scooter. I make the comparison only because your hands move from the push-rims to handlebars and all the power then comes from the front wheel. You just steer it. I once tried out my Dad’s mobility scooter and froze half to death after half an hour excercising only my right thumb. That said, the combo does look and perform much better than a scooter. It also lifts the front castors of the ground so you can try it out OFF ROAD!

With a SmartDrive, your hands must stay in contact with the wheels, if only because the thing will push when you start it and only stop when you tell it to. If you come up against a stone or tree-root and fail to avoid it, stop or lift the front castors manually, it will keep on pushing until, in a worst-case secanario, it tips you onto the ground and runs you over. Your own chair. Oh the indignity. But at least the blood keeps flowing around (and potentially out of) the body.

Safely at the office door

You control a SmartDrive through a Fitbit-style wristband with a Bluetooth connection. This feaures an accelerometer that reacts to taps on the push rim. Two taps to go, one to stop accelerating and two more to stop. After a couple of near disasters pushing/driving up my uneven slope, I have the hang of it. It helps if you (counterintuitively) lean backwards. I will now trial it at the local beauty spot where I exercise the dog; if that works, which it should, everything else will be a bonus.

I will also use it in conjunction with my FreeWheel, which will get round the castor problem. That should make for quite a nifty combo. More later.

… to the Amalfi Coast.

The Vertical Coast, more like. L arranged this trip and, if I had seen in advance photos of towns like Positano, Maiori or (our base) Minori, I would have whinged like a sailor denied shore leave in Rio. Our flights were to Naples so I thought I had only Visuvius to worry about.

Imagine my surprise, then, as the autostrada dipped down between two cliffs and transformed itself into the first of numerous hairpin bends. Truth be told, it was somewhat hilly. How hilly was it? It was so hilly that, whenever the Croche Rossa ambulance sped past our hotel, sirens blaring, we would get the Doppler effect two or three times as it zig-zagged up or down the main street. In fact it wasn’t hilly at all. It was edge-of-the-cliffy.

This gangway was a tight squeeze for the chair

But we managed, as always. Our hotel had a decent accessible room. The boats linking many of the neighbouring towns were do-able, if you were prepared to be manhandled up and down the gangways. Many of the restaurants have outside seating at street level. Most of the village piazzas are at least on the level. And of course for every uphill, there’s a downhill.

Just don’t expect much in the way of lifts, ramps or loos. We depended on taxis for every journey, and even then they insisted on sending vans. Easy for the wheelchair, not so much for Andy. Linda’s informal scouting revealed two, count’em two, accessible loos along the entire coastline — one in Ravello (doubling as a storeroom) and another up several steep steps at the Blue Bar on Positano beach. As for ramps, the Villa Rufalo in Ravello boasts the steepest, longest one I have ever been expected to negotiate. Definitely a group effort required but, if you can muster the support, the gardens and the views are stunning.

A whole ‘nother challenge in Ravello

We ate well. Most meals started with an amuse-bouche, the food revolved around seafood and lemons, the coffee was wonderful and, to finish with, there was often a free tot of home-made limoncello. Orchards lined every road, many protected by netting and some of that, so we were told, concealing illegal building projects.

We were about 90 minutes from Pompeii and that is a sight to behold. Our visit concentrated on the structure of Roman society and the precarious nature of one’s position as patrician, pleb or what-not. Our guide led us from the Coliseum entrance, avoiding the smutty mosaics that had been the focus of my first visit, back in the day. We got in free, by the way.

Traffic calming, Roman style

So I guess the point of this entry is to encourage any fellow wheelchair user who might feel intimidated by the obvious obstacles lying in wait along this dramatic coast, to have no fear. We spend our entire bloody lives improvising so it would be a shame not to take it up just one more notch, if you want to experience some of the most spettacolare scenery Europe has to offer.

… To Oban. Post the second

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I am now a fully paid-up and insured cabin boy aboard the good ship Lord Nelson, pressed to take passage north up the Irish Sea in May. Will Nelly keep a sextant and chronograph? All I will need then is a clear civil twilight, a flat horizon, sight reduction tables, an astro-globe, nautical almanac, a chart … or Google Maps. Handsomely now, me hearties. Keep sending the treasure!

