'I battled injury and depression, now I'm sailing right around the world'
One of the most inspirational people visiting our shores is Ana Downer-Duprey. She tells Jonathan Owner how becoming a sailing novice following an accident is mapping out a route for her recovery
Three years ago, student Ana Downer-Duprey could not walk. A car crash had shattered her body and she had certainly never set foot on a yacht. Yet on Sunday, the 22-year-old, from Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, sailed away from St Katherine's dock in London to spend a year on the high seas.
Ana is one of the youngest crew members ever to have attempted the challenge of the biennial Clipper race, in which a dozen yachts sail 40,000 miles in a circumnavigation of the globe. The vast majority of those taking part in the race, which has eight stages, opt to complete just a part of it. But she is going all the way round.
After the first stage ends in a month in Brazil, the race takes in South Africa, Australia, Vietnam, China, the US, Panama before making port in Northern Ireland before sailing onto the Netherlands. The finish is in London next July.
She is one of many taking part who have never sailed before. To say she's had a rough few years would be an understatement.
Her plan had been to study sports coaching at university but four years ago she fell during a rugby-training session, leaving her with a brain injury and left leg paralysed for six weeks. She dropped out of college and suffered from depression.
Less than 18-months later, during a trip to see her father in Trinidad, she was involved in a car accident. "I had multiple fractures to my hip, broke my pubis, shattered my shoulder and I hit my head again," she says. "I went back to forgetting things and was in a state of confusion. My confidence went again."
Ana has come a long way since then.
"Physically I'm pretty good, although I still get some pains from the breaks especially," she says. "The thing that really affects me most is the brain trauma. I still get confused and sometimes have a bit of trouble understanding what people say. My short-term memory is not great."
She found a job at the River Cafe restaurant in London and was slowly getting her life back when a poster she saw on her way to work one day prompted her to give up her job and move back in with her mother in Gloucestershire.
"I just saw an advertisement on the Underground and it said something like: 'Adventure of your life' and 'no experience necessary', and that's what really got me, because I have no experience. I called up straight away."
The "experience of a lifetime" does not come cheap; it costs £49,500 to do the whole route. In Ana's case, her father has lent her the money, which she plans to pay back over the next five years.
She stepped on to a yacht for the first time a few months ago. "I loved the boat, it looked amazing ... I was a bit in awe of it," she says. Since then she has completed four levels of training, encompassing everything from how to tie knots to sea-survival skills, yacht maintenance and racing tactics. "It's been a very steep learning curve - I have had to learn everything very quickly."
There were low points, particularly when the crew were practising the watch system they will use at sea.
They work in shifts, spending a few hours on deck throughout the night. "I got so tired and was thinking 'What am I doing?' I'm getting tired, I have no personal time," she says. But she managed to pull herself together, partly motivated by the money she wants to raise for charity during her trip. "I said to myself: 'Ana you're doing this - you're going round the world, just go for it'."
She is one of 21 crew who will be on the Visit Seattle yacht, skippered by Huw Fernie. For all the training, the fact remains that she is still very much a rank amateur. The longest she has spent at sea has been six nights and the furthest she has sailed has been from England to France. "It's going to be intense. It'll be good and it'll be bad - it'll be an experience," she says.
"My biggest fear is probably personal injury, because of my history, and that I won't be able to continue with the race because something happens."
Missing her friends and family is another concern.
"I'm not too worried because I think my team will support me. I know them really well and get on with them really well, and feel like I have got a big support system on board," she adds.
The Clipper Round the World Race, which began in 1996, is bigger than ever this year. About 700 crew from 44 countries are taking part.
It is also the "longest around the planet", according to its founder Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first sailor to make a single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. "The race has always attracted a high proportion of novices, who are not necessarily into sailing but looking for an adventure far removed from the comforts of everyday life," he says. "About 40% of the crew members have never set foot on a sailboat before."
Selling the dream of ocean adventure has proven profitable for Sir Robin. His company, Clipper Ventures plc, has more than £23m in assets, including more than £2.5m in cash, and made more than a million in profit last year, its latest accounts reveal.
But money is not the motivation for those who take part. As far as Ana is concerned, the race is about recovery.
"I think it's going to be life-changing for me. I've had quite a low confidence and feeling of self-worth since the accident," she says.
"Going round the world, and sailing, and really having to know myself, I think I'm going to come back with the self-confidence that I should have had originally.
"And then I'll feel really good about myself, because I will have accomplished something."