So how did I get to be crewing in the Clipper Race?
By being impetuous and spontaneous one Saturday morning in August 2017, that’s how!
It was a few weeks before my 39th birthday and I felt increasingly restless and full of energy, but with nowhere to direct it. I was also coming to the end of yet another academic contract with a period of unemployment looking ever more likely (not the first time in my academic career I might add!). I’d also just found out that a funding bid I was relying on for future employment and research focus had been unsuccessful (again, not the for the first time). Rather than get straight back to the drawing board and write more bids to other academic funders and apply for all manner of academic jobs, I would find myself spending my lunch breaks at Waterstones thumbing through the travel and adventure books.
I sensed it was high time for some ‘life review’. So I spent that lousy, wet, overcast summer of 2017 sweating in a hammock in our backyard under a humid, leaden sky, trying to identify the colour of my parachute and build my own rainbow via a ‘skills audit’. Writing academic journal articles and funding bids, let’s be honest, would have been far more helpful in my pursuit of academic employment, but not nearly as interesting!
Deep down I knew I was looking for my next ‘project’, but I wasn’t convinced it needed to be an academic one. I wanted an adventure. I wanted to move (the HOURS I have spent at a desk writing, marking, reading, prepping lectures). I wanted physical exertion (not just mental). To feel the elements in my face. I needed to get out of the city. I sensed the allure and need for changing tack…towards an unknown horizon and expanse of ocean. Something elemental.
This physical restlessness was matched in equal measure by an emotional restlessness too. I knew from my many hours interviewing people who are bereaved or dying that I should never, ever take life for granted. Live it whilst I can. Embrace fully the good and the bad, but never waste it. I also knew these life lessons personally, for all my adult life has been marred by a rare chronic inflammatory condition called Orofacial Granulomatosis (OFG for short). Medical consultants are still divided over whether it is, in fact, Crohn’s Disease. To be honest, I don’t really care whether it’s Crohn’s Disease or OFG. Neither have a cure. Both are extremely painful and have a huge impact on your quality of life. In my 20s when society tells you that you are young and beautiful, I felt wretched and ashamed. I had facial disfigurements from the symptoms of OFG, which at their worst, meant I could not eat solid food and, to speak and swallow, caused me considerable pain. These ‘flare-ups’ (as the medical professionals refer to them) were crushing. I was constantly being asked by (sometimes) well-meaning strangers “what’s wrong with your face?” People would try to be nice by saying I looked like I just had botox, but inside I was raging. Back behind closed doors I would just burst into tears. If people didn’t ask me directly what was wrong, they’d simply stare. When I was speaking to them, they’d just stare at my lips. I hated having my photograph taken as I didn’t recognise myself from my late teens. A photograph, taken by my university college at the start of ‘Fresher’s Week’ in 2000, has immortalised my condition. I can’t bear to look at the photograph, so I keep it in a box tucked deep in a cupboard. On the rare occasion I look at it, I re-live the emotions and pain that come with living with OFG when it’s at its most severe.
But in 2017, 17 years after my first severe debilitating flare-up and subsequent diagnosis, my consultant was telling me that things looked much calmer inside my mouth and, for once, we didn’t engage in our usual tussle over whether I should resume taking steroids or just receive a steroid injection into my mouth before leaving his surgery. He told me he’d see me in 6 months’ time as he left the room. I was shocked, “6 months!?” Normally, I was seen once every 3 months (at least) to monitor my condition. It felt like I’d been given the all clear! I was jubilant. I was beaming. But I was so used to leaving the hospital feeling tearful and a bit sorry for myself that I didn’t know what to do with myself when I walked out of the doors of the outpatients surgery…now was the time to hatch a plan, whilst my condition was “stable”.
So with my research post coming to an end in a matter of weeks, no job to go on to, about to turn 39, and with pregnancy looking increasingly like it wasn’t going to be an option for Dave and I – but with a stable condition that wasn’t unduly worrying my consultant as it had numerous times before – I did what anyone would do in that situation: I hit ‘apply’ on the Clipper Race website one Saturday morning, propped up in bed with my laptop when I should have been applying for academic posts!
Dave was out delivering his round that morning (he works most Saturdays), so I made sure I had his favourite breakfast served when he got home before sheepishly announcing: “I have something to tell you. I’ve applied for the Clipper Race. I’ve been invited for an interview on the 15th September in Gosport.”
“Wow! Darling, you go for it!” Dave replied, whilst tucking into his cooked breakfast. My heart melted and I fell in love with him all over again in that moment! My patient, kind, understanding husband, who slogs his guts out delivering mail day-in, day-out, increasingly being morphed into “an Amazon donkey” pounding the polluted streets of Bristol, I love you!
That marked the beginning of the journey, a journey that as I sit and type this now, is already 18 months further down the line. I am halfway through my Clipper Race training, I am feeling the urgency to get fit for the race and I desperately need to get some experience out on the water to consolidate what little knowledge of seamanship I have picked-up along the way and gain some much-needed confidence. I need sponsorship and I need to acquire the appropriate technical gear that will keep me warm, dry, and safe at sea. I’m not sure my psychedelic leggings and old trainers will be tolerated by the training Skippers anymore. With the passing of the New Year, this race has just got a whole lot more serious!