This is my beloved boat that belongs to my charity Autism on the Water (AOTW). This is a Hunter 707 that has given me so much joy and most importantly freedom over the last couple of years. Here it is pictured in its winter quarters in a shed, in a field somewhere in Fife. It has sat there since November. Around late February, my thoughts were slowly starting to turn towards thinking about the preparations to bring the boat out the shed, back down to Port Edgar Marina and start putting it back together ready for a very busy and exciting season with so many wonderful regattas, delivery trips and cruises to look forward too and of course the all-important job of raising awareness of the Autistic spectrum.
In 2019, we had enjoyed our most successful season to date, we took a break from doing too many One-Design events and enjoyed doing more relaxed, fun and community-run regattas on the West Coast of Scotland which actually provided me more opportunity to get to know the boat, it’s set up and how I could make it go faster. It was also the year that for the first time ever, we won races! We took a spectacular win in the opening weekend of West Highland Week especially on the feeder race from Oban to Craobh after making a bold decision to short tack around the back of Fladda Island in the Sound of Luing that allowed me to maintain an average speed and the worse of the tide and it resulted in AOTW sailing across the shortened finish line off the Ardluing buoy to the welcome sound of a gun and leaving the 19 boats behind us well and truly behind us that included boats from a J122 and First 31.7 to a Contessa 25 and a Shipman 28. AOTW took the win by a clear 4 mins on corrected time as well as taking line honours. Following this victory, we went on to take 4 back to back wins at the 707 Sprints Slam with David Witt on board and then a clear and outright race win in the first race of the 707 Scottish Championships. So with me now knowing and able to make the boat go fast, I was ready to get some more for 2020. This was going to be the year! Until one night in March that changed everything.
Around a week or so after I had returned from a business trip for AOTW in both London and Cowes where I gave presentations to yacht clubs as well as making a series of different and interesting new contacts, the United Kingdom was starting to get gravely concerned for the increasing number of cases of the “Coronavirus” (COVID-19) that had sadly resulted in a number of deaths across the world. In response to this, businesses decided to shut up shop for a limited time to see how this situation would pan out, travel also was becoming affected and strong advice was being given to people to wash their hands more frequently than ever. For me personally, I was not too worried, I had so much to look forward too, loads of sailing, AOTW was doing extremely well, my brother and cousin are both due to be married, I was getting out on my bike more doing Uber Eats and Deliveroo deliveries which was keeping me fit, life for me personally could not be better. Its what happened next when you realise how much you take for granted.
As time went on, the news was starting to report daily all day on the Coronavirus outbreak which by now was starting to concern many. It was during this period that the famous Six Nations Rugby matches were being held across the country. The Scotland vs France game was held at Murrayfield Stadium which was packed to full capacity of 60,000 plus and whilst many had a wonderful day out, there was also uproar that the game had gone ahead during what was looking like a very possible upcoming pandemic. A few days after this match was the Scotland vs Wales game which was to take place in Cardiff. Many travelling Scots were concerned that the game could be cancelled because of the virus but rugby officials fully reassured everyone even on the eve of the match that the game would not be cancelled. As everyone from Scotland got out of their trains, their flights, their cars etc. the match was cancelled! It was after this that the UK and Scottish Government decided to ban all planned and upcoming sporting events and gatherings which involved over 5,000 people, this was done so as to ease pressure on front line health services such as Police and Paramedic workers etc. which are required for these events to run. I then started to worry and get anxious, would this affect sailing events? No, surely not. Sailing events don’t require frontline health services 99% of the time, we should be ok! But some friends of mine started to be very negative and pretty much insist that events like the Scottish Series, Bangor Week etc. WOULD be cancelled, I said “no of-course they won’t”. How very wrong I was. I kept myself busy though, I built a page on Facebook for autistic people in Scotland to join for support during this time, I also started cooking homemade soups for the elderly and donating certain items such as pasta to families with autistic children who only ate pasta. It felt really good to be out and helping people – until things began to change drastically.
