Interview: Croatia to Cornwall skipper Paul Miller and crew members

26th June 2018

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On March 29, 2018, a team of veterans set sail on Turn to Starboard’s latest endeavour – sailing 3000 miles from Croatia to Cornwall.

The intrepid crew took to the waves on board a 43-foot Hans Christian yacht with the journey expected to take five or six weeks. ‘Kikila’ was built in 1984 and gifted to the charity by a generous supporter before being sold by mutual agreement. Moored at Krk Island in Croatia, the life-changing expedition was planned as a way to for crew members to gain new skills and valuable miles towards their RYA Yachtmaster qualifications. It also provided an opportunity to deliver the boat to the UK for the new owner.

Prior to setting sail, expedition leader and Turn to Starboard staff member, Paul Miller, said: “This unique challenge will be hugely demanding, both physically and mentally, yet it will be exceptionally rewarding for the crew to gain such valuable experience while sailing past some of the most beautiful countries in Europe. This journey is about showing that suffering from physical or mental injuries doesn’t have to mean aspiring to less, and will help crew members gain valuable miles towards their Royal Yachting Association qualifications.”

Supported by The Endeavour Fund, the voyage aimed to help the recovery and rehabilitation of injured veterans while helping those with the ambition to create life changing experiences. In total seven injured veterans took part in the endeavour, with each person completing sections of the journey. Expedition leader Paul Miller was on board for the whole voyage.

After experiencing gale force winds, strong rip tides and a broken engine, the crew arrived at their destination of Cornwall after spending 70 days at sea.

 

Paul Miller: Expedition leader

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In his role as Operations Support at Turn to Starboard, Paul Miller is responsible for the logistics of keeping a fleet of vessels on the water. He is a qualified RYA Yachtmaster with more than 11,000 miles of sailing miles under his belt, making him an ideal choice as expedition leader. Paul was responsible for every aspect of the voyage, including safety, preparation and planning the long-distance route across four seas and into eight countries.

Paul said: “The Croatia to Cornwall endeavour started for me and some of the crew with two weeks husbandry in Croatia. Preparation is key and we spent time inspecting the yacht, fitting the sails, installing safety equipment and conducting maintenance checks. By getting involved in the preparation crew members were able to put what they had learned into practice while getting to know every aspect of the boat.”

 

On Thursday 29 March, the crew set sail along the Croatian coastline towards their first destination –  Corfu – 320 nautical miles away. “From the off the weather wasn’t in our favour with head-wind speeds from zero to gusts of 54mph,” explains Paul. “Sailing into the wind and waves slowed our progress down considerably and made life on board even more challenging than usual. Trying to cook, wash, brush your teeth or just going to the loo is physically challenging when the boat is being thrown around.”

As they limped along the Croatian coastline, the crew tried to make up lost time and started sailing throughout the night.

“For some of the crew this was the first time they had sailed in the dark, so it was a valuable experience. Although it did mean less sleep for everyone which adds to the challenge,” added Paul.

Fourteen days later the crew reached Corfu before planning the next of the journey. “After leaving Corfu we started our first open-water passage to Sicily in Italy. During this 250-mile passage the weather once again wasn’t on our side and we tackled 30 to 40mph winds with huge waves crashing over the bow, often in the middle of the night. It was on this section that we also had our first problem when the yacht’s engine failed and one of the sails became tightly jammed and inoperable.”

30623781_1515897541866794_3066803857476137211_nAfter stopping for repairs in Sicily, the crew ventured through the Strait of Messina, a narrow channel in the Mediteranean Sea. At 20 miles long and just 2 miles wide at its narrowest point, the channel is packed with commercial vessels and feared by sailors for its fast flowing currents. Thankfully the crew navigated their way through without any problems and headed to their next anchorage, the active Stromboli volcano just north Sicily.

“After stopping for a few hours to watch the stunning Stromboli volcano spew lava into the sky at night, we continued off to Pompei then headed for Corsica, which was a further 260-mile passage and took three days. Next stop was Menorca, yet our first attempt to leave was aborted due to un-forecasted high seas and strong winds.”

By now the crew had become used to life on board and a routine of four hours on-four hours off.

“Bucket washes were common as it was too unsteady on the yacht to take a shower. Just making a cup of tea was a challenge and I remember one crew member losing three cups up the side of the boat when a big wave hit the hull! However, morale remained high and there were still plenty of smiling faces.”

