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Sailing in Solent

 ASTO Small Ships Race -
 Cowes - Friday
 3rd to 5th October 2008

 Event details


Participants from Dering Employment Services

 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

  OSTAR 2005
Updated: 28-Feb-2007  

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 pub.

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.

Bosun in the canal

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 going.

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 community.

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 encroaching storm.

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 dilapidated chart.

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."

Gerry Hughes


  OSTAR 2005