As time went on, the news got grim, officials were advising people to work from home and not attend social gathering etc. Schools though were still running but they were under close review by the government and after a few days, the first minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon made the announcement that schools would be closing for the foreseeable future. Now people started to panic, schoolchildren themselves started to panic and many young children were very confused as to what was going on. Parents were very concerned at this sudden news, what on earth was going to happen? This announcement had forced parents to make some important decisions in their working lives to ensure that their children stayed educated and had a structured plan. I started to realise as I cycled or walked around Edinburgh a very uneasy calm around the place, shops were emptier, transport was less frequent and many rumours were circulating about what was going to happen. A few days after the announcement of the school closures on a cold Friday evening, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnston announced to the nation that all pubs, clubs, cinemas and diners were to close and not reopen until further notice although diners could still operate as takeaway services. I started feeling very worried when this was announced, I started to realise then that something serious really was going on. Nicola Sturgeon also repeated Boris Johnston’s words of the closure of establishments and heavily advised people against going out to the pub that evening, however despite these words, many people went out to the pub knowing that this would be the last time to go out for a few beers for who knows how long, I am sad to say I was one of these people who ventured to my little local pub for one last pint and to support the bar staff who now faced an uncertain future of their jobs.
The weekend then started and Edinburgh awoke to what was the start of worse to come. Pretty much all pubs and establishments as advised by the government had closed, but the presence of so many people was very much evident, the streets were packed with walkers and local people trying to carry on as normal, people were also flocking to the parks and beaches as it was a very nice day to be out. This caused a great deal of anger across social media and on the news and many trolls who followed the Facebook pages of papers such as The Guardian, The Sun etc. were cracking down big time on their opinions of the actions of others.
On the Monday evening following that weekend since the closing of establishments, it was 8:30pm at night, all normal programming on the television had been suspended to make way for a very important announcement from the Prime Minister. The announcement was very simple and the inevitable had now become reality – the UK had now been put into lockdown. The main rule was “you must stay at home”, you were now only allowed out for shopping for essential supplies, one form of exercise a day such as a walk, run or cycle and travel to work but only if it was essential otherwise working from home was very much clearly advised and people were also highly encouraged to use food delivery services. Social distancing had come into place, you could now not go and visit your friends or family or stick to any upcoming social activities that were planned. All of these rules had been put into place to slow the spread of the Coronavirus, save lives and to protect the NHS.
And this night – has now changed the world. At first once again, I tried to take a light- hearted approch to all of it and say to myself “it will be over by the end of April and we will start getting boats ready”. But as I mentioned earlier, I was very wrong. Over the course of the next few days as we started to settle into lockdown life, the 707 Edinburgh Cup, the Scottish Series, Kip Regatta, Mudhook Regatta, Bangor Week, the Round Mull Race, 707 UK Nationals and Cork Week have all been cancelled. Launching of boats had now all been suspended or postponed, club racing was postponed etc. This was all happening before the season had even begun! My anxiety went through the roof, after such a cold, long and depressing winter, this horror of all horrors, a killer virus was halting everyone’s life. From a selfish point for me, sailing is my life, AOTW is my life but I then started to watch the news and read the papers every day to then realise just how bad this really was. As the weeks went on, the number of those infected with the virus grew and worse of all, the death toll grew. The news seemed to get more grim and grim each day. The country had changed, everything had changed in just the space of a few weeks and as the days started to get lighter with the arrival of spring, in actual fact, it really was becoming more darker than a winter had ever been.
Here is a photograph of Princes Street, Edinburgh’s main and busiest street – now completely deserted. Shops, hotels, bars, diners etc. all boarded up. The odd bus rolling along the street carrying one or maybe two passengers on each one. All tourists attractions were shut, the Edinburgh Festival announced that the month-long event, the biggest arts festival in the world and a festival that brings Edinburgh over £300 million to the economy in August had been cancelled! Many locals jumped for joy at this news relishing the fact that they’d have a peaceful city in August without the festival, but my heart went out to the many hundreds of performers who were one of 5000 people who had lost their job in August because of this.
