When I decided to get fitter and lose weight I never dreamt I would now be setting sail on biggest challenge of my life
Belfast funeral director Beverley Brown, who is joining the winning Northern Ireland boat in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race on Friday, tells Stephanie Bell of her hopes and fears after the death of two sailors during this year’s event
When local business woman Beverley Brown decided to go “from fat to fit” a few years ago, she never dreamt that it would also take her from “couch potato to extreme sport adventurer”.
Beverley (43) made a vow to herself to change her unhealthy lifestyle and, not only has found a new fitter way of life, but is getting ready to take part in one of the world’s biggest sporting challenges.
In what she regards at the opportunity of a lifetime, Beverley leaves Northern Ireland on Friday to join the victorious Londonderry boat in the next leg of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.
Beverley will spend 45 days at sea as part of the crew sailing from Seattle through the Panama Canal to New York.
She is joining a triumphant local team, who have just enjoyed their third back-to-back win, arriving first in Seattle from China after 23 and a half days at sea in Race 9.
Already apprehensive and unsure of what lies ahead, the success of the Derry-Londonderry-Doire has done little to settle Beverley’s nerves as she prepares to join the crew.
“The pressure is on. They’ve won the last three races and I just wonder how I ended up on such a competitive boat,” she says.
“I do feel a lot of pressure going out to join them, because they have done so well — and I will have to step up to the mark.
“Some of the team have been there since the start of last July and will have built up a good team dynamic. I will be the new girl and that is playing on my mind. It is absolutely the opportunity of a lifetime and I’m really excited to be going.”
The success of the boat is not the only issue in Beverley’s head as she prepares for her trip this week.
The tragic death of Sarah Young at sea earlier this month has also hit her hard.
The 40-year-old died after being swept into the Pacific Ocean when hit by a wave while tidying the cockpit of her boat IchorCoal.
The Englishwoman was the second person to lose their life in this year’s event — Andrew Ashman, (49) from Kent, a crew member on the same boat, died after being knocked unconscious in September.
Beverley admits: “I definitely had a few wobbles when I heard about Sarah’s death, but I never seriously considered not going — although it does give you food for thought.
“It is a very harsh reality check about how dangerous the race can be. It is an extreme sport and there are dangers, as with any risky undertaking. It was a shock to hear about Sarah, especially as she is was the second fatality.
“There is safety equipment provided for you which should mitigate some of the risks and we have been through a safety training course.” That she is taking part in the race is something which thrills and surprises Beverley, who says she would never have considered, nor been fit enough, to undertake such a challenge before embarking on her new healthy lifestyle.
Beverley, who is the fourth generation of Browns to take over the running of the family’s well-known Newtownards Road firm Browns Funeral Services, had always struggled with her weight and decided that getting fit was the best way to stay slim.
Having spent five years in Australia and a year in England, she discovered on her return home to Belfast that she needed to create a new social circle of friends.
Beverley did this and more after joining the gym CrossFit Belfast on Falcon Road around two years ago.
The resulting dramatic change in her lifestyle has seen her go from zero exercise to spending six days a week training for up to an hour and a half at the gym. She also began sailing with friends on Strangford Lough twice a week.
She points out: “I had never exercised or been into fitness. After a day’s work I would have picked up a takeaway on my way home and had a few glasses of wine and a few cigarettes while watching TV. I always struggled with my weight and it would have been very up and down, going from a size 10 to a size 16 and back again.
“After coming back from my travels my social circle had disappeared, so I wanted to make new friends as well as lose weight and get fitter.
“I joined Belfast Boat Club and started rowing, but it wasn’t until I started cross-training two years ago that I really got into it.
“As well as the obvious health benefits, CrossFit is a different style of training and is really community-based.
“I have made a lot of friends with the people I train with. It’s the type of place that if you didn’t show up for a few days, one of the coaches would be on the phone checking that you are okay, and that’s something you don’t get in most gyms.
“As well as the physical changes to my body — and it has had a huge impact on my shape — the biggest benefit has been to my mental health. I am more confident, I have better self esteem and I’m much happier.
“It has given me the confidence to sign up for the Clipper race which just wouldn't have been something I could have or would have considered doing before. I wouldn't have been fit enough to do it never mind had the confidence."
As well as discovering a new sense of adventure Beverley is also enjoying the benefits of being slimmer and has dropped from a size 16 to a size 10.
"I certainly remember times when I was in clothes shops and unable to get anything to fit me. And I remember very clearly how that felt and it was not an enjoyable feeling," she says.
"My lifestyle now bears no resemblance to how I was living just a few years ago. Going to the gym is now very much a part of my daily life and there would be a huge hole without it."
It is two years since Beverley applied and was accepted for the round the world race.
She has been sailing for pleasure with friends on Strangford Lough every weekend for a couple of years, and as part of her preparation for the Clipper has taken part in four one-week training sessions with the organisers.
"It has seemed so far away for such a long time - now it feels as though it has arrived all of a sudden," she says. "I'm delighted that I have been able to get the time off to go and I feel as ready as I can be.
"There are people who take part who have no sailing experience at all. Some of those in the team have never even been on boat before and there are also experienced sailors - I'm in the middle somewhere.
"The training does prepare you and while on board we will be required to do everything from being at the helm to cleaning the ship's toilet to cooking food. Anything at all that needs done on the boat we have to be prepared to do."
Beverley will be exploring a whole new part of the world when she embarks on her adventure.
She flies to Seattle on Friday where she will spend a few days before the race starts.
Named as one of the world's seven modern wonders, the Panama Canal is one of the busiest waterways in the world linking the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
It is regarded as one of the most exciting legs of the race and Beverley says one of the main reasons she choose it was the weather.
"I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn't be the most pleasant company if I was cold and wet for four weeks, so that's why I chose this leg," she says.
"It will all be very new to me. I was in Seattle years ago just to pick up a rental car so I don't know the city and am looking forward to spending a few days there before we leave.
"We finish up in New York which I last visited when I was 15, so I have no experience of the city as an adult. But I will be looking forward to a little bit of shopping as a treat at the end of the trip."
Beverley worked in retail for 10 years before joining the family business after taking time out to travel.
As well as running Browns Funeral Services, she is general manager for Funeral Services Northern Ireland.
She is one of the few women in what is still a largely male-dominated profession.
Working on a day-to-day basis with death can take its toll and Beverley readily admits that it has changed her outlook on life.
"Even though I grew up in the business I worked in retail for 10 years before I went into the family firm, so it was a new experience for me," she says. "I trained in every aspect of it so that I could understand what my staff had to do.
"It is difficult at times and it makes you very aware of the frailty of human life. You are there to help people through a very difficult time in their lives and you need to be caring and, yes, there are times when it is hard not to get emotionally involved.
"Working in the funeral business has definitely changed my outlook on life, but I get a lot more out of life now as I'm aware of how suddenly it could be over."
It is a job which does raise eyebrows and Beverley has found that people usually react to her career in one of two ways - either they are fascinated and want to know all the details about her job or they don't want to discuss it at all.
As she embarks on her mammoth journey with the Clipper race, her job and the tragic loss of life so far in this year's event have made her more aware of the dangers.
Beverley adds: "I did consider the possibility that there was a potential for serious injury but did I consider the it might lead to my death? The answer is 'no, probably not'. I just want to go and get as much out of the experience as I can."