He had one Cape to round when Gerry Hughes received a message aboard his 42ft Benateau, Quest III, from someone who knew exactly what he was going through.
“The easy things are not worth doing,” the message started. “Where is the satisfaction from achievement? It is the difficult things we take on that bring us pride. That is real achievement.”
That message came from Sir Robin Knox-Johnson, the first man to perform a single-handed non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. Gerry was about to become the first deaf person to follow in Sir Robin’s wake, sailing the 32,000 miles around the world via the Five Capes. His hero’s message was the final push he needed to make history.
The beginning of the dream
Profoundly deaf since birth, overcoming adversity is something 56-year-old Gerry had done all his life, most notably as a child having to uproot from his family home in Scotland to attend a residential school in Yorkshire simply to learn to read and write.
Yet look back at black and white photos from his childhood and boats and water feature heavily. There is even a home video of the fair-haired toddler being lifted off a moored boat by his dad and running off down a riverbank.
Sailing had been Gerry’s cornerstone for as long as he could remember.
In 2005, he became the first deaf skipper to sail across the Atlantic in the Original Single-Handed Transatlantic Race (OSTAR).
Then, almost half a century after the seed was first planted to sail around the world, Gerry became the first ever winner of the RYA Sailability Endeavour Award for his history-making eight-month solo circumnavigation.
“From the age of two my father and I would go sailing every weekend and we would go on the boat all the time sailing, usually just around Scotland, and I just loved it, I got a real feel for it. It was infectious,” Gerry explains.
“I’d been waiting for 40 years for this dream, but I was actually looking forward to getting back home and showing the world a deaf person could do it. I really felt there should be no difference between myself being a profoundly deaf person and someone with hearing, we are both using visual [skills] and are physically able to do it.”
When the going gets tough
Footage taken on Quest III during the voyage shows the full scale of his challenge. Towering waves threaten to engulf the boat, while Gerry calmly looks into the camera and signs his thoughts, translated in the documentary 'Silent Odyssey' about his voyage, broadcast on STV in September 2013.
Although Gerry’s original plan was to sail non-stop around the globe via the five great capes, Gerry was forced to stop in South Africa, Tasmania and the Falkland Islands due to faults with his technical equipment.
He sailed back into Troon on Scotland’s West Coast on 8 May 2013, exactly eight months and eight days since he left the same harbour on 1 September 2012.
“I couldn’t remember parts of it,” he later admitted. “I remember filming myself and signing stuff to the camera but a lot of it I’d forgotten and it was almost a shock that it was me!
“There were challenges in different areas all over the worlds but particularly the Southern Hemisphere and around latitude 50° the waves are incredible. They are as big as Celtic’s Parkhead Stadium! 20ft long, 30-40ft high, unbelievable waves.
“The fact I’ve done it and can look back now, it is unbelievable what I went through.”
Surprise Surprise Honour
Married father of two, Gerry, who became the first deaf native British Sign Language user teacher in Scotland for 115 years in 1995, is already concentrating on his next challenge.
Having not been able to read or write until he was 15, his disability preventing him from learning in the same way and at the same pace at his peers, Gerry is now writing a book about his life.
He received his RYA Sailability Endeavour Award from London 2012 Paralympic sailing gold medallist, Helena Lucas, and RYA CEO, Sarah Treseder, on ITV’s Surprise Surprise in early December. The surprise had been organised by Gerry’s daughters, Ashley and Nicola, who wanted the nation to hear their dad’s incredible story.
Gerry receives RYA Sailability Award on Surprise Surprise
For the full story on Gerry's Surprise Surprise appearance click here
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