AN ENTREPRENEUR from Shaldon who says being able to continue being at sea ‘saved’ him after his Motor Neurone Disease diagnosis is now helping others with disabilities to discover the joys of the ocean.

James Ashton was diagnosed with MND in 2018, aged 56 just 24 hours after selling his organic food and drink business, destroying his long-awaited plans for early retirement.

He now relies on 24/7 care with permanent ventilation and communicates via EyeGaze technology. 

With his only remains movement his right thumb and a slight grip with three fingers on his left hand, the rest of his body has been paralysed by MND.

The father-of-two had loved being on the sea throughout his life, with rowing, swimming and paddle boarding being favourite family activities for him, his wife Joanna, sons Sam and Monty and sea-loving dog Shrimp.

MDA had robbed him of these hobbies but, despite  becoming wheelchair-bound, he paid to convert a catamaran, Thunder-cat, for him to be able to get out on the water.

It was a huge breakthrough for him, which he says enabled him to continue with a quality of life he feared may be lost.

Now, James has financed the purchase of a new £180,000 boat for the charity Wetwheels which will allow others to discover the same freedom James rediscovered through getting back out on the sea.

The creation of Wetwheels Torbay has been supported by an ambitious fundraising challenge from James and Russell Smart, his business partner for more than 15 years.

Over 26 days, James cycled 100.4km on a static bike - the distance of the boat’s maiden delivery voyage from Ventnor to Torbay - despite the ongoing and increasing problems he faces with his mobility.

Russell walked the actual 150-mile route of the voyage from the Isle of Wight to Tor-quay, with James there to meet him at the finish line.

The boat will be the eighth in the Wet Wheels fleet across England, Scotland, and the Channel Islands, and will be based in Torbay. It will service all of Devon, East Cornwall, Dorset and beyond.

James said: ‘I am absolutely thrilled Wet Wheels is coming to Torbay,” says James.

‘As a lover of the sea and all things nautical, my ambition was to enable others to enjoy what I have experienced, despite their disabilities or problems with mobility.

‘The Wetwheels boats provide a very steady and safe platform for everyone to feel secure while being on the sea, from family to carers. It could be people from all walks of life, of any age, with either complex care requirements to getting older and less mobile.

'I would love everyone to be able to access the sea.’

James, who was also a keen angler and diver and was unbeaten in more than 30 years of competitive local rowing Regattas, first began to notice issues with his mobility in 2016, but thought it was probably ‘general wear and tear’ from his activity-loving lifestyle.

It was two years later when he was given the devastating diagnosis of MND, just at the point he hoped to embark on an active retirement with his family, and his children who were then aged 12 and 14.

He said: ‘I couldn't believe that after spending so much time away from the family with the business, that I was now being denied the opportunity to be with them and enjoy our lives together.

'I also feared my boating days were over. By 2019, I was regularly falling and lost the use of my left arm. We researched every chance and possibility to get me on a boat, but nothing was accessible.’

Having commissioned his own catamaran, James became aware of Wetwheels when looking into options around fishing for wheelchair users. 

Realising the potential the charity offers to people with disabilities and mobility problems, James was keen to lend his support.

He said: ‘The benefits and experience of getting out safely on the sea are huge, and I believe undervalued.

‘The local coast is superb for everything boating related and offers everything from magical wildlife to sheltered historic ports like Dartmouth.

‘Getting onto a boat is normally the biggest barrier - but with the Wet Wheels boats, even people who are not in a wheelchair can use the facility, as access is all level and easy.’

Through the fundraising by James and Russell - which has so far generated more than £11,000 - Wetwheels Torbay will be supported in becoming established in its new Devon home. 

Russell has become a director of the new venture.

James explained: ‘We decided on this fundraising because over the years Russell and I have frequently tested ourselves in sporting challenges.

James at sea
James at sea (MDA )

‘Eventually, I decided on cycling as it is the only physical option for me now, with Russell walking the exact route. I don’t know what the longer-term effects for me might be through doing this, given my mobility issues.’

James’s care is delivered by complex care and case management provider Breakthrough, with the business supporting him in his fundraising venture.

Annabelle Lofthouse, CEO of Breakthrough, said: ‘This is a hugely benevolent act by James to bring Wetwheels to Torbay, enabling others to discover the benefits of being on the sea that have helped James so much in the amazing way he deals with living with MND.

‘In addition to his personal donation, the fact he has embarked on a physical challenge, despite the huge issues he faces with his mobility and in his daily living, shows what a truly selfless person James is. We have been delighted to support him in his fundraising.

‘We know how much James has benefitted through being able to continue to get out on the sea, and others will now have the chance to share in this. 

‘This is so significant for the wellbeing of countless individuals and families in the years ahead.’

James with his boat Thundercat
James with his boat Thundercat (MDA )