… to Oban, aboard the TS Lord Nelson

We set sail from Poole in May. If you visit my JustGiving page (click on button below) you’ll see I chose a similar adventure just 49 years ago, in the TS Winston Churchill, just before joining the navy. I could have waited an extra year to reach the half-century but, once I had the idea, I got excited.

Will keep you posted during the build-up and (I assume there is Wifi) while at sea.

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… roughshod over new emojis.

I do not think much of these at all.

Static and dependent

I thought we had moved on from this perception of wheelchair users. What do they all have to sit bolt upright in old-fashioned chairs. Why can’t they look just a bit more dynamic? And call me Mr. Picky but, we don’t all need push-handles.

These are Unicode images and can be tweaked. I urge platform owners to add a little pizzaz, It doesn’t take much …

LIke this

… the GTM Mustang, forever

I’m pleased with this. Well put together, good lumbar support and (I think) a touch lighter than my Helium. Good brakes too, although I should bloody think so for 200 quid extra. I mean, ABS they ain’t.

The clothes guards can be removed, which seems fair enough until you remove them — and wonder where on earth you’re supposed to put them. I met a girl this week whose RGK chair has guards that fold back against the seat-back. I admit it, I was seduced by the name.

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100 notes-worth, right there.

I get fed up with all the extras, and their cost. All the dealers are the same. The brakes were my only indulgence and I steered well clear of the various upholstery, wheel and push-rim options, which could have added almost a grand to the quoted price.

And then there was a delivery charge. I should have known that but it still came as a shock; so much so that I got into an argument with the dealer. No way was I about to schlep halfway to Scotland, just to pick it up. At no point was the charge mentioned, either verbally or on the paperwork.

Everything’s fine now, and I like dealing with Cyclone, but if you sell your stuff nationally you must support it nationally. Buying a power attachment from them for this chair would entail a day at the Widnes dealership, plus the petrol and probably an overnght stay somewhere. That adds a lot to the already substantial ticket price. It follows that I am much more likely to buy a different product from a local supplier. So, I would argue, why bother selling nationally?

As for the ‘forever’; well, if this thing lasts for ten years, it may well be my last manual chair. It all depends on how my shoulders hold up. I dread the prospect of going electric for all the obvious reason, plus this. Some years ago, when I took my late Dad’s mobility scooter out for a family walk in Jersey, my left thumb was the only bit of me that got any exercise. As a result, I froze half to death.

So a power chair will always be very much the last resort. We must all face our mortality at some point, but trading up/down/across to one of those will make a particularly brutal statement.

… to Twisted Spine, Wyoming*

How did that happen? One day I’m walking like a grown-up, hitching my weak right leg over my stronger left one as merrily I go along, sweating bullets. The next day I’m using the chair more as, frankly, it’s getting to be hard work and I’m not sure that, if pole-axed, I could get up again. Then the one after that, literally, Johnny is slumped like an old timer with a backbone like a lariat lying on the desert floor. Johnny the gimp.

Spine2

I thought I was caring for my posture, both in the wheelchair and on my super-dooper office chair. I celebrated the latter for its miraculous effect on the nerve pain that, in probably related news, has now resumed its position as the bane of my life. Well so much for that, and it’s hardly likely to get better now, is it?

Back in the olden days, in Stoke Mandeville, I was lectured on the danger of ignoring posture and becoming ‘wheelchair shaped’. I paid attention to that but took it the physio was referring to my body’s side-on aspect and I could avoid that by, whenever the opportunity arose, standing up straight against a wall and lying on my back in bed. I must have done that at least once every day, ignoring the possibility that my plan view might be at risk as well. Now all I can do is try to sit up straight, but every adjustment has to be thought about and, a second later, it has to be thought about again.

Is it too late? Are the vertebrae now fused? Can I stop it where it is? Can I even alleviate it by suspending myself by the ankles in a frame (the physio says noo-oo)? I have appointments with the experts in February, by which time I may be even shorter. And it’s not as if I have much height to play with.

