Battling to beat the odds
09 January 2008
KIRSTEN Pollock was the youngest member of the crew on Spirit of Juno, one of four boats in the Millennium Round the World Yacht Race.
It was a hair-raising adventure. Kirsten, then 19, joined the race in Sydney, Australia, and was on board for 10 months.
She remembers with a kind of ironic relish piloting the boat through a seven-hour storm and even being attacked by pirates.
Sadly, the attackers were nothing like Johnny Depp and nowhere near as charming as Captain Jack Sparrow.
But the well-equipped £4million boat made an attractive target.
Kirsten, 27, says: “We were attacked by pirates in the Indian Ocean. We were four days out of Darwin and sailing towards Christmas Island.
“It was a dark night, quite windy. I was on watch and I had five crew above deck with me. I saw a ship coming towards us and I thought they would pass us on the left.
“But as it came next to us, it turned and tried to ram us. Then the gunfire started. We had done a pirate drill. We knew what we would do in the event of an attack.
“These are modern day pirates, they come on the boat and take your passports, money, jewellery and sometimes even kill people – that’s why sometimes boats and people just disappear.
“We turned all our lights off. I was on the helm and, when I realised what was happening. I stamped on the floor to let the skipper know – his berth was just below where I was standing. We all carried knives at all times and different people were given different jobs.”
How did they escape? “We outran them. It was a windy night and we were already going at 19-20 knots so our sails could outrun their engine – they were trying to shoot our sails.
“To try to avoid their gunfire, I was just weaving backwards and forwards so that we were not giving them an easy target.
“We managed to lose them but they were on our radar for 24 hours.
“We had a most experienced crew but it was strange. The people you thought would stay calm panicked and the people you thought would panic stayed calm.”
Alarming in a quite different way was having to spend four hours up a mast in a force-nine gale.
“There had been damage to one of the halyards that hold the sail up. The electrics had blown and a wire had become damaged and had to be replaced.
“The mast was 100ft high and it was bloody windy. I was always the idiot who did that sort of thing. I do like the adrenalin rush but it was quite scary at the time.”
The Spirit of Juno was second out of the four boats in the race and when she came home Kirsten successfully applied for a job on board a yacht.
“We would have been sailing in the Caribbean in winter and the Mediterranean in summer. It was May 2001 and I was due to fly out two weeks later. I was 21.”
Kirsten never got to take the job: “I slipped on the stairs and fell from the top to the bottom.
“I hurt my back but at first the only damage seemed to be to my knee – there was damage to tendons and ligaments. I thought in a few weeks it would be OK.
“But instead of getting better, it got worse. I was in absolute agony. I couldn’t bend my knee and I couldn’t take any weight on my leg even with crutches.
“I went back to the hospital, My knee was examined from the inside with a camera and the consultant said there was nothing wrong with it.”
After further investigation, Kirsten was diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy or Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a condition where messages fail to get through from the brain to the limbs but the limbs suffer extreme pain.
This was now affecting both her legs and is understood to have been triggered by trauma to her body.
Kirsten said: “I looked on the internet and terrified myself. I thought my sailing career was over for good. I had worked so hard to get my sailing qualifications and it was going to be over just like that.
“It was devastating. I had always played sport – I took up sailing for my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award as a schoolgirl because it was one of the few sports I hadn’t tried.
“Then, in 2002, I heard about the Sailability clubs. I had never heard of the Challenger boats (specially adapted craft for disabled people). I went along to the club and there were people in wheelchairs and on sticks piloting boats.
“I met Judy Figgures (a disabled sailor from St Ives) and she said she had a spare boat in her front garden and asked if I would I like to borrow it for the weekend.”
Kirsten started taking part in regattas and getting placed. “In the end, I was crying because I was back doing what I thought I could never do again. I was back sailing again, doing what I love doing.”
Since then, Kirsten has won the Scottish Open Challenger Championships two years running and was second overall in the UK National Challenger Championships in 2002.
This year also, she was part of a crew of seven on a 51ft boat in the Fastnet Race.
“It was an unadapted boat but I managed to bum-shuffle around it. If there is any chance of getting on a boat, that will be me off, whether it is adapted or not.”
Kirsten’s disability also brought romance into her life … although not for her.
After she joined the Sailability Club at Grafham, her mother, Lesley, met Robin Gumbrell who was honoured last month by the Royal Yachting Association for his services to the club. Robin and Lesley live in Hartford and Kirsten is hoping to move nearby to a suitably-adapted flat.
Kirsten’s ambition is to join the Paralympics sailing team but so far her condition is not recognised as a disability for that purpose.
“It is incredibly frustrating. An able-bodied person born without thumbs would qualify as disabled but I am in a wheelchair and I don’t.
“Apparently, my disability can’t be measured. All the other sailors are very supportive and can’t believe it either.
“After everything I’ve been through it’s hard to have to jump through even more hoops.”
INFORMATION: Contact Sailability on 01480 810521.