Gerry Hughes is the first deaf sailor to solo circumnavigate the world. Katy Stickland finds out what motivates him to push the boundaries
If it hadn’t been for Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, there is a chance that Gerry Hughes’ dream to sail around the world might have gone unfulfilled.
The Scottish sailor, who was born profoundly deaf, was struggling to find insurance for his double-handed sail around the British Isles with deaf sailor Matthew Jackson.
‘Being deaf meant I couldn’t get insurance. I remember one person saying that I must have a hearing person in my crew. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to show that deaf people have the ability. I didn’t want hearing people to help me,’ he said.
His ‘big breakthrough’ came when he met Sir Robin at the bar at Troon marina, and explained his dilemma via written notes.
The following morning Sir Robin handed him a note which read, ‘Use my name for your insurance. Go sail round Great Britain. Good luck.’
‘Without Sir Robin’s support, I would never have been able to experience sailing in the great oceans of the world. My life would have been very different,’ he recalled.
Hughes and Jackson left Troon on 5 July 1981 aboard the 31ft Westerly Longbow, Faraway II.
They returned 29 days later, having sailed 2,169 miles and earned a place in the record books as the first deaf crew to circumnavigate the British Isles without the aid of communication.
It was just a taste of things to come for Gerry Hughes.
Born in Glasgow in 1957, Hughes grew up holidaying on the Firth of Clyde, Largs and the Isle of Bute where he soon fell in love with the feel of the southwesterly wind and the smell of seaweed; the start of a life-long connection with the sea.
From the age of two, his father took him sailing in his GP14 dinghy, Wee G.
One of Hughes’ vivid childhood memories is being impatient to go sailing, with his father explaining to him via sign language how long he would have to wait to be back on board.
By the age of eight, he was spending every weekend and most of the summer sailing with his father, initially a BB 11 Norwegian keel boat, followed by a 36ft gaff ketch, Faraway.
At his father’s suggestion, Hughes joined the Ocean Youth Trust.
Here, he learned seamanship skills such as navigation and night sailing, and how to look after the boat.
He also began racing, but communication was difficult; there were no sign language interpreters back then.
The hearing aids he was forced to wear at school amplified the noise of the wind and rain, making it impossible to identify voices.
He had to rely on lip reading; impossible in the dark.
‘I think that probably influenced my ambition to sail solo,’ reflected Hughes.
‘I was acutely aware that I was a deaf person in a hearing world. I was expected to fit into the hearing world. Sign language was banned in education and families were discouraged from signing with deaf children.
‘It was not uncommon for deaf people to be told, ‘No you can’t do that because you are deaf’. I think that really affected my self-confidence. But my father was different. He didn’t see me as different from anyone. He saw no reason why being deaf should prevent me from sailing,’ explained Hughes.
His father also developed his own sign language, using a combination of family signs, facial expressions and gestures, to explain the wind and the sea conditions to Hughes or to give instructions like
‘Be careful, hold on tight’.
‘Looking back, I now really understand the value of those early sailing experiences with my father,’ he added.
Gerry Hughes continued to push himself.
Sailing friends joined him for a cruise on the English Channel, where he skippered a crew for the first time.
As with all of his feats, Hughes studied relentlessly, researching the navigation of the English Channel and memorising significant marks.
This was followed by a trip to the Bay of Biscay.
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‘We had to sail through a terrible storm,’ said Hughes.
‘I really learned a lot from that sail and it gave me the confidence to consider sailing around the British Isles.’
His cruising log from that voyage won him the Clyde Cruising Club’s Ferrier Seamanship Trophy in 1980.
The accolade recognises high-quality seamanship in handling a crew and the boat.
A diet of the adventures of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Sir Alec Rose and Sir Francis Chichester had sown the seed of sailing offshore early.
Hughes also had a desire to break new ground, buoyed by reading about Claire Francis’ 1976 Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR), where she smashed the women’s single-handed transatlantic record by three days.
The OSTAR bug bit harder after seeing Sir Robin’s catamaran, Sea Falcon, which was berthed in Troon marina ahead of the 1981 Two-handed Transatlantic Race (TWOSTAR).
But, dreams of racing across the Atlantic were put on hold while Gerry Hughes focused on his teaching career.
His experience of the school system had left him unable to read and write until the age of 15.
This was because schools taught deaf students lipreading and hearing via aids, rather than sign language which was banned, leaving many pupils confused and unable to follow lessons.