Then more news started to come out – both worrying and angering. The good weather that the country is facing both a few weeks ago and today was encouraging reckless people to leave the safety of their homes and pack out the many beautiful public parks and beaches that were on offer to the locals of Edinburgh. Now the government announced that they really meant business and passed on new laws for the police to start giving out warning and eventually fines for anyone breaking the social distancing rules. To cap it off, the Cheif medical officer of Scotland, Catherine Calderwood who had heavily urged and demanded that everyone stayed home, the woman who Nicola Sturgeon relayed on especially during this pandemic had been photographed by the Sun newspaper visiting her second home in Fife with her family – she had completely broken her own rules, her own advice and when this happened, the entire Scottish population and indeed the entire United Kingdom became furious! And no one, not even Nicola Sturgeon could blame anyone for being angry with her and whilst I fully agree that she completely was stupid and really betrayed the public trust, she said sorry, she publically stood up to the country on live television and apologised for her terrible and disgusting actions. I could tell by watching that press conference that Nicola Sturgeon really wanted to be anywhere but there that day and how I felt so sorry for her and I also really admired her loyalty to Calderwood – but so many people do not and you know what, rightfully so, we can’t have someone like Calderwood acting for this country in the medical profession if that’s the actions she takes. But what I saw on social media as the couch trolls and complete arseholes took to Facebook, Twitter etc. to express their opinion really disgusted me! Some comments were very fair and of course people are fully entitled to their opinion, but I draw a line personally when I read things like “go catch the virus yourself Catherine and die, because you deserve it” – Sorry guys, but that is sick, pure sick! It makes me so angry that you waste your time and energy completely and cruelly expressing your opinions on someone else’s when in actual fact, you should take a good long hard look at yourselves first. Dr Calderwood made a stupid, a very stupid and reckless mistake and she apologised, she also resigned because the social media trolls decided to rally together and really ruin her even more which deep down yes she probably deserved and yes she had to resign. But I personally feel that you should not focus your efforts on the stupid actions of one person – your families, your friends need you now, some of them could be dying or become very ill with this virus so you should focus on yourselves before committing your energy to the actions of others.
You all know that I am autistic. I may be a 27 year-old running my own highly international charity, doing food deliveries on a bike and living independently, but I am still autistic and along with all people with autism across the world, we are finding this pandemic like for everyone else too – a real traumatic and distressing experience and a massive CHANGE to our routines and our ways of life. A few days before Easter at about 8:15pm on a quiet Friday evening, I was out doing food deliveries on my bike as usual and decided to stop and have a short sit down on a bench in The Meadows park. It was completely deserted as shown in the above photograph, it was a beautiful evening with a lovely sunset, apart from the odd jogger or walker out, I was completely alone – just killing time until a very strict looking Policewoman walked up to me. This was our conversation –
Policewoman “move on”
Me “I am actually working”
Policewoman “well why aren’t you working”
Me “I’m just killing some time in between jobs”
Policewoman “well you’re breaking the social distance rules, so move on”
Me “but I am not doing anything wrong”
Policewoman “you are breaking the government rules”
Me “I am not breaking any rules, the closest person to me right now is you – I am also autistic and not used to dealing with the police”
Policewoman “Autistic or not, you are clearly breaking the rules and I am not going to ask you again, move on now”
Me “but I am seriously not breaking any rules, there is no one around apart from me and you and I am also working as a food delivery courier helping out the government to encourage others to use food delivery services”
Policewoman “Okay sir I have warned you, you have completely disregarded the rules set out by the Scottish Government, I am issuing you with a fine”
I honestly sat there in shock at her final sentence to all that as she took my details and issued me a ticket of £60 which she then informed me would be £30 if I paid within 28 days of being issued. It was fair to say that after this experience, I went home completely furious and crying my eyes out. What the hell has happened to my life, our lives!! How has it become a total crime to sit on a park bench in between jobs! I spoke to many of my friends about this experience with the police, a small number of them said I had broken the rules of social distancing – which upset me even more because I knew I had not! And the vast majority of my friends knew that too and all protested that I should not pay the fine and appeal it – but I knew that would take months to try and appeal so I accepted myself to pull up the online page to pay the fine and put it to bed, until I started to speak to a friend of mine I knew in London who happened to work for the National Autistic Society. I told her about the whole episode and she asked me to send the ticket I got from the police to her and assured me that she would get it written off as I was not breaking the rules and that there was government documents that had been released giving the amount of allowances on certain restrictions for autistic people during this time and that my situation with the police fitted in with it. A couple of days after I sent the ticket away, I got the phone call from my friend that it had been written off and to forget it ever happened. I will not forget though as it was a stressful and upsetting experience and whilst I understand that the Police are facing possibly the most toughest time in their careers, a tad of understanding and being more friendly and polite would not hurt. I would heavily encourage all my autistic friends to ensure that they take advantage of the allowances laid out by the government for people with autism during this time which should make the pandemic that little bit easier to deal with.
