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We are sailing! How the Clipper Race transformed our lives

The Clipper Race is a huge endurance test - a 40,000-nautical mile race around the world on a 70ft ocean racing yacht. The unique event is open to anyone, from taxi drivers to chief executives, from students to teachers. And soon, the yacht fleet will arrive in Londonderry marking the start of the Foyle Maritime Festival. Judith Cole talks to some of those who sailed into the quays in previous years

John Harkin (68) is a retired businessman from Londonderry. He circumnavigated the world in the Clipper 2011-12 Round The World Yacht race. He says:

Presently I am sailing my sailboat Santana from Lagos in Portugal, hoping to arrive in the Foyle port marina for the Maritime Festival. I have been in Bilbao in south Biscay and plan to cruise up the French coast and then to Ireland.

I started sailing late in life. I always had an interest in boats and loved to go sea fishing and water skiing but never really got the opportunity to sail until my late 30s when I bought an old racing yacht.

From then on, I was hooked on sailboat racing.

I started off sailing and racing in the Lough Swilly Yacht Club and then went on to race various types of yachts in a number of summer regattas in Scotland, Belfast Lough, Dublin and Cork.

I am now an experienced amateur sailor with a RYA Yachtmaster qualification.

Over the last number of years since I retired from business, I have cruised extensively on my yacht, traveling from Ireland as far as Valencia in Spain, the Balearics and the Azores.

This is the second time that I am sailing back to Ireland for the Clipper Race event.

I always had a romantic notion to sail around the world and the Clipper Race gave me that opportunity.

However, it was the toughest thing I ever did in my life and I often look back and wonder how I did it.

The Clipper Race stopover is a wonderful event for the city and one of the best stopovers and welcomes for the Clipper Race crews.

I would love to see the River Foyle utilised to its full potential with dinghy sailing and other water-based activities promoted and developed. You only have to look at the facilities on the River Bann as an example of how to develop the river.

Proper infrastructure is needed in the right location for sailing and watersports to develop.

Until this infrastructure is in place, nothing will develop.”

Jilly St John (35) is a musician and trainee yoga instructor from the north coast. She was also a recipient of the Derry City and Strabane District Council Your Next Chapter bursary, and she took part in leg 7, from Seattle to New York, of the 2015-16 Clipper Race. She says:

Foyle Maritime Festival shows how Derry could be with the right investment — bustling, exciting and colourful. Seeing the quay get used to its full potential was wonderful.

Since I got off in New York, the arrival of the Derry-Londonderry-Doire yacht was extra special to me. I watched all my friends across the fleet depart, next stop Derry, and I felt so proud of them all. And walking through the streets as we all assembled for the Clipper Parade was an amazing experience with probably too many awesome memories to list.

The whole experience has been a highlight in life for me, from beginning to end, and it continues to give. Shortly after my arrival home from my leg, I left for US waters again with the help of many supporters to begin my career in the luxury maritime industry.

The whole experience has impacted me in so many ways. It was a milestone in my recovery from anorexia, an illness which I’d had my first experience of at the age of 17. It has been ongoing since then and it’s not something that is completely cured, but having this goal to complete the race was a great help. From a young age, I didn’t feel great as a person and that low self-esteem, rather than body image awareness, was much more of a factor in my illness, and I used not eating as a coping mechanism.

However, I gained great confidence and a sense of achievement on completing the race, not to mention all the contacts and knowledge and qualifications I earned through the experience which enabled me to consider a career in something I didn’t even know was an option for me. It completely changed my life.

I’d like to see Foyle Maritime Festival become a permanent fixture in our calendar, a date in people’s calendar to book their holiday in Derry.

I see the festival and Clipper Race as a foundation to grow our city and the self-esteem of those who live here.”

Michelle McCann, a mother-of-three and grandmother, took a career break from her job teaching mathematics at Thornhill College to complete the 45,000 miles round-the-world trip. Originally from Londonderry, she has lived in Shrove, Co Donegal for many years. She says:

In the summer of 2012 I sailed up the Foyle on board the Clipper Race yacht ‘Derry-Londonderry’ — I will never forget it to the day I die. I am a Derry girl born and bred and I was away from home for nearly a year, sailing around the world, seeing many different countries and cultures.

I experienced incredibly beautiful, calm, peaceful sailing conditions but also terrifying, cold, painful trips where I wondered what on earth I had got myself into.

I was faced with situations I had never seen the like of before in my relatively sheltered life and discovered strengths I never knew I had. One of the worst such trips was the final crossing of the Atlantic from Nova Scotia to Derry. It was dreadful weather for days on end, touching force 11 at times. We were exhausted, cold and wet.

One rainy morning I looked to the east, the sky cleared a little and I could see into the distance. I saw a patch of shadow on the horizon. My heart skipped a beat and, as we got closer, I became convinced that it was Ireland I could see. And it was — Benbulben, Sligo. After sailing more than 40,000 miles I could see home.

