When I was asked to sail on one of the Ellen MacArthur Trust boats in this year's JP Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race I didn't hesitate. In my opinion, there are two ways to enjoy this race, one is enjoying a fantastic sail round on a race boat full of friends where you are fully involved - I have some great memories of trimming round the back of the island, knackering but satisfying sailing. The other is to 'cruise' round with some special people or on a special boat.
The Ellen MacArthur Trust rebuilds the confidence of young people who are recovering form cancer by taking them sailing... it's a fabulous charity and sailing truly works to assist youngsters through their illness and help them to get their lives back. The idea of doing the race with a bunch of Trust youngsters fell into my special people category and it was a unique chance to get a real insight into what the charity does. While I had some idea of what can be achieved when you put a group of young people on a boat together from my time sailing with the Ocean Youth Club when I was younger, experiencing the Ellen MacArthur Trust's work in person was to prove an amazing experience.
As well as seven young people, I'm also on board with Ellen herself - who is as enthusiastic about sailing round with a group of Trust youngsters as she is when she recalls the year she finished first in an Extreme 40. While her tales of racing light her eyes with competitive zeal, sailing round with these young people who are recovering from cancer lights her piercing blue eyes with a different fire. She exudes an absolute delight in sharing the experience with them and seeing them revel in the achievement of completing the race.
We're racing on Dark Star, a former maxi race boat that's been converted for cruising. The owner has never done the race before, and has been inspired by the Trust's work to lend it to them for the event. We are one of four Trust boats entered in the Race - an event which the Trust's Frank Fletcher explains is ideal as getting round is an achievable but very satisfying goal for the youngsters.
Right from the start, Ellen is a constant presence on deck. One moment she is helping to trim the next she is sharing stories with the youngsters. She is relaxed and natural, and the youngsters pick up on this and respond in a similar manner. Before long they are singing - the happy repertoire ranges from "10 Green Bottles" to the Black Eyed Peas with pretty much everything in between!
After a busy and rather painful beat out of the Solent - Dark Star might have a racing pedigree but in her cruisey get-up she is clunky and slow to tack - we round the Needles and the sun comes out. The boat settles into an happier broad reach, but the rolling motion sees sickness attacking some of the youngsters, while others simply fall asleep in the sunshine. It's impressive to see how these young people, who have already been through so much in their lives, handle sea sickness - it simply becomes part of the adventure, part of the story, part of the achievement for them.
Most were fine when distracted by helping around the boat, we only really had one youngster who suffered for the whole run down the back of the island and she takes it with a weak smile and talks endlessly of her love of sailing. Trust volunteer, Ann, is on hand to help with the bucket, sympathy and there is plenty of good natured banter. Ellen tells of the many ocean racers she's sailed with who suffer from sea sickness as well.
The aroma of hot sausage rolls and pasties stirs the sleepers and for those not feeling sick it's welcome fuel. One youngster wakes after a snooze in the sunshine and announces he's experienced the best sleep ever.
Rounding Bembridge Ledge Buoy, for me, is the best bit of the day. As Dark Star settles into her stride powering up the flat waters of the Solent, she seems happy, as do the crew as the brave sea-sickness sufferers perk up colour returning to their faces. On every face the smiles are broadening as we head for home.
Crossing the line is a celebration and the sense of achievement is evident. For a day these young people had been able to be themselves. While cancer is something they have battled through (some of them are still battling) it's not something that sets them apart here. Here their illness is normal. Things like losing your hair or going through aggressive treatments are nothing special. They are bound by a common experience and although they rarely speak of it, you will often catch a shared moment as one talks of losing her hair, another pair discover they shared the same favourite doctor. Here they aren't that girl or boy who was off ill for so long, they aren't a cancer sufferer, they are simply themselves.
The day ends with fish and chips for all the boats (this year four Trust boats took part - and they all got round the course). We are joined by Ellen's dog Norman, who is a hit in himself as happy faces delight in throwing a ball of chip wrappings around for him. Then we go round the room for a round of "best bit, worst bit, funniest bit", which everyone, including Ellen, joins in. Most of the best bits involve crossing the finishing line. The worst bits involve the early start, being sick, or the prospect of going home, while the funny bits are as varied as the personalities of the children sailing. There is a lot of laughter and I leave with the image of Ellen and Norman surrounded by a sea of smiling happy faces imprinted on my mind.
An unforgettable day, and, even if it was probably the furthest down the fleet I have ever finished (for the story on who won the race, see our news story Manroland Sheetfed wins the 2012 Round the Island Race), it was one of my best Round the Island Race experiences ever.
Gael Pawson is the founder of Creating Waves and has been the editor of Yachts & Yachting Magazine for over 10 years. A keen racer, she has sailed all her life, and started writing about the subject whilst studying journalism at university. Dinghies and small keelboats are her first loves, but she has cruised and raced a huge variety of boats in locations across the world.