Yes, this is a photo of a boat! A Flying Fifteen to be exact. And just why have I decided to place a photograph of a Flying Fifteen in my Coronavirus story? The reason is because this Flying Fifteen is a Flying Fifteen that I have just purchased for myself! And why am I buying a boat during a pandemic? The reason is simple – once we eventually come out of this, we all need to really must think and feel so grateful that many of us will survive this but many others have died because of this. We all need to reflect and also enjoy our lives whilst we can because we just do not know what is going to happen – we did not know we’d be facing a pandemic that has shut down the world and turned our lives upside down. So for me, I decided when the lockdown is lifted, I want to be more busier on weeknights rather than just deliver food or go to the pub – so I have bought myself this Flying Fifteen to race on weeknights and weekends at the Royal Forth Yacht Club at Granton – it is not for AOTW, it is for me! I have called it The “KimsWitt” named of course after my dear friends Kim and David Witt. The random thing about this sale is also the now previous owner was a friend of my Dad! I am so excited to bring this boat home and start racing it and simply enjoying my life. It is an investment, but really worth it. It should also now be noted that I am now sort of a 3 boat owner! A Hunter 707, A Flying Fifteen and a Streaker Dinghy! Sorry Mum!
Back to the present day – whilst my new purchase of a Flying Fifteen has cheered me up no end – we are still continuing with the pandemic and I now come to the hardest bit of all this for me and that is being alone. I really am alone, I cannot go and visit any of my friends or family, I cannot shake their hands or give them a hug and tell them it will all be fine. Thankfully we now live in a world where technology makes it easier to still communicate on a regular basis so I am able to speak to my family and a couple of close friends daily on FaceTime or Houseparty – but it is just not the same. This past weekend, I felt so sad and more alone than ever as the bright sunshine shone through the country and a fantastic sailing breeze of 20-25kts from the east with some big waves was blowing down the Firth of Forth on what should have been our first 707 regatta of the season and the first sail of the year for AOTW. Such is a cruel world that we live in just now with all this – the sailing would have been so epic and I bet we could have been well up there with the results and get a suntan! But as my friend Witty said to me “it is just not to be” but he said something more important which is “Never Give Up”. And as so very hard as it is to not give up, I intend to stay on a high and get through this. It will come to an end and I am praying that by July, our boats will be back in the water and we will be preparing for West Highland Week which is still scheduled to go ahead. But sadly, I have had several arguments and disagreements with my friends because so many are convinced that events will not go ahead at all and there are some people out there who think I have so much support and will get through all this easily and that I do not fully understand the seriousness of this situation.
Let me be clear with you right now – I know exactly how serious this situation is, I have watched and read how many people have died – I have seen the damage this pandemic is causing our world economy especially in the hospitality and self-employed sector, but when I argue with people about how serious it is if this lockdown continues for longer their words are “at least their alive” and you know what, you’re right, to survive this is of absolute priority but people will have no homes let alone no jobs if this lockdown carries on. Even if lockdown restrictions are eased, the government are still expecting some people especially elders to self isolate for up to 12-18 months until a vaccine is found. Seriously how can we be expected to not see our friends or family and especially our grandparents for over a year? People will not accept that – I get the reasons why, but there has to be another way. My Nana lives on her own in North Berwick and I feel bad enough that I have not seen her for so long as it is, but it breaks my heart that she could be expected to stay indoors away from her family for a year or more! There will also come a time where the government will just not be able to fully fund everyone who’s businesses have closed down because of the Coronavirus and whilst they are doing their best to keep some businesses afloat, there are many self-employed people out there who risk having nothing left because they are not entitled to any government funding and in that category includes some very close friends of mine.
I am very blessed that I am fit and well and I am able to get out and do my bit for the community in terms of doing food deliveries, helping autistic people during this time etc. But guys, just remember we are ALL in this together – both me and you, there is no exceptions. I do not have piles of support – I have to deal with a lot of this on my own and it really is excuse my language SHIT! I love my own space, don’t get me wrong but I have not seen any of my friends or family for 4 weeks now, I am one of many other people who live alone and are dealing with this. But I have to keep going and keep following the guidelines set out by the government and most importantly – we all have to stay positive. Many of my friends and family are, but there are some who are not positive and are even getting angry at people for being positive. We will come out of this everyone, we will come out of this together – better or worse off than before. I certainly hope by the end of the next 3 weeks, we will see some restrictions eased gradually and by July, we should be able to start enjoying our summer and a piece of our lives again. But we can only do that if we stay at home, social distance and protect the NHS.
That concludes my story so far of my experiences as an Autistic individual in the Coronavirus pandemic – and I will say now, I love you all, I think of you all and I never forget you – as Christopher Robin said to Winnie the Pooh “Even if we are apart – I will always be with you” and I stand by Christopher’s words, I am still here and not going anywhere. I am here for you.
Stay Safe and see you at the other end of this xxx