I'm lucky to be alive

Nick Ward

Cycling for Smile4Wessex has given Nick freedom

First published in News
Last updated
Daily Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Senior Features Writer

NICK Ward can’t find the words to describe just how lucky he is to be alive.

Aged 15, he suffered a sudden brain haemorrhage which left him fighting for his life with a 50/50 chance of survival and undergoing life-saving emergency surgery.

Despite being left disabled with hemiplegia - no sensation or spatial awareness down the left hand side of his body and with debilitating epilepsy, Nick, a keen sailor, was determined nothing would stop him.

Eight years later, he took on his lifelong dream of sailing in the world iconic Fastnet Race.

But that dream turned into a nightmare when Nick was left for dead by his crewmates in the middle of the deadliest storm in the history of modern sailing that claimed the lives of 15 sailors.

In the most shattering event of his life, in the midst of colossal waves “the size of Waterloo station” and unremitting winds, his yacht was capsized again and again.

The mast broke off, the skipper David was lost overboard and, after hours of exhausting struggle, three of the crew abandoned the boat for the life raft.

Injured and unconscious, Nick and his crewmate Gerry were left – presumed dead – in the middle of the Irish sea.

Gerry died a few hours later and Nick – who made several valiant attempts to revive his crewmate – was left to face the storm alone.

Traumatised by his 14-hour battle for survival, haunted by flashbacks – including the moment when he was pinned to the deck by his friend’s battered body – it has taken Nick more than 35 years to come to terms with these ordeals.

Daily Echo:

Nick is rescued from the infamous 1979 Fastnet Race (picture courtesy of Royal Navy)

Despite carrying both the physical and mental scars, Nick lives life to the full.

The dad-of-two to Sam, 27, and Elizabeth, 22, and husband to Chris, a nurse he met at Wessex Neurological Unit, has raced around the Isle of Wight 17 times in all types of yacht and even confronted his demons and got back on the water to complete the 600-mile Fastnet Race in 2009.

“I have faced death twice, at least, and not everyone gets the opportunity to see life from the other side.”

Today Nick, who detailed his epic story of survival in bestselling book Left for Dead, has been forced to give up his full time job as a Marine Chandlery manager due to his epilepsy.

Nick, from Hamble, takes 66 tablets a week and says in his lifetime, he has taken 175,000 tablets with fits and seizures an everyday reality for the family man.

Years ago, he’s been handcuffed by police after fitting on the roadside, has suffered a partial seizure driving a yacht on the Solent, narrowly avoiding a crash and has fitted in the bath with no phone on hand.

More recently he suffered a fit lasting 25 minutes on a narrow boat with his family in the middle of nowhere, fitted severely in the middle of an authors’ lunch in London’s Cafe de Paris and due to his hemiplegia has been unable to control how he came down a slide at Center Parcs – dislocating all his toes.

“Epilepsy is a stigma for a lot of people. Sometimes I used to wake up in a fit every day but sometimes it was once a week, it is very unpredictable.

“There is a dark side to it too. It’s a slough, a tunnel you can’t get out of.”

But rather than settle down to retirement, Nick is determined not to let his disabilities beat him.

Daily Echo:

Despite sustaining black eyes after always falling off bikes because he has no feeling on his left side, Nick has got in the saddle of a pedal assisted bike in memory of his friend Mark Williams who lost his battle with a brain tumour in January aged 40 and his cousin Julie Crawford who died from brain cancer this year.

And when he turns 59 on August 22, he will cycle 100km around the Isle of Wight to say thank you to Wessex Neurological Unit who gave him the precious gift of life back in 1971.

“It’s now payback time for the lifelong debt that I have never taken for granted.

"The clichés, life’s too short, you can’t take it with you resonate with me.

“Had it not been for that family of staff at the unit, I would not be here today. I wouldn’t have lived another day beyond 24 May 1971.

“I wouldn’t have met my wife Chris who still works at the unit now and I wouldn’t have seen my two vibrant tenacious children grow up.”

However, ironically, the challenge marking his retirement has made Nick finally discover a freedom he hasn’t enjoyed since a boy.

Nick’s condition means he can have a fit at any time therefore he is unable to drive and must rely on people for lifts.

But armed with rescue medicine in case of emergency and a laminated A4 sheet in his pocket detailing how to help if someone finds him in a fit, he wakes up at 5am to get on his bike.

And to feel the fresh air on his face and to go places he has never been alone before is the most liberating gift of all.

“I missed my teenage years because of the brain haemorrhage.

“I go out early on my bike because it’s the safest time for me to be on the roads, and the only people on the road are ambulance and police anyway which is helpful!

“Cycling has given me a focus.

“It has given me the ability to do things I otherwise wouldn’t be able to do on my own. It has given me an independence that I have never had.

"It’s given me a freedom. It’s given me a cause.

“Coming down Portsdown Hill into Boarhunt there’s a very long descent and once, there was a buzzard that came out of the trees and followed me 10ft above my head. Something like that or seeing the mist rise up from the Hamble Valley is just magical.

“You just can’t give up. You simply have to find something to cling to and keep going.”

To support Nick go to smile4wessex.org.

Smile4Wessex charity coordinator Neil Westbrook, who is supporting Nick on his latest challenge, said: “Nick’s positivity is infectious. It’s remarkable that a man who went through what he did aged 15 and then what he did in the Fastnet eight years later, continues to take himself out of his comfort zone.”

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