Ellen MacArthur, far right, dodges the spray, shortly after the start of the Ellen MacArthur Trust Skandia Round Britain Voyage of Discovery. Picture by onEdition.
WIGHT LIVING IT’S almost ten years since record-breaking yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur hoisted the sails on a new charity, which has changed the lives of hundreds of young people recovering from cancer and other serious illnesses.
It was in the summer of 2000, shortly before the start of the Vendee Globe Round the World race, that Ellen went sailing in France with a group of children with cancer and leukaemia — it was an experience which Ellen described as one of the best day’s sailing she had ever had.
She said: "We laughed so much we had tears in our eyes and the kids were just incredible."
Having seen first hand what a great time the kids had sailing, Ellen began to investigate the possibility of starting something similar here. The Ellen MacArthur Trust — as it was known from 2002-2010 — became a registered charity in late 2002 and was officially launched by Ellen on January 2, 2003.
The aim was to take young people sailing to help them regain their confidence on their way to recovery from cancer.
Ellen said: "These are really special kids. In many ways they are just the same as everyone else, they are interested in the same things as kids their age, they have the same goals in life but the difference is they do this with a huge challenge ahead of them. I face challenges out on the water but these are challenges I choose to do. They, on the other hand, don’t have this luxury.
"They battle against something harder than many of us could imagine and they do it with the biggest smiles on their faces.
"To me, they are truly inspirational and if the trust can help them in their battle in any way, then that is a fantastic achievement."
Often the young people who sail with the charity have spent long periods in hospital and can be suffering from low self-esteem, on top of missing large chunks of their childhood.
Frank Fletcher, the trust’s chief executive, said: "When the young people come on our trips, they aren’t alone in having no hair, or a scar on their leg, and it becomes much less of an issue. Everyone will have been through a similar experience and understands better than any of their friends from home what it is like to go through such a life-changing experience as cancer, often offering advice and support.
"These trips can be a huge step forward in regaining the independence often lost during long periods of hospitalisation."
He said: "The highlight of many people’s trips is cooking for themselves and these small steps, along with the larger ones such as being in control of a 42ft yacht, help move the young people forward from the feeling of 'institutionalisation’ the hospital can sometimes leave, helping to establish the attitude they can achieve a lot and, more importantly, achieve it by themselves."
One mother said of her daughter’s experience with the trust: "It has never been the cancer that worried me but the depression that came with it.
"She lost her self confidence and had very low self esteem but the Ellen MacArthur Trust has changed all that.
"From the minute I picked her up, she hasn’t stopped smiling, she has talked non-stop about her trip, she is singing and dancing and walking tall.
"She was able to have fun and relax for the first time in years. Of all the medicines she had, this — the trip — was the one that made her better,"
Wootton teenager Debbie Chessell has been on many sailing trips with the trust. She was diagnosed with cancer when she was just two years old and faced several years of gruelling treatment.
Now 16, she said: "Sailing with the trust made me realise I was not alone and I was not just part of a tiny group but a big one.
"Before I joined the trust, I was quite a shy person, particularly around new people, but the sailing trips boosted my confidence."
The trust has moved forward greatly from its two boat trip beginnings in 2003.
Initially run on a voluntary basis, with just one part-time staff member, the charity relied heavily — as it still does — on the help, skill and enthusiasm of its volunteers to organise and crew the trips.
With Martin Noyle as trust manager overseeing things, Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) signed up for the first trip in 2003. In 2004, as more hospitals were recruited, the trips increased, with one or two yachts on each, welcoming youngsters not just from GOSH and Southampton General Hospital but also the Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children and University College London hospitals.
As the charity grew, the need for a full-time manager was recognised and Frank, who had been involved with the trust as a volunteer since the beginning, was appointed in November 2005.
In 2006, the trips expanded again and other charities were added to the groups that benefited from sailing trips. The trust was named as official charity to the J. P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race and Cowes Week (2006-2008), providing a huge boost to its profile.
Many will remember the Ellen MacArthur Trust Skandia Round Britain voyage, which set sail in May 2009 and involved more than 70 young people in recovery, sailing the charity’s 48ft yacht, Scarlet Oyster, across 17 legs, with a total of 2,500 miles.
One teenager, from Shanklin, who took part, said: "The trust has changed my life. It’s not just about sailing, it’s about bonding with other people. I used to be very shy but now I’m quite outgoing."
The success of the voyage led the trust to offer a longer cruising week as part of a Return to Sail Programme, which saw four yachts sail to Brixham and back.
At the end of 2010, the trust became known as Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, with a new identity, logo and message, 'rebuilding young people’s confidence’.
For the second year running, the trust is the official race charity of the Round the Island Race. The trust has entered four boats, providing 25 young people in recovery the opportunity to compete in tomorrow’s (Saturday’s) race.
They will be joined by Ellen with race first-timer, Radio 1 DJ Rob da Bank.
Ellen will be racing with seven of the young people on the 90ft sloop Dark Star, lent for the race by its owner, Ed Stacey.
Rob will be joining the crew aboard Moonspray, a GibSea 44, with IW Radio presenter Paul Topping, who will broadcast from the boat throughout the race.
Ellen said: "This will be a completely different experience for the young people.
"It’s fantastic to be able to offer this experience — the looks on their faces when they see more than 1,500 boats on the start line is incredible.
"I hope through all the weekend’s fundraising initiatives we can help many more young people in their recovery ."
Last year the trust raised an incredible £57,547 through the race, which enabled 110 young people to take part in their life-changing yacht trips. This year the trust hopes to take even more young people sailing by raising £60,000.