Emily Caruso reports on a unique cruise round the coast of Britain with the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust

Despite a significant drop in the breeze, our arrival at Canning Dock in Liverpool coincided with a four-knot cross-tide to make things particularly interesting. Our yacht Moonspray ferry-glided confidently towards the open gates as we made best use of the spring flood and I carefully assessed the degree of counter helm required as we squeezed between the stone walls of the lock gate.

It took a great deal of concentration as the shore lights of the city reflected in the water, making it tricky to determine the gap in the wall. We were still just about awake after a hectic day of sailing from Conwy in North Wales in some reasonably choppy seas.

All four crew had shown great enthusiasm in identifying the light characteristics of buoys as we navigated the Mersey. Thankfully our transit time into the Albert Dock was short and Molly, 14, Isobel, Ian and Kamil, all 12, retired quickly to their cabins as the lines were made fast on our berth.


Moonspray and her crew passed the most easterly and southerly points of the UK

What would be an impressive passage for any novice sailor was made more remarkable by the fact that all our young crew are in recovery from cancer. Molly, Isobel, Ian and Kamil were part of a relay of over 100 young people who have sailed the GibSea 44 Moonspray round the UK over a period of four months this summer.

Divided into 17 legs, the voyage set off in May from Largs on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland, where the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust has its northern base, and sailed in a clockwise direction around the UK. Between three and five young people, aged between 9 and 29, crewed on each leg, supported by one of four skippers, plus a medic, full-time first mate Hannah Spencer, and Tom Roberts, the onboard reporter.

Dame Ellen MacArthur created the Trust in 2003 after she was inspired by French sailing charity A Chacun Son Cap. Childhood cancer is relatively rare and hence many young people endure the debilitating process of treatment without ever really sharing their experience with others of a similar age. The effects of cancer treatment can often have serious psychological, emotional and social implications, as well as the physical toll.

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When Ellen spent time on the water with the French charity back in 2000, shortly before she set off on her memorable Vendée Globe, she witnessed how bringing young people together through sailing had remarkable benefits for those recovering from treatment. On board the yachts, a uniquely safe and inclusive space is created. Inhibitions can be left ashore, along with any sense of being ‘different’ to the rest of the world.

On the trips I’ve skippered I often see how being among like-minded others gives young sailors the freedom to openly discuss their cancer and treatment – or the confidence to take off the wig they wear as a consequence of chemotherapy. Many times you hear the comment: “It’s nice not to be the kid with cancer for once.”

The 2017 Round Britain voyage was the most ambitious of the trust’s trips yet. It replicated Ellen’s own voyage in 1995 when, at 18, she became the youngest person to sail single-handed round Britain in her 21ft Corribee, Iduna. And it gave Trust representatives the chance to visit treatment centres around the country, raise funds, and spread their message, as well as to experience some spectacular sailing.


Ellen MacArthur sailed solo round Britain at 18. She was inspired to set up her trust by the French charity A Chacun Son Cap

Fruity conditions

On Leg 15, the crew joined us at Holyhead, off Anglesey in North Wales, a port accessible on all states of tide and the last of its type ahead of the Irish Sea. With over 60 miles to Liverpool it seemed appropriate to break the trip with a stopover, creating kinder passage times for this particularly young team and with a preferred route around Anglesey. Conwy was the practical solution.

After some careful tidal calculations to ensure drying height clearance we planned for an early nighttime arrival and a lunchtime departure the following day. As with many ports in such heavily tidal waters, the pilot guides stress that channel markers are often moved in line with the shifting sandbars and so charted positions can be incorrect.

The coordinates of each marker are published online to ensure the most up-to-date corrections are available for safe pilotage, so all eyes were on the red and green flashing lights, providing a great warm-up exercise ahead of our forthcoming trip along the Mersey.

Our departure from Conwy the following day was somewhat fruity with a strong ebbing tide kicking up the swell with the help of a fresh north-westerly breeze. Our timed departure ensured plenty of water beneath the keel but it was still an adrenalin fuelled hour before we cleared the shallows to safe water, on course for Liverpool.

For once, the wind gods were playing ball and, under jib and double-reefed main, Moonspray beam reached towards our next waypoint comfortably and, at seven knots, pleasantly fast.

Although controversial to some, wind farms have always seemed quite graceful to my eyes, and Gwynt y Môr off the coast of North Wales in Liverpool Bay is no different, despite our having to sail a less than favourable wind angle to avoid it. As we came off the wind and the apparent wind speed died, we resorted to a pinned main and engine to maintain a steady speed and keep the boat safe from any unwanted gybes.


The crew of Moonspray helped to plan passages

A residual sea state remained and several of the small, pink faces in the cockpit began to turn shades of green – hardly surprising, given the motion of the boat. Just at that moment Mother Nature came to our rescue as a large pod of bottlenose dolphins began to play boisterously in the bow wave.

No matter how often you see them in the wild it is impossible to tire of dolphins and the excitement that they have brought to our young crews along the Round Britain trip has been unforgettable. Seasickness averted, as the sun fell below the horizon we began to see the first lights of our transit into the mighty River Mersey.

With our closest all-weather all-tide port of refuge over 60 miles away it was a relief to successfully lock into Albert Dock after a short spell of holding station in the Canning half tide dock. Dave Hobin, a paediatric and adolescent oncologist and our on board medic for Legs 15 and 16, had grown up nearby so for him it was a dream come true to sail into Liverpool.


