ASTO Small Ships Race -
Cowes - Friday
3rd to 5th October 2008
Dering Employment Services
announces its sponsorship
for a group of eight people
to take part in LSP's first
voyage on 5 - 9 May 2008
See more about Dering
An article by "Sunday Times - Scotland" on Gerry
Hughes's solo transatlantic crossing in this year's Royal Western
Yacht Club OSTAR 2005 was written by Anna Burnside, a Sunday
Times's journalist, who was interviewing Gerry Hughes at a Sunday
A question of sink or sail
The tide has finally turned for Gerry Hughes, the first deaf
person to cross the Atlantic single-handedly, writes Anna
Burnside When you have waited 24 years to realise an ambition,
it takes a lot to admit defeat. But sitting on his own, below
deck on Quest II, in the middle of the Atlantic with nothing
but tiny oil lamp for company, Gerry Hughes came pretty close.
Profoundly deaf since birth, Hughes had longed to sail to America
most of his adult life. It would, he decided, take more than
atrocious weather and a flat battery to hold him back. He kept
Today Hughes, 47, the first deaf sailor to cross the Atlantic
single-handedly, is back home in Glasgow. Speaking through a
sign-language interpreter, he sounds faintly dazed: jet lag
combined with amazement that he has made it back in one piece.
He has had enough adventures for one year.
After spending eight fog-bound, wind-free days in the
middle of the Atlantic, wondering if he would ever see his
wife and teenage daughters again, he plans to spend the rest
of the summer messing about on his dinghy in less challenging
waters off Arran.
Hughes has been sailing for almost as long as he has been walking. His
father, a keen yachtsman and former Royal Navy man, started his son’s
apprenticeship at the age of two. Together they messed around in boats
in Largs, Rhu and Inverkip. By the time Hughes left school he had hooked
up with a group of deaf sailors in the south of England and sailed
across the Channel.
Fired with enthusiasm, Hughes planned a more ambitious deaf-crewed trip
to the Bay of Biscay. But red tape, lack of sponsorship and difficulties
in securing suitable insurance defeated him. It was the early 1980s and
the deaf community was just starting to embrace sign language and emerge
as a powerful group in its own right. The idea of a group of deaf people
embarking on a risky voyage was too much for the cautious sailing
The Bay of Biscay was only the first stage in
Hughes’s master plan — it was 1981 when he initially
set his heart on a single-handed crossing of the Atlantic.
But, frustrated with being treated as a second-class
citizen, he decided that his other ambition, to become
a teacher, had to take priority.
There were no deaf teachers in Scotland in 1981.
Armed with a maths degree from the Open University,
Hughes began a one-man campaign;
eventually, with the backing of his MP and a
very persistent lawyer, he became the first deaf student
to train with a sign-language interpreter. He finally
qualified in 1995.
By the time he was acting head of Donaldson’s School for the Deaf in
Edinburgh, however, the sea began calling him again. “I realised this
was not enough,” he says. “It was too much work, incredible pressure.
Although it’s a great school, this is not for me. At the back of my mind
I always had sailing.”
Although he had not set foot on a yacht for decades, buying a beaten-up
dinghy to use on family holidays in Arran was enough to reawaken his
dormant dreams. He gathered the family together for a formal meeting. “I
asked everyone present: Would you allow me to go on this
trip to America. Straight away the two girls said,
‘Away you go, Dad, you do it’. And that was it. It was the shortest
meeting I’ve ever had.”
The plan was this: resign from Donaldson’s, go back to teaching at St
Vincent’s School for the Deaf in Glasgow and free up time to prepare for
the OSTAR transatlantic race — in two years’ time. Hughes had to find a
boat, get it ready, secure sponsorship, bring himself up to date with
two decades’ worth of developments in sailing technology, as well as
relearning the basics.
He finally bought a 23-year-old 34ft yacht last
August. That left him with less than a year to
get the boat ready for a 4,000 mile trip, to
clock up the 500 solo miles required by the race
organisers, get to grips with the marvels of internet
weather forecasting and satellite navigation and
raise the £90,000 required.
“Through the autumn and winter I spent every
weekend getting to know the boat before I made
any modifications. It was 20 years since I’d been
out to sea, there were so many things. I’d forgotten,
so many new things to learn.
Back then there was no technology; everything was done through
observation, whether it was the weather or the wind. A barometer
was about as sophisticated as it got.”
Hughes’s first important outing in his new boat, by this time
named Quest II, was abandoned halfway to Rockall in a force nine
gale. is American visa was delivered by motorbike courier with
24 hours to go. By the time the starting gun was fired and he left
Plymouth, he thought nothing else could go wrong.
But he was barely out of English waters when his brand new battery
to lose power, forcing a detour to Cork for emergency repairs.
Convincing the marina secretary that he was taking part in a transatlantic
yacht race was Hughes’s first challenge. A crash course in giving a
boat battery open heart surgery was next — not easy when your teacher
does not sign.
When he finally turned the ignition key and the engine sprang into life,
he thought it must be a sign that his troubles were over
And, for a few days, they were. His plan was to make a northerly loop,
avoiding bad weather in the southern Atlantic, before swinging back
down to hit the east coast of America. But before he had even reached
the midway point, the battery started to fail again.
Hughes points to the
spot on the chart. It is the white, featureless bit in the
middle. Not a land mass with a marina in sight. Without his
battery he could not use the generator, the laptop he relied on
for communication and navigation, or the lights. His mobile
phone was fading fast. He was alone, in the middle of the
Atlantic, in a wave-drenched yacht with an oil lamp and an
Should he turn back or keep going? “I thought of Kay, I was worried
about her and the family. But I knew she would want me to head on,
to just get on with it. I took a nap to think about it
“When I woke up the sea was still tremendously rough. The water was
jet black with white waves on top. At one point the boat rolled and
it seemed to go on for ever. I thought, this is the one where the
boat capsizes. It was wave on wave. It was pitch black and I was on
my own. But I decided to go for it. I was prepared to take the risk.”
Then a thick fog descended. There was no wind for eight days. With no
lights or way of communicating with other ships, Hughes lived in
constant fear of straying into the path of an oncoming freighter.
It was eight days before he saw any sign of life. “I saw seaweed, I
saw dolphins. But I had no way of knowing if I had hit the coast at the
right spot. I could have been there.” He points to Newfoundland on the
By this time there were other boats around. But Hughes, who communicates
only through sign language, was at a loss as to how to ask them for help.
Eventually he wrote “Newport?” on the back of a chart and held it up to
a passing speedboat. He waved his Scottish flag for good measure.
The skipper waved back through the fog, and pointed Hughes in the right
direction. Half an hour later, the speedboat zoomed back through the mist.
The skipper had been wrong. He signalled for Hughes to turn back. He was
almost there. “Suddenly the fog cleared. I could see Newport in front of me.”
What Hughes had not anticipated was the wildly enthusiastic crowd on the
quayside to celebrate his arrival. Most of the other competitors had arrived
in Newport and heard that the deaf skipper was stuck at sea with no
communications. Quest II was towed into the marina to a hero’s welcome.
There were champagne and film crews. “It was at that point when it dawned
on me that I had actually achieved what I had set out to do.”
Back in Scotland, reunited with his family, Hughes is torn between plotting
his next trip — he fancies the Five Oceans, a single-handed round-the-world
race — and kicking back on Arran with the family.
"I would like to see someone from the deaf community sail round
the world. That would show the parents of deaf children, once
and for all, that there is nothing to stop them doing whatever they
want to do."