Eventually we passed Inishtrahull Island and arrived at the mouth of Lough Foyle in the early hours of the morning.

Boats from Greencastle and Moville were there to greet us and escort us up the river to Derry, which was a beautiful, emotional journey for me. Then we passed under the Foyle Bridge and up to our berth. I could not believe the sight that met my eyes that day.

Derry had been transformed into a vibrant, warm, modern European city, bursting with energy and life. There were cheering, welcoming crowds there to meet us. I could pick out my family in the midst of the crowd and I count those moments as among the happiest of my life.

I was proud of my beautiful home town and my crewmates could see why. We were treated like honoured guests for the duration of our visit, with highlights like the Undertones concert in the Ebrington centre and our prize-giving ceremony in the Millennium Forum.

Then we were given a wonderful send-off as we sailed down the Foyle again to complete our circumnavigation. What a finish to an incredible stopover.

We had been welcomed in many cities around the world — San Francisco, New York, Cape Town, Singapore, Qingdao, but none of them can compare to the welcome we received in Derry, and the thing that made it special was that the welcome was from the heart.

Derry was not only celebrating the first visit of the Clipper Race boats, but it was celebrating the dawning of a new day for Derry.

The city showed the world what it was capable of.

I can only say thank you to all who made it happen, including Derry City Council and Foyle Port, but, especially, to the warm and generous souls of Derry, the people — thank you.”

Conor Shortland (25) is a civil servant. Originally from Londonderry, he now lives in Staines, England. He completed leg five of the Clipper 2015-16 Race after being awarded a Derry City and Strabane District Council Your Next Chapter bursary. Conor says:

I’m from the Bogside. I came to be involved in the Clipper Race through a friend in work when I was with the Millennium Forum. They told me about the application. I thought it would be a great chance, but didn’t think I would actually end up on the boat.

Overall it was a really life-changing experience. I got to see and do things I would never dream of and eventually worked for Clipper Race refitting the boats for 10 months.

I’m living near London now and working for the civil service. It was very useful in my interview talking about such a unique experience and the skills I got from that.”

Danny Bryce (40) from Londonderry works for Extern. He completed the final three legs — New York to Derry, Derry to Den Helder and Den Helder to London — on the Derry Londonderry Doire Clipper yacht in 2015-16 and finished second overall. He had been awarded a Clipper Race’s Voice of the Community bursary in recognition of 25 years of youth work in the city. Danny and his wife Leeann have two daughters, Aine (9) and Aoife (5). He says:

This festival brings the quayside alive. I love it. I was lucky enough to sail with the Derry Londonderry Doire from New York. It was one of the most memorable things that I have ever done.

When we arrived in Derry, I had the privilege of holding aloft the flare on the bow of the boat as we approached Clipper Quay.

The crowd was huge and I immediately spotted my family, my workmates, friends and neighbours.

It was very emotional, as I love this place and its people.

There were so many highlights — the fireworks, the guy on the aqua jet pack, free kayaking, kangaroo burgers, the music, sunshine, family. Foyle Sailability was awesome and it was great to see the Foyle alive in a positive light.

I had been nominated to be on the Clipper 2015-16 Race crew. The leadership skills and teamwork skills required to work with 24 people on a 70ft yacht for 14 days are wide ranging. You can’t help but learn.

The maritime festival has taught me the river is an asset, it should be resourced and celebrated as an asset rather than having a negative association.

I would love to see it developed, with many more pontoons for more boats and invitations to yacht clubs throughout the UK, with attractive deals on mooring etc.”

Foyle Maritime Festival, offering an array of water activities, food events and general attractions, runs from July 14-22. Members of the public can take free Clipper 2017-18 Race Fleet Open Boat tours. A Clipper 70 Experience is also available for over-18s. For prices, booking details and a full festival programme, visit: www.foylemaritime.com

Win a free meal for two at Primrose in our great competition

Flavours of the Foyle Seafood Trail will run throughout the Foyle Maritime Festival. Seafood lovers are in for a treat, as award winning chefs invite you in to their finest restaurants to try a range of bespoke dishes celebrating the amazing selection of fresh seafood on offer, catering to all tastes and budgets.

Enjoy the superb menus on offer and with so much to choose from you might want to try a new dish and location every night.

Now one reader can win a free meal for two at Primrose where you will be treated to Mulroy Bay mussels, cider, smoked ham hock, barley and parsley. To be in with a chance of winning, email your name and telephone number to foylemaritime@derrystrabane.com before the closing date of this Thursday (July 12) at 5pm.

Your email must contain the subject line ‘Belfast Telegraph competition’. The winner will be notified on Friday, July 13. The meal must be taken during the festival’s Seafood Trail from July 14-22.

Also, why not check out the Flavours of the Foyle Seafood Kitchen, along the quay on July 14 and 15, with celebrity chefs Nick Nairn and Ian Orr. Visit www.foylemaritime.com for more info.

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