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Slightly left-wing low in the Philippines

  • If there is such a place, I want my picture taken by the welcome sign

(Actually, I think I may have dreamt all that. While my spine is indeed curvaceous in some unexpected directions, my pelvis is the main culprit.)

… the GTM Mustang!

Mustang

Mustang; my new mount.

It’s a wheelchair folks, not a wild horse, but as I decide whether to buy it, you can tell it’s the sort of chair Johnny ought to have. He was measured up for one the other day, the way one might be for a decent suit. But instead of polite enquiries about the number of cuff buttons or whether or not to go for pocket flaps, I was offered titanium push-rims (+ 200 quid) or red-leather upholstery (another 140). No to both of those. As long as I don’t get friction burns on my palms, I don’t mind. And frankly, the more nondescript the bloody thing, the better.

I calculate this will be my seventh chair in, what, 33 years of life as a paraplegic? I don’t forget noticing from my bed at Stoke Mandeville, one of a small stack of brand-new black/chrome government-issue devices, with HEALEY scrawled in black felt-tip on a brown tag. I remember feeling depressed for a while but what did I expect?

Quadra (640x480)

Quadra, a design classic

My second chair was a heavy blue Quickie (yes, really) Quadra, currently resident in my garage. Once I have replaced a missing spacer I shall donate it to a worthy cause.

No.3 was a red XLT (Extra-Light Titanium) that really was light; I sold it after shorter wheelbases became the norm. Four came from Bromakin, a supplier from Loughborough that for a while built its own and was run by folks who I preferred to my local bunch of sharks. It’s also titanium, unpainted, and I keep the frame as a spare.

Barrow1

Not so Quickie, these days.

And five, another Quickie, is now nearly knackered. Ten years of bouncing down kerbs and jamming castors into ruts have taken their toll. I also depend on it far more than I used to, I think it’s been through three sets of tyres (kevlar-lined so zero punctures), but several sets of tubes as said tyres are a bitch to put on. One stat I do know for sure is that, in 32 years of navigating the world in one of these chairs, I have rolled through exactly one pile of dog-poo.

I thought about replacing my Quickie with the Tigra but have decided that weight, or lack of it, is everything. By dispensing with the folding forks I can save at least 2kg and 600 notes. The Mustang fits the bill so if I can find the dosh, I may well go for it. I have gone for the unpainted look, since you ask.

Look at me, not the fucking chair.

… to Victoria, by Sikorsky

If you need to travel from the commercial centre of BC (Vancouver) to its administrative centre in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, you could catch a ferry. it’s a 95 minute journey. Trouble is, the ferry doesn’t leave from Vancouver and it doesn’t arrive in Victoria. Or, you could nip down to the West Waterfront and fly from there straight to Victoria’s harbour heliport. Point-to-point, 35 minutes. Works for me.

Helijet operates one of the few scheduled helicopter services in the world, and has done so since 1986. I believe it has depended on the Sikorsky S-76 for all that time and, bearing in mind that the aircraft fly all day and shut down after every flight, the better to load and unload passengers, the record speaks well of its reliability. Just so you know.

blog S76a

Johnny learns he can’t sit up front with the driver

We flew to Victoria in the morning. As a PLM (Passenger with Limited Mobility) I was loaded first and kept well away from the doors. Since I must have been the only passenger to have completed dunker training (albeit in the olden days), this affronted me somewhat. So I leaned over and noted the door-release routine.

Needless to say. the others never got to know what good hands they had been in.

20180810_125911Victoria appears more formal than its free-wheeling counterpart across the Georgia Strait. It boasts lots of statues and, in season, beautiful flower gardens bordering lush green parks. We hung around the elegant Empress Hotel until politely asked to leave; Juanita then visited the province’s parliament building while Johnny sat in the sunshine with a rug over his knees.

The Royal BC Museum is well worth a visit. We headed for the First Peoples gallery and walked through some really imaginative displays. Ceremonial masks and totem poles, and even some historic film-clips of early encounters with white settlers.

We wandered along the inner harbour wall, which is lined with plaques commemorating business, family and individual contributors to Victoria’s maritime heritage. Then, what with an extended lunch (we weren’t driving) and everything, it was soon time to head back to the heliport. Talk about scratching the surface.