A pod of dolphins captivate Myla and Elita near Tayport in Fife on Leg 5 from Aberdeen to Edinburgh

Dr Hobin has been a consultant for 14 years and a trustee with the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust for five years, dedicating his life to working with young people with cancer. As we talked on watch he shared his thoughts on the effect of Trust trips.

“A group of young people come together in this unique environment and grow in confidence, working together to support each other in so many different ways. They arrive as strangers and leave as lifelong friends. It truly is remarkable.”

Being a skipper with the Trust is one of the toughest jobs that I have had but also the most rewarding. From a physical perspective, the sailing is almost secondary to the culture that we create on board. But the responsibility can weigh heavily at times, not least because there is a compelling need to deliver the best possible experience for these remarkable and courageous young people.


The 2,200 mile circumnavigation of Britain involved 125 young people, 4 skippers, 13 hospital visits, 50 dolphin sightings and 238 games of Uno

Many of our daily decisions around weather and tides, safety of the crew and suitability of the passage are complicated further by individual needs such as medication, physical disabilities, vulnerable immune systems and the confidence issues that we are working to help improve.

On a few occasions during the Round Britain voyage the skippers were required to make difficult but necessary decisions around safety. Having set sail for Falmouth during Leg 12, skipper Cathy Vise felt compelled to return to Plymouth after three of her four crew succumbed to seasickness early on.

Under ordinary circumstances it might have been possible to monitor the crew and continue, but add to the equation the fact that one young woman on board had a complex brain issue, which carries similar symptoms to that of common seasickness, and the decision had to be weighted towards caution.

The flip side of the complexity of this voyage has been the immense satisfaction derived from watching the young crews develop throughout their time on board. In a world that is increasingly digital, the beauty of the Trust sailing trips lies in their simplicity.

Throughout the voyage people revelled in each other’s company; during our evenings ashore we played games such as Uno and Articulate, had barbecues on the beach and walked and explored shores and their hinterlands.

Even with the over-18 crews there is a strict no-alcohol policy at the Trust, which is fundamental to the atmosphere that we create on board. The laughter that emanates from below decks derives from good, old-fashioned, honest fun.


The Leg 14 crew (from left, Meredith, Mark and Nisha) share a joke

During the longer offshore passages it was uplifting to see the reactions to a sunset or a star-filled sky, to hear bubbling excitement as we listened to the high pitched squeak of dolphins through the glassfibre hull or watched in awe as they swam through the darkness shining with phosphorescence.

The length and breadth

The diverse coastline experienced on the voyage added an extra dimension to this year’s challenge. Mark Burton skippered the first of the crews across the start line in Largs and through the Crinan and Caledonian canals, before handing the baton to Simon Bradley, who took on the longer passages of the east coast, eventually leading our youngest crew up the Thames and into St Katharine Docks in London.

Twelve-year-old Cassidey took the helm as Moonspray added her name to the exclusive list of yachts before her that have passed beneath the renowned landmark of Tower Bridge. It was an experience skipper Bradley described as “extremely special for everyone involved”.


Nearing Dartmouth at the end of Leg 11 of the trip

Skipper Cathy Vise flew in from South Africa to take on the challenge of the south coast. Her crew stopped for a memorable visit to the Land Rover BAR America’s Cup team headquarters in Portsmouth, while carefully avoiding the Cowes Week and Fastnet Race fleets as Moonspray sailed by her southern homeport on the Isle of Wight.

Moonspray and team passed the most easterly and southerly points of the UK, before navigating Land’s End and the formidable tide of the Bristol Channel. I joined the team three months into their circumnavigation, at Cardiff Bay.

Glorious bank holiday sunshine and the Extreme Sailing Series were both gracing the Welsh capital to welcome our new crew. The international Extreme Series sailors with whom we shared the pontoons were gracious and the GC32 racing provided huge excitement for us.


Exploring the Crinan Canal and navigating the locks on Leg 2 from Glasgow to Oban

Possibly one of the toughest, and yet most unequivocal, decisions I have ever made was to abandon any attempt to take our Leg 16 crew from Liverpool to Belfast. Storm Aileen had different plans for us as winds in excess of 50 knots ripped across the Irish Sea for days.

As our small weather window diminished, it became evident that there wasn’t going to be a safe opportunity for the crew during their scheduled time on board. The disappointment was palpable, but nonetheless we enjoyed a good few days of stormbound onboard entertainment, as only a Trust boat full of teenagers could.

Thankfully an experienced team from the Trust were able to get Moonspray to Belfast, and the Northern Irish and Scottish legs of the trip were completed. And then 126 days after setting off, Moonspray sailed triumphantly across the finish line into Largs in Ayrshire. She had visited 58 ports on her incredible journey around Britain.


Moonspray glides near St Ann’s Head in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire

Local crewmember Ryan Campbell, 22, helmed across the line, completing a voyage that involved 125 young people in recovery from cancer and leukaemia. Hannah, the first mate and Tom, the onboard reporter, who had completed the entire trip, had mixed emotions as we made fast the lines for the final time.

There was immense joy at the huge success of the voyage but, as we disembarked, a feeling of sadness that this adventure had come to its end. After four months and 2,200 miles it was time to leave the loyal blue yacht and look forward to the next adventure.

The impact of the Trust’s trip was captured by 14-year-old Emily Wright, who sailed from Poole to Dartmouth on Leg 11. “I’ve definitely gained confidence through the trust,” she said. “I can’t see much past 1.5 metres in front of me, but over the week I learned how to steer using the wind on my face and compass points. If I can steer a big boat in the right direction, I can do anything.”

First published in the December 2017 edition of Yachting World.