Ian Hamilton Harrison was born in Poole UK on 21 March 1937. He was the only child of Dougie Hamilton Harrison (farmer) and Nora Kathleen Harrison (née Samways; a fine musician, keen sailor and floral horticulturist). D. H. Harrison CBE was president of the Rugby Football Union in 1966-67.
An only child, Ian grew up in rural Dorset. His earliest memories were of an antiaircraft gun set up on the family farm to protect the nearby cordite factory, and of a Battle of Britain Spitfire overhead.
The theme of Ian’s life was set early. When he was one year old, his grandfather built him a tiny rowing boat whose rowlocks Ian kept for the rest of his life. When Ian was seven, his grandfather built him a sailing canoe. In his early-mid teens, Ian sailed Snipes at national level.
After primary school, Ian enrolled at the Thames Nautical Training College. At the time, the college was known as HMS Worcester. Classes in seamanship were held on the Cutty Sark moored in the Thames from 1938 to 1954 alongside the Worcester. One evening, Ian was assigned to chip rust from the collision bulkhead of the famous clipper. After he put the spike of his scaling hammer through the iron bulkhead, water poured into the hold. Ian thought he was about to witness a sinking and that his merchant maritime career was at a premature end. As it happened, his action merely drained rainwater dammed between the stem and the bulkhead.
In 1954, Ian was assigned his first voyage, junior third officer aboard an Ellerman Lines ship on the London-Bombay run. In Karachi, he went swimming. He caught poliomyelitis and, after a stint in an Indian facility, was stretchered home weighing just seven stone (98 pound, 44kg). He gave up all thought of sailing because he thought he would never again ‘be good enough’, a mistake which, once recognised, later became his motivation for promoting sailing for people with disabilities.
Ian became the first patient at Odstock Spinal Hospital in Wiltshire, formerly a hospital for American servicemen training in southern England. There, he was visited by Group Captain (later Sir) Douglas Bader, the double amputee WWII fighter pilot who, as a keen rugby player, was well known to Dougie Harrison. Bader convinced young Harrison that he should eschew a wheelchair. Ian therefore learned to walk using callipers and forearm crutches, and went to work for Cadburys in Bournville, Birmingham, ‘as far away as possible from the sea and sailing.’ With the support of Cadburys, he trained as a social worker.
In 1972, Ian was headhunted to become the Director of the Leicestershire Association of the Disabled (later called Mosaic: shaping disability services) where, for many years, he unknowingly parked his car in ‘the car park over the grave’ of Richard III. Along with a growing team, he built Mosaic into a much-respected service-provider for people with disabilities.
In 1988, Ian retired with Membership (of the Most Excellent Order) of the British Empire, a Royal honour about which he told very few people. He later returned to Mosaic as Chairman of the Board of Trustees. Later still, he became a volunteer with the local Citizens Advice Bureau, specialising in benefits for people with disabilities. He rarely lost a benefits tribunal case.
Ian’s early post-polio recreational pursuits involved car rallying and hill climbing. In early middle age, Ian returned to competitive sailing, initially through radio-controlled models and later through Mirror and Miracle dinghies and Challenger trimarans. But keener competition beckoned.
Before 1985, the RYA Seamanship Foundation provided sailing opportunities for disadvantaged youngsters and blind & visually-impaired people. Ian sought a means whereby people with disabilities could sail both recreationally and competitively. In 1985, Ian and Pauline Harrison gathered a group of like-minded people around their dining room table and founded Sailability, a disabled sailing organisation named after Motability, the British disabled motoring organisation. Ian became the association’s first Vice-Chairman. He later became Chairman. When Sailability merged with the Royal Yachting Association’s Seamanship Foundation, Ian became Vice-Chairman of RYA Sailability. As a model for national disabled sailing organisations, Sailability spread throughout the world. Under various names, Sailability currently operates in 20 countries.
In the late 1980s, Ian discovered the International 2.4mR, a single-person, deep-displacement sloop of Scandinavian origin that can be sailed on near-equal terms by both disabled and able-bodied people. He became hooked on the class. Ian contested many national and almost every world 2.4mR championship held in the closing decade of the last millennium. During this period, Ian became dependent on a wheelchair for much of his mobility. This did not stop him serving as Vice-President of the International 2.4mR Association. All the while, Ian competed in three-person keelboats at national and international levels. A Japanese competitor described Ian thus: ‘On water – very aggressive; on shore, perfect English gentleman.’
In 1988, Henri Baron Collot d’Escury founded the Netherlands-based International Handicap Sailing System Committee, which later became the International Foundation for Disabled Sailing (IFDS). Ian served as a founding Vice-President of IFDS until Henri’s death (1997) whereupon Ian led the world governing body, overseeing the spread of sailing for people with disabilities throughout the world. Ian resigned the presidency in 2004 but continued to serve IFDS as a Vice-President until 2010.
It was mainly due to Ian’s vision, drive and example that sailing became a demonstration sport at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, and a full medal sport at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics. Ian’s service as Technical Delegate in Sydney set a standard that guaranteed the success of Paralympic regattas in Athens, Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro. His dedication to equity ensured that Paralympic competition expanded from a single class (Sonar; 1996) to two classes (Sonar and 2,4mR; 2000 and 2004) to three classes (Sonar, 2,4mR and SKUD18; 2008 and 2012), and permitted people with a wide range of disabilities to participate at the apex of competition.
Many honours have been bestowed on Ian Harrison.
• RYA Award for Services to Sailing (1998)
• Paralympic Order (2005)
• ISAF Long Service Gold Medal (2008).
As the reserve of the winning crew at the 1996 Paralympic regatta, Ian was awarded a Gold Medal. Predictably, Ian asked the coach of the British team to accept the medal. He later donated it to RYA Sailability ‘because he was only the reserve’.
Ian Hamilton Harrison died peacefully, in his sleep, after a short illness, during the middle watch (02.00) of Friday 26 August 2016. He was 79 years old. We will miss the boyish smile of this modest man of impeccable manners who claimed that disability had given him more than it had taken away. We will gratefully remember his tact, diplomacy, high resolve and quiet leadership. Few have lived a better life.
Ian is survived by his wife Pauline, who worked tirelessly at his side for 31 years and to whom Ian attributed much of his success, and by his two children, Neil and Fiona.
Written by Phil Vardy
On 26th August we lost a true champion of the international disabled sailing community. Sadly, after a short illness, Ian Harrison passed away in Leister UK. Since the formation of Sailability in UK in 1985, the worldwide Sailability movement has been touched and motivated by Ian’s dedication of ensuring that people regardless of their disability have the opportunity to sail, whether it be on their local lake or competing in Worlds and Paralympic competition. Ian worked tirelessly to have the two person discipline accepted into the Paralympics, with the SKUD18 being selected for 2008, 2012 and 2016.
The Sailing for Everyone Foundation offers our sincere condolences to Ian’s wife Pauline who travelled the world at Ian’s side. Together they passionately supported Sailability, IFDS and the development of disabled sailing around the world.
Thank you Ian. Rest in peace.