Blog totem

 

… to Vancouver

Within two minutes of leaving our undamaged hire car on Granville Street, we picked up some groceries from (what I imagined to be) a store typifying the Vancouver vibe. Fresh fruit and vegetables, artisan coffee and a commitment to LGBT rights. The Grizzly Claw coffee was roasted by Kicking Horse. “From the heart of the mountains, a strong spirit roars … headed for a mug near you.” Now that’s Johnny’s kinda coffee..

We had rented a condo in Yaletown for the week and Ryan came round immediately, to show us around a city that he has plainly fallen in love with. We headed to Kitsilano for a rendezvous with his other love, Cheryl, then ate sushi and bought a shower stool.

On our first morning we headed downhill (always the preferred option in a wheelchair) towards the False Creek waterfront, to catch a SeaBus across to Granville Island Market. With the tide at low ebb, the ramp down to the pontoon was steep, and I would not have been able to get back up it on my own. However, 1) Juanita is a sturdy lass and 2) By the time we returned, as if by magic, the tide had come in a bit. How does that even happen?

20180808_103753There are two types of SeaBus catamarans; one for grown-ups and a second, larger craft with a ramp. Both chug around the harbour to what I am sure is a plan, and I loved the tendency for the skippers to chuck existing passengers off their boats, if new ones better suited their particular route. “There’ll be another one along in a minute folks!” Once aboard, it was a treat to view the downtown area on either side of the creek, as we mingled with kayaks, paddleboards and the odd gin-palace.

One more note on the ramps. Passengers to Granville Island and some other landings can use a series of shallower slopes that are much easier to negotiate. One of these is dedicated to former BC lieutenant-governor David Lam who, I was told, championed many access improvements to Vancouver’s complicated public transport network.

20180904_110745Granville Island hosts a number of public markets selling fantastic varieties of food, arts & crafts. We spent several hours sniffing around, at one point trying to eat an ice-cream as it melted onto my wrist and shorts, and listening to the buskers. I also bought, I can now reveal, this ceramic bird for Juanita’s birthday. Oh, and some maple-leaf ear studs acquired earlier, while in panic mode.

Ryan’s partner Cheryl is something of a whizz at ‘hahkey’ and we spent an evening watching her play an off-season match, at an eight-rink complex in Burnaby. Outside the NHL the opportunities for fighting are few-and-far between, so we were better able to appreciate her undoubted skill. She contributed one goal and two assists.

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¬°Fiesta Juanita!

On Juanita’s actual birthday the sky was cloudy (and somewhat smoky) and the wind strong enough for our whale-watching trip to be cancelled. So we consumed the traditional Healey Birthday Breakfast in the apartment and a picnic lunch in Stanley Park. Dinner was taken as planned, at the Seasons restaurant in Queen Elizabeth Park to the south of the city. Even with the reduced viz, the views over the city were dramatic and the meal was memorable. Close by the restaurant is the Bloedel Conservatory, a mini-Eden Project dome stuffed with exotic plants and free-flying birds. The big parrots like to perch under their own umbrellas.

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Lunch at Chamber

And we met up with Gordon, my old friend from No.179 Royal Navy flying training course. We went through the mill together for over a year, first at survival school and subsequently on Bulldog aeroplanes, then Gazelle and Sea King helicopters. Gordon progressed to become a fairly heavy-duty instructor on Sea Kings, before settling in British Columbia. He now trains crews with one of the biggest helicopter operators in the world.

Gordon and Lupita gave us lunch in Yaletown and had us round to their place in Burnaby for some excellent barbeque. My first-ever tot of Johnny Walker Blue Label may have been a mistake but getting up the steps to the front door, with Linda and Ryan to the rear, lifting my feet in turn to my command, required a level of coordination that would have been unlikely if attempted while sober. Gordy has yet to take that particular course.

It’s a cliche to vow to revisit the site of a memorable holiday, but in our case we have little choice. I can’t see Ryan returning to his tiny flat in Liphook any time soon. And we still have that whale-watching trip to do.