“I am a different Gerry now to the Gerry I was when I left.” An interview with Deaf round-the-world sailor Gerry Hughes

Posted on May 15, 2013

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Before interviewing Gerry Hughes, I call him up on FaceTime and his wife Kay answers. Kay tells me how pleased she is that he is home, and how tired he’s been since he arrived back in Troon to a hero’s welcome. I ask her if she was ever worried about him while he was away. She says no – she knew he could do it! Kay asks me if I want to speak to him, and suddenly, Gerry’s sitting there. It looks like an illusion – the man that so many people in the Deaf world have been thinking about, following and supporting for so many months, is right before me. Gerry soon tells me the reason he still has a beard is because he’s left his shaving equipment on his boat! He certainly looks tired, but he’s also smiling and is happy to talk all about the ups and downs of his epic trip…

You arrived home one week ago, after being away for over eight months. Can you describe how you felt in those last few hours of your journey?

It had been such a long journey. But when I sailed past The Isle of Arran, which is where my family have spent so many holidays, then I felt like I was home!

I couldn’t wait to see my wife Kay and my daughters again, to see them and hug them after so long. Arriving at Troon was so emotional. And I didn’t expect to see so many people there!

Photo: Heidi Koivisto

Photo: Heidi Koivisto

How do you feel about the massive response and support that you’ve had from the Deaf community?

I’m shocked! I never expected that kind of response!

I thought when I arrived back it’d be quiet. I never expected people to come from Europe, from Australia, South Africa, all across the world! And to see all the posts on Facebook…

I’ll never forget, when I arrived, there were so many flags, and cameras, and people.

Really, when I started, I just wanted to put my name on the list of people who’ve circumnavigated the world. I never expected that response.

What is it like to be back on dry land?

It’s strange that I can’t feel the rocking of the boat anymore!

There’s so many differences. It’s difficult to eat normally because I’m so used to eating small portions. It’s difficult to walk far, because the boat was small! My clothes are now warm and dry. I can have a shower!

Boiling a kettle is easy, but on the boat it was hard. I can watch TV, or go on the internet. I’ve had lots and lots of text messages. It’s so different!

Photo: Heidi Koivisto

Photo: Heidi Koivisto

What is it like to be able to sign again?

I’ve seen lots of people but I’m so tired! On the boat I was on my own. Here, I can communicate, but I get tired, because I’m still recovering.

When visitors come, I let my wife Kay sign, and I watch!

Was there ever a point when you wished you were home?

When I was three quarters of the way through, when I was nearly finished, I wanted to go faster, so I could be home quicker!

When the waves were battering the boat, and it was stormy, and the wind never stopped for seven days in a row, I felt like I wanted to go home.

But then there were sunny days near the equator when I was very happy to carry on!

Photo: Heidi Koivisto

Photo: Heidi Koivisto

When you were out on that boat, did you ever wonder why you’d done it?

Some days, I felt low. I felt like I’d been stupid! Why had I disconnected myself from my family?

When the boat capsized in the Southern Ocean, I realised how dangerous it was.

I must admit, I thought, ‘why am I doing this?’

What happened when you capsized?

I knew the sea well, I knew the rhythms of the sea. One day it was all fine, I had checked everything.

Then I went to make a coffee, and suddenly the boat capsized.

I was shocked. The mast was damaged. I realised later that it had capsized because the autopilot had broken. I had to get the boat fixed in Australia.

Photo: Scott Campbell

Photo: Scott Campbell

How did you react after that?

I thought – how many more times could this happen? I reminded myself I had to ‘focus, focus.’

The number one most important thing when you’re sailing is confidence in yourself. Number two is eating properly. Number three is following your routine, always.

I had to look after myself, and I had to look after my boat, we had to work together.

So your boat became your friend in a way? Your companion?

Yes! I had to look after the boat, and the boat had to look after me!

What did you think about as you sailed?

I kept my head clear. A lot of the time, I thought of nothing, I just got on with it!

Of course, I missed my family, my wife Kay. I missed playing golf with my Deaf team! But I had to accept it, and get on with it.

What were you most afraid of?

I was worried that a large fish could hit the hull.

I could feel the vibrations when I was sleeping. I knew what the sea felt like, and I could feel the difference if a fish hit the boat!

I was worried that a large fish might crash through the bulkhead – that one thing frightened me.

Have you changed?

I am a different Gerry now to the Gerry I was when I left. I feel I have so much to talk about, to tell people about my journey.

Photo: Scott Campbell

Photo: Scott Campbell

Is that it for you now, or do you have other adventures planned?

I’m finished! But I said that to my wife Kay before, after I sailed to America. Now, I’ve said it again, so she’s not sure whether or not to believe me!

But I will stop. I will slow down. It’s back to sailing locally, that’s enough for me now!

How do you feel about achieving your lifetime’s goal?

Before, I would look in the mirror and ask myself ‘when will I go?’ I realised I couldn’t wait any longer, I had to go now!

I had books about other people who’d circumnavigated the world, and I looked up to them. I was in awe of their achievement. When I finished, I felt like I understood them, I was on their level.

In my life I had many barriers, in education, for example. My passion was sailing. I never forgot that dream.

One of my friends sent me a letter, and he remembers 39 years ago, I told him ‘one day I will sail around the world’!

I’m so happy that I’ve achieved it.

Interview by Charlie Swinbourne, Editor

Remember to give your support to Gerry by donating at this link: http://www.gogogogerry.com/

The Limping Chicken’s supporters provide: BSL translation, multimedia solutions, television production and BSL training (Remark! ), sign language interpreting and communications support (Deaf Umbrella), online BSL video interpreting (SignVideo), captioning and speech-to-text services (121 Captions), online BSL tuition (Signworld), theatre captioning (STAGETEXT), legal advice for Deaf people (RAD Deaf Law Centre), Remote Captioning (Bee Communications), visual theatre with BSL (Krazy Kat) , healthcare support for Deaf people (SignHealth), specialist lipspeaking support (Lipspeaker UK), sign language and Red Dot online video interpreting (Action Deafness Communications) education for Deaf children (Hamilton Lodge School in Brighton), and a conference on deafness and autism/learning difficulties on June 13th in Manchester (St George Healthcare group).