Ask Whitefriars Sailability’s George Paxford what impact sailing has had on his life and he’s unequivocal. George only turned 23 in February, but he’s experienced enough in that time for sailing to have transformed him into the man he is now.
George has had bone cancer (osteosarcoma) in his leg twice. First diagnosed as a nine-year-old in 2006, his cancer returned in 2018. That time, following months of chemotherapy, the best option for him to survive was amputation. He was 21 and in his first year of a Biomedical Science degree at the University of Birmingham.
Just over a year on, in August 2019, and George was on the podium at his first ever Hansa Nationals. He then won the TT Series event at Burghfield. So how did a football-mad boy from Wiltshire become the new kid on the Hansa block?
Discovering the sea
George’s sailing story started in 2006 when a tumour was discovered in his left thighbone (femur).
Months of grueling, life-saving treatment, surgery and physio followed as bone was cut from his fibula – the long, thin bone in the lower leg – and inserted where the tumour had invaded his thigh. He started secondary school wearing a leg brace.
George was alive and could walk again but, as someone who loved and had played a lot of football before his diagnosis, he was now frustrated at falling behind his friends, and not being able to play at the same level as before. PE, particularly cross-country, was difficult, and he lost confidence in what he was capable of.
Going sailing with the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust – the charity set-up by the history-making yachtswoman to support young people in rebuilding their confidence after cancer - in 2009 proved the turning point in George’s young life.
He explains: “I had the opportunity to spend a week doing things where I didn’t feel limited in my ability. After spending a lot of time being quite fed up in hospital, it was also nice doing something positive, and floating on the water was therapeutic.
“My life had revolved around my health and physio. On that boat I found a new sense of confidence in my own abilities and that there was more to life than being in hospital. Sailing showed me there was a new sport where you didn’t have to be the strongest and fastest and I enjoyed the team aspect too.
“With the Trust everyone sees you as just another person as opposed to that person who’s had cancer. You don’t want to be treated differently and the Trust helps you recognise you can still be that person you were before your illness. I enjoyed the fact that when I was sailing I felt like I was on a level playing field again.”
The Trust became George’s safety net and he went back every year. Not only had he found he loved sailing itself, he also had an environment where he could speak to other young people who had been through similar experiences, and, if they wanted to, could share their feelings and worries. This safety net proved doubly valuable when George’s twin sister, Emily, sadly died of a brain tumour in 2011.
The Trust had given George so much that when he was invited to become a volunteer himself, he grabbed the chance to support other young people like him, and he acted as a Crew Leader on Trust sailing trips in 2016 and 2017. But life then took another twist.
Coming back again
In April 2018 his leg became weak and the femur fractured. An above knee amputation followed in July.
At a time when he should have enjoying his independence with his friends as a carefree young man at university, George was in hospital and then reliant on a wheelchair to get around. He became introverted, isolated and depressed.
One day it all got too much. He missed his independence. He wanted to be sailing again. So, his mum, Christine, Googled ‘disability sailing’. Whitefriars came up as his most local site. Sailing was about to prove his salvation for a second time.
“To start with I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to be shoved in a different category, I wanted to be sailing ‘normal’ boats. But I went for a taster and it was just such a nice feeling to be back in a boat again. There wasn’t a vast amount of wind but I was independent of my wheelchair and other people and could do what I wanted to do.
“Before long I’d gone from sailing for an hour on Wednesday evening to spending the whole day at the club. Wednesdays became my day free from physio and hospital appointments. The independence and freedom being in a boat gave me was a world away from the dependency I’d had in hospital. It was truly priceless.”
That was May 2019. By July, and with a new prosthetic leg, he was competing at his first ever event at the RYA Sailability Multiclass Regatta at Weymouth and Portland. By August he was winning bronze at the Nationals and winning at Burghfield.
The following month he went back to university and, with the support of Sailability Disability Development Officer, Brett Cokayne, who arranged for George to be able to sail a Hansa with his university sailing club, George has barely been off he water. Now he’s bought his own boat – a secondhand 303 – and is excited about what the new season holds.
George reflects: “Sailing boosted my confidence and gave me my independence back when I was younger, and it’s done the same for me again. I love that you can be competitive, but I’m equally happy sailing by myself floating about.
“The positive impact of Whitefriars Sailability, and the ability for me to sail again upon my independence and wellbeing, cannot be underestimated. I’m very thankful to all involved at the club for their support and encouragement. I’m really enjoying myself again, spending time outside and having a lot to look forward to.
“There’s more to life than just being a label or a condition. Sailing lets you be governed by what you want to do, not what other people tell you you should do. When I’m in a boat it’s all on me. You can’t get more independent than that.”