Now, the same determination he had shown in sailing was focussed on ensuring that deaf children got their right to an education.
In 1995, Hughes became the first deaf teacher in Scotland since 1880.
By 2000, he was appointed assistant head of Donaldson’s School for the Deaf, but in 2002 he became ill, which forced him to reassess his life and change jobs.
He made the decision to go back to sailing and decided the 2005 OSTAR would be his next challenge.
He emailed his entry form to the Royal Western Yacht Club and was accepted, provided he had an Iridium system onboard for communication.
He bought the OOD 34 Quest II, and sailed single-handed for the first time when he completed his 500-mile qualifying passage from Troon to Rockall.
‘Solo sailing requires independence and decision-making skills because there is nobody to help you when you are sailing solo. But, it is also essential to be able to read the nature and mood of the seas. That takes time and experience.
‘I watch the behaviour of the sea; observe the clouds; and regularly check the barometer. When the sea is angry and aggressive, I rely on my gut instincts to have the courage to work with the sea not against it,’ said Hughes.
Gerry Hughes realises a boyhood dream
His courage was certainly tested.
His race was dogged by storms, engine failure (he had to replace the connection wires from his battery and alternator) and becalmings.
Quest II was knocked down, damaging the satellite phone (Hughes repaired it), laptop, self-steering gear, electronics and engine.
With no navigational equipment, he narrowly avoided running aground in freezing fog at Martha’s Vineyard after noticing the changing colour of the sea.
Eventually, having flagged down a passing power boat, he was able to work out his position.
‘I showed them my chart with ‘Where Newport?’ written on the back. I really couldn’t believe it when he checked his phone and showed me that I was only a few miles from the finishing line,’ recalled Hughes.
With 42 boats in the race he assumed he would. be the last to arrive in Newport. He came 16th.
Having conquered the OSTAR, there was now one last sailing dream to achieve, sailing solo and non-stop around the world.
Hughes had made this promise to himself at the age of 15 after finding a newspaper about Sir Francis Chichester’s historic 1967 circumnavigation.
On it, he had written his first sentence, ‘One day I will go like Sir Francis’.
On the advice of veteran offshore sailor, Bill MacKay, he bought a Beneteau 42s7, which he renamed Quest III, sailing it back to Troon from La Rochelle.
It took Hughes two years to refit the boat from a basic cruising yacht to a professional vessel capable of taking on the Southern Ocean and sailing around the Five Capes.
Modifications included new mast steps, new sails and rigging and a completely new set of electronics: GPS, chartplotter, auto pilot and self-steering.
He also installed a flashing light alert to the AIS so he’d know if a vessel was nearby.
Hughes left on 1 September 2012 and began truly bonding with his boat.
‘I got to know Quest III. I could tell how well she was sailing from the differing vibrations and motion of the boat. When I was asleep, I could still feel the vibration of the boat and I knew if she was sailing off course. It was like having a compass inside my head.’
By the time he reached the South Atlantic Ocean he suspected there was a problem with Quest III’s rudder which forced him to stop in Cape Town for repairs, abandoning his plans for a non-stop circumnavigation.
Undeterred, Hughes continued, only for Quest III to be knocked down three times in the Southern Ocean in Force 8-9 before capsizing.
‘My life flashed before my eyes and all I could think about was [my wife] Kay and our family. Luckily, Quest III righted herself. I ran onto the deck to check the mast [which] was fine but everything else was damaged: my electronics were broken, and the self- steering system was beyond repair. There was water past my ankles and everything was soaked. I had no choice but to stop at Hobart,Tasmania for repairs.’
By January 2013, Hughes and Quest III were back in the Southern Ocean, at times sailing through Force 9-10 winds.
He rounded Cape Horn on 3 March 2013 before having to stop in the Falkland Islands for supplies because the autopilot installed in Hobart was depleting his fuel.
He finally arrived home to Troon on 8 May 2013, and became the first deaf yachtsman to solo circumnavigate the world via the Five Great Capes.
‘I have learned that you should never, never, give up on your dreams. There is always hope,’ said Hughes of his record-breaking sail.
‘I know my dream of sailing around the world single-handed is now over. I was really disappointed[..] I didn’t achieve my ambition of sailing around the world non-stop. But, if I look back to when I was at school and my dream of following Sir Francis Chichester, I realise – I did it. I sailed solo around the world.’
The old adage ‘Nothing worth having comes easy’ certainly applies to Gerry Hughes, who has achieved more than most of us dream of.
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