After reaching their next destination of Alicante, the crew took a 3-day break for a crew change and to restock on supplies. It was during the crew’s next leg to Portugal, via Gibraltar, they experienced their first 5-metre Atlantic swells.

“Seeing a wall of water approaching can be unnerving and certainly sharpens the senses,” laughs Paul. “But it’s also a good way to conquer your fear and realise that with the right preparation the boat and crew can cope with the conditions.”

IMG_0791Soon after the intrepid team sailed across the dangerous seas of the Bay of Biscay, which is bounded by the west coast of France and the north coast of Spain and covers an area of 86,000 square miles. It’s known for its rough seas and violent storms thanks to its exposure to the Atlantic ocean.

“Thankfully we picked the right weather window and enjoyed perfect sailing conditions for almost all of this passage. And from there it was fairly smooth sailing on the penultimate section of the journey –  the Isles of Scilly. After a short stop to prepare for our final leg, we headed out to sea to cover the final 30 miles of our endeavor. Everything was going smoothly until we were a few miles from the finish line and the engine packed up. With no wind to power the sails we had to call the Coastguard for assistance to help bring us into Newlyn Harbour in Cornwall. It wasn’t the best way to end the voyage but we were delighted to have arrived home having covered more than 3500 miles.”

Reflecting on the journey, Paul said he enjoyed seeing the crew grow in confidence while gaining new skills.

‘For me, the highlight of the voyage was seeing the crew gain valuable experience while building confidence and working together. It was a huge achievement in challenging conditions and the crew have gained thousands of miles towards their Yachtmaster qualifications. I really would like to say thanks to Turn to Starboard and The Endeavor Fund for supporting the trip and I feel privileged to be a part of such an incredible journey. It has had a tremendous positive impact on everyone involved and I’m certain they benefit from that for the rest of their lives and it’s definitely given them a huge confidence boost in more ways than one.”

 

Crew member: Nick Pinniger

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Former Royal Marine Nick Pinniger helped prepare the boat for the voyage before sailing a 2500-mile section from Croatia to Portugal. Nick suffered from a shoulder injury while serving in the Marines and had just one week of yacht sailing experience with Turn to Starboard prior to the journey.

“The experience was phenomenal and I learned an incredible amount,” said Nick. “The endeavour gave me sailing experience that usually takes years to achieve and was a massive chunk towards my Yachtmaster qualification. I also really benefited from the one-to-one instruction and would struggle to find an experience like that anywhere else. My aim is to qualify as a Yachtmaster as soon as I can which will get me ready for yacht industry when I leave Royal Marines. I can’t thank Turn to Starboard and The Endeavour Fund enough for the experience, it’s absolutely changed my life and given me a head start, keep ‘em coming!”

 

 

Crew member: Deborah Frew

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Army veteran Deborah Frew sailed 1656 miles from Alicante in Portugal to Newlyn in Cornwall as part of the expedition.

‘Deb’ gained her RYA Day Skipper qualification last year and decided to test her sailing skills and gain valuable sailing miles towards her Yachtmaster qualification.

“I took part in the challenge to put all my sailing skills into practice, yet what actually happened was much bigger,” she said. “Being cooped with a small group of people for five weeks made me realise I had progressed with my own recovery by learning to manage my feelings inwardly rather than showing them outwardly.

The trip also made me realise that we are never too ill or too old to learn new skills that can be turned into a new career or hobby. My advice is to give everything a go. If you don’t get lost, you’ll never be found!”

 

Crew member: Lee Thomas

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Lee Thomas served in the RAF for 11 years before getting in touch with Turn to Starboard. He decided to take part in the expedition to gain experience and sailed 1020 miles from Croatia to Sicily.

“The voyage was awesome and easily the best thing I’ve ever done. Before the trip I was struggling a bit and wasn’t getting out of the house much, but the experience has helped me to reclaim my life back. I really enjoyed how the skipper taught us to sail, he had a really relaxed style with no pressure which made things easier. If I made a mistake he didn’t scream or shout but just reminded me I could do it, which filled me with confidence. I’m hoping to complete my Yachtmaster qualification by the end of this year and eventually go on to teach others in a similar situation, so thanks to the Endeavour Fund and Turn to Starboard that can now become a reality – the trip really has changed my life.”

Image: Lee Thomas (r) and Tony Yeardley (l)

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